Carmel Symphony Orchestra Flourishes Under Janna Hymes’s Baton

November 3, 2021

Jenna Hymes conducts the Carmel Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy of CSO. Used with permission.

A concert reflecting the diversity and accessibility of the programming that Carmel Symphony Orchestra (CSO), led by conductor Janna Hymes, specializes in will be offered in the “Masterworks 2” concert on Sunday November 13, at 7:30 p.m. at The Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

The concert program features selections from Russian composers Mikhail Glinka (“Russian and Ludmilla Overture”) and Dmitri Shostakovich (“Ballet Suite No. 1”), and Mexico’s Arturo Márquez (“Danzón No. 2”). The evening’s featured selection is “Symphony No. 3 in C Minor” from Arkansas-born Florence Smith Price, who was the first African-American female composer to have a symphonic composition performed by a major American symphony orchestra.

Having previously witnessed CSO in a concert with the Center for the Performing Art’s artistic director Michael Feinstein in 2019 and its 2020 concert version of “Sweeney Todd,” in which they collaborated with Actors Theatre of Indiana, I was already impressed with the high caliber and vitality the orchestra have exhibited under the leadership of artistic director Hymes, who is in her fifth season. That impression was reinforced, if not strengthened, when I attended the symphony’s 2020-2021 season-opening concept, “Masterworks 1,” featuring popular pieces by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff at the CSO’s home at the Palladium.

I had met Hymes in person at a cast party following the opening night of “Sweeney Todd” and interviewed her online during the pandemic and found her to be very likeable, approachable, enthusiastic, and certainly not someone who fits the stereotype of a classical musician, serious, aloof and cerebral. Curious to discover more about her background, her passion for music and her goals for the CSO, I reached out to her again in a Zoom call, in which we had a lengthy and lively conversation. Following is an edited transcript of our animated chat.

Janna Hymes – Artistic Director of Carmel Symphony. Courtesy of CSO. Used with permission.

How was your pandemic?

I learned a lot. There is a silver lining to everything. I came out of it a better person in so many ways. I feel like I am more patient. I have always been interested in community and connecting people. {As for racial injustice} I am from NYC, so to resist hiring somebody who is Black or gay…. none of that has ever entered my mind. But when the pandemic hit and Black Lives Matter, and Me Too before that, when all this stuff became so international, I should say, I kind of felt like I had been living my life {concerned about those issues} already. But I am glad it is on people’s minds now to create something that is not just for a few people.

As far as classical music, if we just played Mozart and Beethoven, the reality is that only .001% of the population is going to be really interested in that. And our job, I think, as an orchestra, is to bring everybody together, playing music for everybody. So, that means learning your community and bringing music they may not be familiar with that is representative of the world. That has been my quest my entire life, but now I almost feel like I have a green light to just do it. So, it has been fun.

I reached out to a lot of cool artists during the pandemic, just for future projects. We were busy working, raising money to continue doing grants and all that. We are in a transitional stage where, when I arrived, I really worked at raising the artistic level of the orchestra. We have a whole new administration right now. It is fantastic. Of course, the board changes, and that is normal. They change after three years and rotate in and out. Our current board was terrific during quarantine. They were supportive of this work. We were picked up nationally. People were really interested in what we were doing. But I feel like I had time to breathe and relax a little bit. I always go, go, go. I have a home in Maine and so I was in Maine a lot of the time, even though I was working steadily. I was able to connect with people, such as composers and artists I had lost touch with

Did you take up any new hobbies, cook, and watch Netflix?

Nobody has asked me that (laughs). I knitted five sweaters and a dress. I baked a lot. I worked out. I got really fit. I was with my family. I have two older boys. They are in their twenties and, typically, it is so hard to see them. As far as streaming content, I did a lot of binging. I watched “Downton Abbey” for the second time.

How is it working with CSO’s new concertmaster and noted violinist Zach DePue?

He is such a laid-back guy. He is so friendly and kind. He is a great player and teammate. He is also a fun collaborator. We have just started, but so far, we have enjoyed having him a lot.

Had you worked with DePue previously?

No, I hadn’t. I was Raymond Leppard’s number two at the ISO 15 years ago. but that was before Zach’s time.  Raymond and I reconnected when I moved here. He and Jack (Everly) were great. I was so sad when he passed. When I left there, he wrote me letters. He was a great letter writer and I still have them all. He was an interesting guy. He was a mentor, but not only music. He had a wonderful way about him, a great sense of humor. He was methodical, but was just hilarious. He was so kind and was so good to me.

What did you learn from Maestro Leppard?

He was meticulous at marking his parts. I remember studying the parts that go out to the orchestra and he had markings for bowing and where to breathe and where to lift and he was extremely meticulous about all that. He loved the Baroque and classical because his history was piano and harpsichord and all that, and he had a beautiful harpsichord and piano in his house. He was amazing with that kind of repertoire, and I also learned he had great patience. I thought he was a great collaborator. When he did concerti, he worked with musicians and gave them breadth, but he was also firm about what he wanted. I loved his programming. There was a lot I learned from him, but I learn from everybody.

What have you brought to CSO?

I bring a heightened level of professionalism to this orchestra. When I got to Williamsburg, Virginia, it was called the Williamsburg Sinfonia. It was small chamber orchestra. When I left there three years ago, it was the Williamsburg Symphony, a full orchestra and played like a normal season. So, I am a builder. I have vision and am always thinking ahead, and I am always thinking big. Our team…they have to listen to that, and I see them rolling their eyes (laughs) and say, “How are we going to make that happen? How are we going to accomplish that scenario?” But we make it happen and we do it. How did we play during the pandemic? How did we double the number of concerts now from when I got here? Before I got here, the CSO did not have a big pop series and they did not do a lot of education. So, I saw something in this orchestra when I applied and said, “If you want to grow, bring me in, but if you are happy with where it is right now, it’s not the right place for me.” Happily, it turned out well.

What do you hope to accomplish with the new season?

I wanted this season to be a welcome back to the Palladium and for people to feel safe and comfortable, but I also wanted to start with a bang. So, we opened with Beethoven’s 5th and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto, two sensational pieces. I put on a lot of big pieces. We are doing “Scheherazade.” We are doing a piece by Florence Smith Price, the first Black women to be played by a major orchestra. I wanted it to be a remarkable year, a year of excitement. We are also presenting John McLaughlin as our headliner. He is a local celebrity. We are doing an “Earth, Wind & Fire” concert. It is just a time to come back. Even though we played live for 19 months, not everybody came back, and we understood that. I wanted this year to be a year when people flock back to the symphony, and I think we are going to be in good shape.

How does it feel to be on the podium experiencing the connection between audience and performers that only happens in live entertainment?

In 2020, we had a concert scheduled in March and we were told we were not playing that concert. We didn’t know what this COVID thing was, so it was like hitting a brick wall. So, we canceled the concert and we were told the Palladium was going to close. I was here for five days and thought I should go to Maine because that’s where my partner was and that is where my kids are, so I felt I needed to go there. Though we didn’t perform for several months, once we finally got together, the feeling of connection you mentioned was palpable. People were cheering us on. When I walked out on stage, the audience erupted. They just stood up. It was a standing ovation for the orchestra.

You know it just shows, it proves how important the arts are and how we need to be together. We are not creatures of isolation. We are human beings. We need other people around us and it was made so clear by that experience. We’ve felt it every single time we’ve played since quarantine ended. Audiences have been almost starving for it. They are loving it. It is heartwarming, but it is different now because we went through the pandemic, and we did go through some awful things. BLM was huge for all of us and all the division we saw in this country and all the incredible violence. It was not just COVID. It is all this stuff and, as artists, we try to bring people together in a safe environment and create something. Somebody was telling me about somebody famous who said their only goal as a performer is to make somebody feel something, and I said, “Absolutely.” They might feel sad. They might feel happy. They might feel very calm. You know, there are so many emotions that go into listening to music, but we want them to feel something. It might tell an emotional story, but it is not always a descriptive story. So, it is my job to tell something every time we play. We want people to leave the hall feeling something and usually on the side of good. They can feel pensive. They can feel very thoughtful, calm, and reflective. I typically do not want them to leave angry (laughs). The goal is to bring people together in an environment that is open.

What are your long-term goals?

Someone asked me that the other day. It is a hard one because I am so in the moment. Everyone laughs at me because programming for 2023 is done and I am looking at 2024. I remember my dad telling me, “I never knew anyone who lives in the future like you. You are always thinking two years ahead,” and I said, “I have to get the artists we want and the rights. It takes forever.” He was always astounded by that.

Tell me about your father and mother.

My father was a lighting designer and worked on “SNL” and “The Tonight Show.” Dad is famous in the TV lighting world and he worked until he was 96. He was amazing. My mother was a producer on Broadway.

Have you sought fame during your career?

It is not about that. I have been working a long time, but I just want a steady career. It was never my dream to have a major orchestra. I was so happy that not only was I able to have two kids and they are amazing and very successful and fantastic young men, but I have had a nice balance in life and that is really important.

It sounds like you have a great deal of artistic freedom at CSO?

The board has been great. They trusted me and when I came in, they looked at what I had done in the past and called my references. What you see is what you get. I am just very honest. I came into this community and thought, there is just so much potential for this orchestra to live up to that beautiful hall that we play in. The Palladium is stunning. We are very good, but the orchestra has the potential to be sensational.

What do you say when comparisons between the CSO and the ISO are made?

I worked there for four years. I always tell people that we are not the same and we are not competing with the ISO. They are about 19 miles down the road. They own their building. They have multiple floors of offices. They have a huge staff. A huge endowment. That is another animal. That is a major orchestra We are not that. We are a level six orchestra. That designation is based on budget. We are a regional orchestra, but we are a professional orchestra. We are playing very well. We want to give people in Carmel a place to go when they want to hear this kind of music. We have heard many, many times “Wow, I am so glad I don’t have to go downtown now.” Now, if they are getting fulfilled from what they are getting from us, well great, but some people still go to the ISO and why wouldn’t they?

What about comparisons regarding difference in quality between the two?

Well, since we are a regional orchestra, the average person is not necessarily going to hear the difference or know what the difference is. I think if somebody who is musically educated, they will hear the difference. If we play a Prokofiev symphony and they play a Prokofiev symphony, it is going to sound different, and I think they would be able to hear those differences. But for a lot of people, the drive downtown is long. It’s hard to park and they are not comfortable with it, but they’ll come here to hear us. They (ISO) are our friends. I consider them our friends. I call them if I need something or have a question. I never feel as if we are competing. Our relationship is healthy.

As far as our quality, we have been playing these instruments since we were little kids. We are pretty good. We want people to be jazzed like we are. When we are on stage, we are working hard. We are having so much fun and it is so intense. We want to share that incredible joy and emotion and feeling that we have with others. When I walk out on stage and when I can give that first chord for whatever that piece it is, it is silent in that hall and that audience is feeling it with us. We can feel their energy and that is what it is all about…it is connecting with that music. It is not The Janna Hymes Show. It is Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, or whatever we are playing. We are just the translator of what that amazing masterpiece is. So, our job is to say, “Hey, Tchaikovsky wrote this symphony… It’s incredible and we want to play it for you.” Our job is just to be the one who gives them the message and then we want them to go home and say, “That horn melody was the most beautiful.” So, it is not about us individually. It is about us collectively and that is what separates me from some of my colleagues. For some of my colleagues, not all of them, it is about their egos.

What is your message to music fans about why they should support the CSO?

We are playing pieces they will recognize and they are going to love. For families, we have a family concert and educational concerts. We have pops concerts for people and we have classical favorites. I think people should give it a chance because I think when they come in for the first time, they might be hesitant if they have never been in the Palladium. Just to see it is in person is reason enough to come, but I think they will not be disappointed when they hear this music live because there is really nothing like it. You can have the best sound system and great speakers and an incredible environment to hear music, but to see it live and to see the players doing their thing…the winds are fixing their reeds and the bass are taking the connotation on their instruments and the strings are dealing with their bows…to see the action on the stage is theatrical. For me, it is so exciting.

For me, I love chamber music. I love opera, I love all kinds of music and theatre. I go to everything and when I go to an orchestra and see all those people together playing together in unison, it just blows my mind. Opera does too because of its singers and orchestra and sets and costumes and all that. It is unbelievable everybody can be working together on one thing in such an artistic and creative way. So, I think people should try it. I do not think they will be disappointed. We are an orchestra for the community. We really strive to give people what they want to hear and listening to what they want, and we really try to bring the community together through our music. Finally, I think they should support us because we are really working hard to please them, play what they want, and use music as a catalyst to bring people together.

For tickets and information about the 2021-2022 Carmel Symphony Orchestra, go to carmelsymphony.org.

 

 

 

 

photo: Josh Humble

About Tom

Journalist, producer, director, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, arts administrator, TV contributor, actor, model, writer and lyricist, Tom Alvarez has had an extensive career in media and the fine arts and continues to be an enthusiastic and devoted fan of both. His passion and unique background grant him insight, access and perspective to cover, promote and review the arts in Indianapolis, Central Indiana and beyond. Follow him on social media @tomalvarezartswriter and @tomalvarez1.

Alvarez has been writing about theatre, dance, music, cinema and visual arts for 40 years. His work has appeared in the Indianapolis Star, NUVO, Indianapolis Monthly, Arts Indiana, Unite Magazine, Dance Magazine, NOTE Magazine, and Examiner.com, among many other print and online platforms. A former contributor to Across Indiana on WFYI-TV, he currently has a regular performing arts segment on WISH-TV’s Indy Style.

A principal of Klein & Alvarez Productions, LLC, Alvarez co-created “Calder, The Musical” and is the managing director of Magic Thread Cabaret. As an actor-model, he has appeared in numerous TV and print ads and is represented by the Helen Wells Agency and Heyman Talent Artists Agency.

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