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The Houston Symphony’s
Star Shines Brightly

The Houston Symphony was founded by Ima Hogg in 1913. Its role in Houston’s cultural and civic life has been, and continues to be, a substantial and important one. The Grammy-Award-winning company is one of America’s oldest arts organizations and the largest performing arts organization in Houston. Its mission is to “inspire and engage a large and diverse audience in Greater Houston and beyond through exceptional orchestral and non-orchestral performances, educational programs, and community activities.”

Today, the Houston Symphony has a full-time ensemble of 88 professional musicians, which performs approximately 170 concerts annually. As well, musicians of the orchestra and the symphony’s four community-embedded musicians offer over 900 community-based performances each year, reaching tens of thousands of people in the Greater Houston area.

There is also something for every musical taste. One of the company’s values is to foster meaningful experiences with its patrons and its community. In order to do so, the Houston Symphony understands the performances it presents must be varied in nature spanning a wide range of musical genres. The 2019-20 season reflects that with concerts like: Opening Night: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3, featuring pianist Yefim Bronfman; Gershwin’s Piano Concerto & Porgy and Bess, featuring pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet; Sinatra and Beyond, featuring Tony DeSare; Aretha: Queen of Soul, featuring Capathia Jenkins; and Symphonie fantastique, featuring guest conductor Karina Canellakis. During the holiday season, Houston Symphony will present Very Merry Pops featuring the Houston Symphony favorite, Glad Tidings. The BBVA family series will feature Wands and Wizards: Music from Harry Potter and More, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and Heroes and Adventures, all under the direction of Associate Conductor, Robert Franz, especially for young symphony-goers.

With its music direction in the hands of Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the appointment, a year ago, of Executive Director and CEO, John Mangum, the Houston Symphony continues on its successful trajectory. In 2014, the company announced its long-range vision is to be America’s most relevant and accessible top-ten orchestra in 2025. With a bright future ahead, it looks like the company will get there.

Recently, CKW LUXE had the pleasure of speaking with John Mangum, Margaret Alkek Williams Executive Director/CEO Chair of the Houston Symphony, about his position with the Houston Symphony and what he envisions for the organization’s future.

CKW LUXE: You have been executive director/CEO of Houston Symphony for a year now. Prior to the appointment, you served as president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. Please enlighten us a little on how you have made the transition from Orange County to Houston and how you are adjusting to the differences between your new position and your former one. Have there been any particular challenges for you?

John Mangum: Houston is such a livable city. We live in a beautiful neighborhood that is close to everything. The cultural amenities here are incredible, between the Houston Symphony, of course; the opera; the ballet; the Alley Theatre; and all the other groups doing amazing work in the performing arts and the visual arts with MFAH, the Menil . . . it’s world-class in terms of the arts scene. Above all, the people are so friendly. Everyone is welcoming and genuine. I think part of it is that we’re not alone in being new to Houston. People are attracted to the city by all its different sectors, so there is this energy of people coming together and wanting to connect. The adjustment to the city has been easy.

In terms of the professional adjustment, I have come from a presenting organization, not an orchestra. We brought orchestras from around the world to play in our concert hall. We did chamber music and recitals, dance performances, and many other performances. There was a lot of activity, but I missed being around an orchestra as I started my career with the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The energy and creativity you get from these accomplished musicians and the guest artists was missing for me. I’m thrilled to be back with an orchestra where we can collaborate and think about this institution and how to make it relevant and impactful in today’s world. It’s a wonderful challenge to figure out how to do things that are meaningful to Houston and reflect its diversity.

CKW: Please tell us what it has been like for you to collaborate with Houston Symphony’s music director, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and explain the new initiatives you have worked on together.

JM: I love working with Andrés. He’s a brilliant musician and a wonderful conductor. I know the members of the Houston Symphony really enjoy working with him and find it tremendously gratifying to work with a conductor of his caliber. He’s a real creative force. His ideas come from such a good place: he’s always thinking about how he can bring the audience into the performances, how he can teach them something fun and engaging about the music they’ll hear, and how the Houston Symphony can be out in the community in meaningful ways.

Some of what we’ve been working on together is using video during the concerts to bring the audience behind the scenes. We also have been using our cameras to bring people closer to what’s going on in the orchestra to show them what the musicians are doing. Andrés also does interactive introductions to the concerts. For instance, he has had the audience sing along so they get the tune and understand how the piece is put together. He also has musicians demonstrate things from the stage. In a broader sense, he wants to know what is being done in our educational and community engagement programs, so we have a neighborhood concert series where the orchestra visits different neighborhoods, schools, residencies, and community partnerships with nonprofits. His desire is to make sure Houston Symphony is accessible to the greatest number of people as possible.

CKW: Houston Symphony is well-known for its classical performances, but many Houstonians may not be aware of the pops concerts it offers. Please tell our readers a little about these performances and entice them with a sample of the symphony’s upcoming pops concerts.

JM: We have an expansive series of pops concerts, which includes a wide range of musical styles. Sometimes the orchestra collaborates with vocalists in tributes to great singer/songwriters of the past. In the 2019-20 season, we have tributes to Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole on the roster. We also have concerts where the orchestra plays a soundtrack from a film live as the film plays on the big screen. In the summer of 2019, we will be doing this with Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, and in 2020 we will do it with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. We also have concerts that feature a personality. Rick Steves, the travel author and TV and radio host, will be here next year to present photos and videos of his travels in Europe. He’ll host and speak about the different countries as well as about the selections the orchestra is playing. And Houston native and a member of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton, Renée Elise Goldsberry, will perform numbers from Hamilton and other fantastic Broadway shows. So, even if classical music isn’t your interest, we have lots of other kinds of music for you.

CKW: Children are born with a natural love of music. Can you tell us what programs exist at Houston Symphony to attract them to a variety of performances and other ways they can become involved with the organization?

JM: Houston Symphony has a wide range of programs for young people. We have school concerts that bring school children from across Houston to Jones Hall to see a concert performed especially for them. Before and after the concerts, musicians visit the classrooms to get students ready for the performance and then to talk with them afterward about what they heard. We also do teacher training so the teacher is able to prepare the class before the musician visits. These concerts reach approximately 40,000 young people in the Greater Houston area each year. We also have school residencies: at the elementary level, we provide schools with string instruments and our community-imbedded musicians work with teachers so they can have an actual string-instrument program. At the middle- and high-school level, we provide support for the performing musicians in the schools so they have the opportunity to work with Houston Symphony musicians on instrument training. Our associate conductor, Robert Franz, also works with the school orchestras.

And we do a series of eight family concerts a year with Robert Franz as the conductor. Each has a different theme. In February, we presented Wild, Wild West, which celebrated the rodeo with a mixture of classical music and music from films and other areas of pop culture. These concerts are about 50 minutes long, always feature young performers, and have lots of opportunities for kids to interact. As well, children have the opportunity to participate in our instrument petting zoo prior to the concert. Our junior patron program is another way we get children involved in Houston Symphony. Parents make a small donation in the children’s names, which makes the children junior patrons. As such, they are invited to special events, get to participate in the family concerts, and become part of Houston Symphony in a special way.

CKW: We understand that a large part of joining a new organization involves learning about it. It also involves making plans for its future. Our readers would be interested in knowing what the future holds for the Houston Symphony and what changes we might see in the next three years.

JM: Houston Symphony has some exciting plans. Andrés wants to continue exploring the great works of composers like Gustav Mahler, Beethoven, Brahms, and so many others, and to dig deep into their music for himself, the orchestra, and the audience. As we are always looking for new ways to connect audiences with our music, we hope to be taking the orchestra on tour again in the future. We are looking at new ways to be innovative and to strengthen our support as well. It is our mission to let everyone know Houston Symphony is a world-class asset that is second to none, and we want to ensure that support to guarantee we have a long and vibrant future.

Houston Symphony believes in the people who make up the Houston community. Understanding their love of, and enthusiasm for, a wide range of music, the company is proud to present vibrant concerts that will fulfill and excite Houstonians from all walks of life. Its commitment is strong and will only get stronger as the future approaches.

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