Saturday, May 20, 2017

Janna Hymes' far-flung conducting career brings her back to Indiana as Carmel Symphony Orchestra music director

At home in both the musical and public-relations sense at the Palladium of the Center for the Performing Arts,  Hamilton County's mostly professional symphony orchestra has just reached another milestone in its 42-year history.
Janna Hymes will start leading Carmel's orchestra in the 2017-18 season.


Janna Hymes recently won the right to succeed David Bowden as the Carmel Symphony Orchestra's music director, following his 17-year tenure. Hymes was the last of the finalist candidates to conduct a CSO concert this season (April 8), and a month later accepted the position that will bring her back to Indiana. She was associate conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra for three seasons, ending in 2000.

The CSO considered 130 applications for the post before deciding on three finalists near the end of 2016. “We are absolutely delighted to welcome Maestro Hymes to our organization,” said CSO President and CEO Alan Davis in a written statement. “The caliber of talent and dedication became increasingly evident through the selection process. I can think of no one better to lead the CSO into new heights of artistic excellence.”

Born in New York City, Hymes was exposed to the arts there at an early age: "That was the norm," she told me in an interview Thursday afternoon from Williamsburg, Va., where she conducts the Williamsburg Symphony. Her mother handled public relations for American Ballet Theatre, then became a producer on Broadway. Her father, a professional television lighting designer, has worked on "Late Night With Seth Meyers," "Saturday Night Live," and other popular shows.

One of three children, Hymes began piano studies as a small child, then took up cello in high school. By the time she grew up to become  a Fulbright Scholar in Italy, "I was all consumed with studying scores — three to six hours a day," she recalled. She has toyed with composing, but apart from maintaining the piano to this day, her musical career has concentrated on conducting. She has conducted the Williamsburg orchestra since 2004, and her contract runs through the 2018-19 seasons. She has just finished her ninth season as conductor of the Maine Orchestra, which she founded in 2008.

With degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, Hymes counts her studies with maestros Otto Werner-Mueller, Leonard Bernstein, and Gunther Schuller as deeply influential. Werner-Mueller "showed me how to dissect a score — I still use those tools today," she said. Schuller was "very theoretical." Bernstein, with whom Hymes studied one summer at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, stands out. "It was more about the music," she explained: "the expression and the emotion of the music, and how do we [conductors] show that to the orchestra."

She recalls with great pleasure the day in class when Bernstein sat nearby without interrupting her as she conducted the Tanglewood orchestra in a Brahms symphony, then afterward "took my face in his hands and said, 'You have what it takes to be a great conductor.'  He couldn't have been nicer to me."

Hymes has the schedule flexibility it takes to move in the direction of fulfilling Bernstein's prophecy now that the younger of her two sons (she is divorced) is in college.  As for the prospects of her new position, Hymes is cautious about pointing in any particular direction for Carmel, since she has just accepted the job. "I'm meeting people and working with the orchestra, finding out where they want to go," she said. "The city totally supports the arts. We can separate ourselves (from other orchestras in the metropolitan area) by unique programming and the venue. Quite a lot of people will support this orchestra. People want to make this orchestra grow," she said, indicating that may mean several things, not necessarily more concerts: "We don't want to oversaturate the community. "

Her concerts in Carmel next season will not reflect her program choices, though the season after that will. But those appearances will give her new Indiana audiences more definitive exposure to the CSO's new maestra. She officially takes up her duties July 1. Her first appearance on the podium as music director will be Oct. 14, when the all-orchestral program will encompass Brahms' Academic Festival Overture, Barber's Adagio for Strings, Grieg's "Peer Gynt" Suite No. 1, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major “Eroica.”