BWW Interview: Martha Gilmer, San Diego Symphony CEO
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is often cited as the best in the U. S. and one of the top five in the world. Martha Gilmer started there as an intern. Thirty-five years later she left the number two spot, vice president of artistic planning and audience development, to become CEO of the San Diego Symphony. We spoke about that, and much besides, at her office in the Jacobs Music Center. "It wasn't that I really wanted to leave. It was an interesting opportunity to take what I'd learned there and apply it to a different orchestra. And I had never been a CEO. I'd always been in a sort of number two position, and so this gave me an opportunity to test myself in a new role ...
San Diego intrigued me for a number of reasons." She knew music director Jahja Ling had an excellent reputation, and was impressed when she heard the orchestra, and the equally favorable views of colleagues.
Further investigation told her the vision of the board of directors and key donors Joan and Irwin Jacobs meshed with hers. She decided she could work with them and the orchestra's solid artistic base to lead the organization to even greater success and national visibility.
Gilmer, instrumental in expanding the Chicago Symphony's audiences, is excited about doing the same here. She is particularly interested in adding performances for those who either feel classical music isn't for them, or just want to avoid city traffic and parking. She believes one way to do that is to perform at locations that make inexperienced listeners think, "They came to me, and now this belongs to me." Three years into the job she is pleased with the progress made. "I couldn't have been happier with this year ... The orchestra has grown and grown." And increased ticket sales indicate audiences agree.
When I raised the subject of classical music's relatively small audience, Gilmer said she canvasses Uber drivers as one way to learn more about musical preferences and attitudes. Conversations often begin based on what a driver is listening to on the radio. "One said, 'Well, you're not going to get any young people there [to the symphony] because young people aren't interested.'" She told the driver, "I have to disagree with you." That disagreement is based on the marked increase in the number of young people she's seen at concerts. She knows they are there, "because they sit well at the top, and at the end of concerts it's much more raucous. There's a lot more shouting and cheering."
She cited "Tastings Concerts" as an example of how to attract new listeners. She and principal bassoonist Valentin Martchev discussed the concept with Peggy Pico of San Diego's public broadcasting station KPBS in a brief 2015 video interview.
She's introduced other less-traditional performances as well. "People really enjoy the informality, the short selections, the talking between them, the discovery. It's a great entry point. And there are lots of young people. Some who get really dressed-up, and some who are in jeans, which is fine."
At this year's free concert for donors of $50 or more, Gilmer told donors their financial support helps create new audiences and venues, "The fact that we play for the [San Diego] Opera, that we play chamber concerts, and the Young People's Concerts." The free concert included the segment of Stravinsky's Firebird that had been performed at a concert for students, "And donors loved it!"
When I asked how she dealt with the problem of attracting new audiences without losing some of the old, she said it depends on the occasion. The mainstay Jacobs Series sticks to complete works, seldom straying far from anyone's definition of legitimate classical music. To appeal to a broader audience, summer pops concerts include only what the name implies, except for an occasional sure-fire hit like Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, which ends every season with fireworks, bells and cannons.
The split between conservative listeners and those who want to hear something new also challenges symphony orchestra CEOs. Gilmer said the recent 7-concert portion of the Jacobs series devoted to works by American composers was a good example of how to please both. It mixed the familiar with the unexpected. "The Gould Tap Dance Concerto was ... a surprise ... There was artistry, flair, and great excitement. Everyone was on their feet! I think every program deserves an element of something new."
The Symphony's jazz series is another recent example of reaching out to new audiences. I have been more than happy with San Diego's jazz scene but, considering how small an audience it seems to have, I've been amazed the jazz series has consistently packed the more than 2000-seat Symphony Hall, at times when the performers weren't well-known to even many jazz fans. Herself a fan, Gilmer is delighted with the series' success, which she attributes largely to its guiding force,
trumpet-player Gilbert Castellanos, "He's well-known here, with impeccable taste, and an incredible array of friends and colleagues who respect him and want to come and play here ... And this is a great venue ... I think it's a place people like to be in ... You walk in off B Street into the world of 1929-extravagance and luxury, and the feeling you're in a special place ... And I always say to the ushers, we're here to create memories."
In the concluding part of this interview, Martha Gilmer shares more about her plans for the San Diego Symphony, the search for a new music director, and a few memories of the famous conductors she has worked with.
Visit the San Diego Symphony website for more information about future programs.