Indianapolis Symphony's top leader looks past uncertainty into a secure future

When a period of designed transition is drawn out, any organization may have to fight the appearance of inertia. For a performing-arts organization that relies on public perception that it's actively offering its product and continuously soliciting and receiving support, that's dangerous territory.

James M. Johnson took over as CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 2018, when the tenure of music director Krzysztof Urbanski was heading toward an end. The next year, a search committee was set up to appoint a successor. Urbanski's decade at the artistic helm was due to culminate at the end of the 2020-21 season. COVID-19 delayed the orchestra's next stage, as it did in so many of the ways society brings people together.  "The pandemic threw a wrench into our efforts," Johnson told me in an interview early this week. "Any other time we would have been further along."

James M. Johnson brought administrative experience in New York and Omaha to the ISO. 

For a year, concerts at Hilbert Circle Theatre, the orchestra's home, were suspended. Last year represented a gradual return to activity, and by last fall, something approaching the old normal was back on the schedule. The season about to end included a farewell to and by Urbanski centered upon the work he would have led to end his time as the seventh music director of the now 92-year-old orchestra: Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Two sold-out performances were both a way of saluting the young Polish maestro and indicating that the ISO was ready to head into a fully active future.

In our interview this week, Johnson said that scheduling guest conductors for the in-between time became difficult as the ISO sought a secure path forward, with musicians, staff, and the public subject to reasonable protection from the virus. Despite protocols and the scheduling complications, the usual criteria had to be applied: "We are still on track there," Johnson said. "The music director must have excellent musical qualities and communicate the emotional content of the music to the listener. We want a music director who sets high expectations and takes the orchestra to another level artistically. Those were the critical issues even pre-pandemic."

Other factors acknowledge that the ISO needs to seem vital again to a community whose attention is readily divided, not only by the diverse media environment but by adjustments to the pandemic that have pushed private use of leisure time to the fore. Among candidates, "the clear winner is someone who participates fully in the community, who's a true representative of the orchestra and seeks collaborations," Johnson said, adding an emphasis on inclusivity. "How can we include more of our community in the work of the orchestra? It's not necessary that the music director lives here twelve months of the year, but we want them to be impactful."

Out of a number of guest conductors this season and next, Johnson is reluctant to identify any as candidates for the position. "We want to respect the conductors that we're seeing — there are circumstances where a conductor invited to the podium may be interested and may not be interested." With such a stretched-out time frame to reach a decision, Johnson pointed to the value of Jun Märkl, a German-Japanese conductor who has long been familiar to the ISO, as the official artistic advisor. 

"He has time to help as long as necessary," Johnson said, giving as an example this week's auditions for four permanent positions. He expects those will result in four new members by the end of a week in which Märkl is on hand to conduct two concerts. (The season will end with Märkl again on the podium to lead the ISO, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir,  Indianapolis Children's Choir and soloists in two performances of Mendelssohn's "Elijah" June 17 and 18). Auditions are a matter usually supervised by a music director and committees qualified to judge candidates to fill the vacancies. The ISO also has many musicians under temporary contracts who may be contending against applicants from outside the orchestra as the vacancies get filled. "We've been well filled by the temporary appointments," in Johnson's view. "That the orchestra is playing now at a high level is due in no small part to the musicians under temporary appointments."

Although Johnson's musical background includes formative years as a rock and pop bassist in his native Washington state, he denies that as an administrator his tastes beyond the core repertoire have been heavily influenced by his youthful experience. Over more than two decades in  New York City, he helped guide the different artistic missions of the New York Pops Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and chiefly as general manager of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Seeking a better environment to raise a family, he and his wife moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was CEO and president of the Omaha Symphony Association until the ISO hired him for the corresponding position here.

"My appreciation for what an orchestra is capable of doing drives my interest in pops programming," he declared, and he admires both the years-long record of principal pops conductor Jack Everly and the more recent involvement of Steve Hackman in genre-crossing arrangements such as the ISO's recent mash-up concert of Radiohead and Brahms. "I'm just invested in the success of the orchestra," he said, and he mentioned with admiration also the well-established holiday variety show, Yuletide Celebration. "There's nothing like it in the country," he said,  "and I want to continue to support it and get all of our stakeholders invested in it."

He acknowledged with gratitude that the ISO is in the first year of a three-year contract with its musicians, and that "during that time we can identify the next music director. That gives us time to evaluate our overall strategy and re-examine our vision."

The vision is clouded by the questionable health of the worldwide population and the threat of setbacks locally even as it appears the virus and its variants are receding into endemic status.

'Uncertainty is certainly a part of it," the CEO admits, considering the stress the ISO put upon its musicians as it tightened its belt, "and uncertainty is not necessarily a healthy way to build morale. But now we're in a healthy financial position and audiences are returning, even if the pandemic is listening," Johnson added, sharing the news, with a trace of amusement, that "this morning I tested positive...."


Popular posts from this blog

Actors Theatre Indiana romps through a farce — unusually, without a founder in the cast

Indianapolis Opera presents 'A Little Night Music,' a sexy comedy of Scandinavian manners

DK's 'Divas A-New': What's past is prologue (so is what's present)