A New Era for the Virginia Symphony

by | Sep 27, 2021

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“From my very first concert with them,” Says Eric Jacobson, “I just felt this willingness among the musicians to be vulnerable—to try different things, to play big, to emote and to love. All of those things translate very powerfully to audiences.”

When I moved from New York City to Coastal Virginia in 1991, I assumed that among the things I was leaving behind was a vibrant classical-music scene. Little did I know that another New Yorker by the name of JoAnn Falletta had just relocated here as well, to take the helm of the Virginia Symphony—and would soon obliterate my assumptions.

The Symphony was already a lot better than I’d imagined through the lens of—I’ll admit it—my New York snobbery. It had been around, in fact, since 1921. That’s right: the ensemble is now in its 100th year. But for most of its life it had been little known outside the region. Falletta changed all that by dramatically raising the orchestra’s artistic standards and profile. Perhaps nothing illustrated this better than the Symphony’s 1997 Carnegie Hall debut, which was praised by The New York Times and other major news outlets.

Two years ago, however, Falletta’s 29-year-tenure came to an end when she decided to step down as music director. The orchestra soon began their search for a replacement—but like so many other things, the process was delayed by COVID. Now, the long wait is over: As of July 1, 38-year-old Eric Jacobsen officially became the new director, giving the musicians, executives and board members high hopes for the future.

The hopes are well founded, given that Jacobsen has a stellar reputation as a world-class musician and a conductor who combines deep knowledge of traditional works (next spring, he’ll lead the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven’s 9th) and an adventurous spirit that leads him to explore new and lesser-known pieces. As a cellist with Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and other groups, he has played across that spectrum, and as a conductor he has broadened audiences’ musical horizons. The Times has called him “an interpretive dynamo.”

“We’ve kind of been on a high all week, feeling like everything is coming together,” said Karen Philion, the Symphony’s president and CEO, when I caught up with her for a phone interview shortly after Jacobsen was hired. “Eric just presents opportunity on top of opportunity,” she added, “opening possibilities for attracting new audiences and trying new things.”

Violinist and concertmaster Vahn Armstrong shares Philion’s excitement and optimism.

“There’s really a feeling that Eric is on our side—that he’s in the trenches with us and is looking to make the most powerful and impactful experience on stage that he can. There’s also a sense that he’s absolutely sincere and there are no ego games going on, which just makes everyone feel like they want to do their best.”

Jacobsen told me during a recent conversation that the feeling is very much mutual.

“From my very first concert with them,” he said, “I just felt this willingness among the musicians to be vulnerable—to try different things, to play big, to emote and to love. All of those things translate very powerfully to audiences. So, for me, it really felt like an instant match—that these were sounds I was looking for, and the orchestra was already playing them. The beauty is that if you’re already on the same page about a lot of things, then getting to the next level is more possible.”

For Jacobsen, a lot of that possibility lies in programming. Longtime, traditional-minded concertgoers, he said, can rest assured that the orchestra will continue to play mainstays of the classical repertoire while also mixing in more unusual offerings.

“There’s a quote by Mahler,” he said, “that goes, ‘tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.’ There are all sorts of ways of accomplishing that.” He cites “framing,” as an example, by which he means the ways in which pieces can take on deeper meaning when put into different contexts.

He also emphasizes the importance of “coming to the table with open ears.”

“It’s just like when someone hasn’t tried certain types of food, and you say, ‘Hey, try it. You might as well try everything before deciding what you like and don’t like. Now, it’s possible that you will never like [a particular piece], but it’s also very possible that it will affect you deeply.”

This dovetails with a challenge that orchestras across the country have been wrestling with for decades: how to attract younger people. Philion told me she’s not focused on that in particular, however, so much as the goal of attracting a wider array of concertgoers in general, not mention more of them. To that end, she said, one of the things they’re considering is doing shorter concerts—say, 90 minutes—because, increasingly, studies are showing that more and more people of all ages like to pack several different activities into the course of a single evening.

“We don’t plan on shifting 100 percent to those,” she said, “but I think having a mix is good.”

Traditionally, audiences for orchestral concerts have also been overwhelmingly white, and Philion said that focus groups with members of the African-American community underscored the problem.

“One of the huge takeaways,” she said, “was that the participants said, ‘We don’t see ourselves in the organization, and therefore we don’t feel welcome.’ To authentically serve all of our community we need to look more like our community.”

They took a big step in that direction, not long after Jacobsen was hired, by bringing on Norfolk native Thomas Wilkins, who is African-American, as principal guest conductor.

“We didn’t just go out and just seek a black conductor,” Philion said. “This part of a cultural change that we are making here. We’re taking a very broad approach to equity, diversity and inclusion, and we’ve got significant plans in the areas of programming, development, education and marketing. It’s a very comprehensive approach.”

Meanwhile, in keeping with the commitment to balance change and tradition, Falletta will stay on as Music Director Laureate and will occasionally lead concerts. (Her next one is scheduled for November 12 at Sandler Center in Virginia Beach.)

“I feel so lucky to follow her,” Jacobsen said. “Those are huge shoes to fill. She’s an incredible conductor. Fortunately, she’ll still be around, and I look forward to programming concerts that she’ll be involved in.”

As someone who has followed the Symphony for 30 years, I found comfort in that comment as an indication of a commitment to continuity, even as the orchestra embraces change. When Philion told me that the organization is also debt-free, with a growing endowment, I was all the more convinced that it is entering an exciting new chapter in its history—highlighted above all by brilliant musicianship.

“It’s an exciting time,” said Armstrong. “One in which we can achieve our very best. For me, that means powerful, touching, memorable and life-affirming performances. That’s what it’s all about in my book.”


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