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BWW Interview: Laura Reynolds of THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY at The Rady Shell And Jacobs Music Center

The bold vision of San Diego Symphony's VP of impact and innovation.

BWW Interview: Laura Reynolds of THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY at The Rady Shell And Jacobs Music Center

Can a symphony orchestra have a role in solving problems like homelessness and global warming? If you don't think so now, you might change your mind after a conversation with Laura Reynolds, the San Diego Symphony's recently appointed Vice President of Impact and Innovation. In 2015, while she was the Seattle Symphony VP of Education and Community Engagement, both the city and the county decided the increasing number of homeless people had reached a state of emergency. CEO Simon Woods asked her, "What's our role in this? What should we do?"

Rather than naively wading into the huge issue, Reynolds went to the community leaders she'd already been working with saying, "We want to support you. We feel there's a real need for everyone in the city to help solve this problem, but we don't want to get in the way. Do you think we can make a contribution? The answer was, 'Absolutely, you need to be involved.'"

And she soon was, with creative projects designed to show the Seattle Symphony cared. "A symphony has a certain elevated status in the community. When we show we care, it influences others to act."

And the feedback from the homeless who participated in the Symphony's programs validated her efforts. "They said they were able to see themselves outside of their circumstances, to feel they had value in the world and imagine a life beyond what they were currently experiencing. It also helped our musicians and staff feel a greater sense of purpose, a reason why our work, why art matters."

Reynolds' ambitious goals for an orchestra's impact on the community is a major reason the San Diego Symphony's CEO Martha Gilmer worked to bring her to the city. They even

Martha Gilmer
CEO Martha Gilmer

collaborated on the title for her new position, a title that went beyond the usual VP of Education and Community Engagement. One that announces what they are after--Impact and Innovation. "The conversations I've had with Martha and the team have been about how to create artistic experiences that bring people together. San Diego is in a unique geographic spot with one of the busiest border crossings in the world. How can we build a cultural ambassadorship between countries? How do we imagine something new? How do we help create a welcoming place for people to live, work and play?"

She believes the new Rady Shell is a huge step in the right direction. "It's an incredible venue where people can see and hear a gorgeous concert, but it's also a public park. Part of my job is to work with the community to make the park a place where people feel excited and welcome to visit, a place where they play and exercise throughout the week. We want to inject some fun and magic into an art that can sometimes feel stuffy."

Reynolds musical background and management experience are a good fit for her new position. Her parents met while in a marching band. Her dad played French horn and her mom was a color guard. "Before reading words, I could read music."

And did you know there are Japanese accordion bands? "My mother performed in one. I'm

BWW Interview: Laura Reynolds of THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY at The Rady Shell And Jacobs Music Center
Laura's Mom in Her Youth
(Laura Reynalds)

pretty sure it was through the West LA Buddhist church. The band actually toured and did a few TV spots. She hasn't really played in decades. But when she does unpack that beautiful Italian accordion, she just starts whipping out tunes. It's amazing. She's petite, and this giant accordion is like half her size, but she just powers through it. I've tried, but I do not have the muscles to play that accordion."

So she followed in her dad's footsteps, graduating magna cum laude with a BA in French Horn Performance from USC's Thornton School of Music. Her introduction to the satisfactions of community engagement had come when a chamber-music rotation requirement had her horn quartet perform at hospitals and shelters. "Those performances really helped me discover purpose in music, to see how powerful it can be in bringing people together and how it can provide joy through some of their toughest experiences.

"Dr. Christy Morel, a fabulous teacher who was passionate about community engagement, had introduced a world I didn't really know existed before. I started on a music education path, and in my first real job out of graduate school we were doing research with Oakland Unified School District on the influence music education has on math and science learning. It was exciting to see the positive effect it can have on study in other areas."

Though a career on the concert stage became a lower priority, she did want broader musical experience. "I started working for the San Francisco Boys Chorus, to get closer to the performance side of things." By the time she got to Seattle, she was ready to merge her love of music with a drive to improve the life of her community. The Symphony provided free tickets and concert talks to social organizations. In a Lullaby Project, they worked with parents experiencing homelessness to produce music that would help their children cope.

While with the Seattle Symphony, Reynolds also became interested in the role of technology in the future of music and performance thanks to the organization's Octave 9, a high-tech performance space. "We wanted to create a space that could adapt to the audience or the art, rather than forcing audiences and artists to adapt to the space. Octave 9's maximum flexibility accommodates different audiences. For example, we launched a program of sensory-friendly concerts in collaboration with Seattle Pacific University's Music Therapy Department. The concerts adapted to children who were on the autism spectrum or had other sensory sensitivities. We could adjust the acoustics, lighting, and visual experience to make them feel welcome and in a safe environment."

Although Reynolds was excited by her responsibilities in Seattle, when an opportunity for the top job at the Boise Philharmonic came up, she went for it. The timing could have been better.

"I was curious about the impact I could make in a leading role, and I got the job right at the start of the pandemic. Before my first day, I had to recommend shutting down the season because of COVID! It's been a time of just intense creativity and reimagining of how we stay connected to keep creating when we can't be together. Working with film director Tracy Sunderland we created a whole new digital stage." As in Seattle, she sought to work with community leaders and businesses on how to, "bring meaningful stories and music to life in a new way."

She's proud of her team's accomplishments in Boise but decided to move again when San Diego Symphony's CEO Martha Gilmer offered a challenging new opportunity. The job was closer to the one she'd had in Seattle, but with even broader scope for making a difference in the community. She believes the music programs at local universities and research in life and marine sciences at nearby high-tech companies offer new collaborative opportunities.

"I love the questions Martha and the senior management team are asking, the way the organization is thinking about its role in the community and the power of music, not just to bring

The Rady Shell
The Rady Shell

people together, but to find ways to engage the big critical issues of our time like climate change and divisive politics. The scale of the work that they're doing is exciting--the Shell, the renovation of the hall. And I'm from Southern California, so to me, it's home."

San Diego's climate didn't hurt either, nor it's growing reputation for independent breweries. "I love biking and all sorts of outdoor activities, hiking, swimming. And, yes, sour beer. One of the first places I'm excited to go to in my neighborhood is the Mikkeller bar. I remember trying it when I was in Copenhagen biking around, and they have a little outpost near where I'll be living in Little Italy."

BWW Interview: Laura Reynolds of THE SAN DIEGO SYMPHONY at The Rady Shell And Jacobs Music Center
Have Cats, Will Travel
(Laura Reynolds)

Reynolds, her partner and their two cats will soon be living together in San Diego. The cats have accompanied them on previous moves. "They should be pros now, but you know, the first

hour of the trip there'll probably be a little chorus of yelling in the backseat.

"I'm so excited. We'll be in a prime location."

Rafael Payare's performance of Symphonie Fantastique may have sealed the deal. "I've heard

Rafael Payare
Rafael Payare

that piece 1000 times, and it was like I'd never heard it before, in the best possible way. The orchestra is in such an exciting time and there's so much energy in the city. I just cannot wait to be part of the team."

For performance schedule and ticket information, visit the San Diego Symphony website.

Uncredited photos San Diego Symphony

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From This Author - Ron Bierman