Mini Maestros Series Kicks Off Sixth Season with Once Upon a String


Tacoma, Wash. – The sixth annual Mini Maestros series for children ages 2-8 and their families opens with a performance whimsically titled Once Upon a String! The program, featuring the Symphony Tacoma String Quintet, is hosted by the University of Puget Sound and held at Schneebeck Hall on Sunday, Feb. 18 at 2:30 p.m. The String Quintet includes Associate Concertmaster Gwen Taylor,

Principal Second Violin Janis Upshall, Principal Viola Thane Lewis, Principal Cello Jake Saunders, and Principal Bass Chris Burns. Ted Brown Music is the series sponsor of Mini Maestros, which is also supported by the Bamford Foundation.

The performance will feature the String Quintet, costumed in fairy tale attire, engaging the crowd in a variety of interactive activities to hone audience participation skills and help children learn about tempo, beat, and rhythm. A mixture of popular classical pieces together with familiar fairy tale rhymes and movie tunes like Cinderella’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo are programmed to explore the contrasts of high/low, slow/fast and loud/soft. A favorite moment anticipated in all the informances is when Shay announces a magical themed journey and waltzes through the audience, inviting the kids to follow and join the players on stage for a special interactive song. Attendees of all ages are invited to dress in their best storybook characters.

Once Upon a String will be followed by three additional programs: 3-2-1 Brass Off! on March 18, Percussion on Parade on April 15, and Peter and the Wolf on May 6. All take place at 2:30 p.m. on those dates at Schneebeck Hall.

A musical instrument “petting zoo” will be held one hour before each concert, with the exception

of Peter and the Wolf, allowing children the opportunity to touch and try out instruments.

Tickets are $7 for children and $10 for adults, plus box office fees. For more information: click here.

Press Release: Electric Harp phenom steps in to perform on Earth Day

Maestra Sarah Ioannides has created another brilliant musical experience for this Spring! She has turned the initial disappointment that Opus X could not make their scheduled appearance, into excitement and  buzz! Ioannides knew only the most extraordinary, dazzling artist could fill that slot, and she set out to find the perfect fit.

We now are thrilled to announce that on April 22, Symphony Tacoma will be featuring quest artist Deborah Henson-Conant, the internationally renowned, Grammy nominated “Jimi Hendrix of the harp.”

“Virtuoso out-of-the box harpist Deborah Henson-Conant is known as the rockin’ bad girl of the harp world. She took the ancient instrument off its pedestal, cocked it on her hip, and made it play everything from Mexican cantina music to Brubeck to gut-bucket blues and sounds like Van Halen.”  — NPR

Symphony Tacoma is thrilled to reunite with Henson-Conant—composer, performer, singer, author, cartoonist, comedian, electric harpist—who last performed together to a 100% SOLD-OUT house on March 27, 2011.

For this Tacoma engagement taking place on Earth Day, April 22, 2018, Henson-Conant and Ioannides are planning a celebration of our connection with each other and the Earth. Music, song, storytelling, rhythm and non-verbal communication are among the earliest ways that humans begin to learn about these relationships. Deborah Henson-Conant will remind us all that music and performance is far more than mere entertainment; it is a profound reflection of our culture, our values and our identity.

Deborah Henson-Conant, with her signature rockstar leather-and-boots attire, has jammed with the likes of: Steven Tyler, Bobby McFerrin, Rufus Reid, Doc Severinsen and Marvin Hamlisch. The Grammy-nominated artist was on NBC, CBS, CNN, and has starred in two PBS specials.

But this soloist also sings angelically, drawing comparisons to Joan Baez and Carly Simon. As a trained educator who has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is sure to mesmerize and enlighten our community with her vivacious humor, intellect and storytelling abilities!
Sponsored by Marine Floats, with support from the Tacoma Philharmonic Endowment, the upcoming concert will take place Sunday, April 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma. Tickets start at $19.50. For additional information:

When Illness Strikes a Soloist

Unforeseen illness can wreak havoc when it strikes a professional classical concert soloist just days before a scheduled performance.

The schedule of an in-demand soloist is typically set at least a year in advance, with a lengthy planning window ensuing. Travel, accommodations, rehearsal schedules, hall bookings, and other details are spelled out in contracts and riders painstakingly negotiated between the booking agency and the presenter, often taking six months or more to complete.

In addition, classical concertos are complex and difficult, requiring lengthy preparation. Even the most gifted artist can only keep so many pieces under his or her fingers. Soloists thus usually have a relatively short list of works ready for performance in any given concert season.

For all these reasons, classical music organizations are not particularly adept at turning on a dime when the unforeseen strikes.

The unforeseen struck recently when Symphony Tacoma officials received a call from pianist Andrew Tyson’s agency—just three days before the concert—that the artist was too ill to fulfill his November 18 engagement. Tyson was slated to make his regional debut performing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G at Tacoma’s Pantages Theater, with Sarah Ioannides conducting.

We all know the old adage “the show must go on,” but part of being a professional is knowing when you’re too ill to give a performance your best–and bowing out in time for the presenting organization to have a shot at replacing you.  In this difficult circumstance, Tyson did the right thing. It cannot have been an easy decision for him.

Fortunately, the quick-thinking Sarah Ioannides immediately texted pianist Charlie Albright—with whom she had just collaborated in Philadelphia the week before—to see if by any chance he was available and knew the concerto.  Charlie, who has been acclaimed as “among the most gifted musicians of his generation” by The Washington Post, hails from Centralia, just an hour down I5 from Tacoma.  He responded right away: yes, he was available, and yes he was ready, willing and able to perform the formidable Ravel concerto on a scant three days’ notice!

This was truly a happy solution.  The Pacific Northwest native had previously appeared with Symphony Tacoma in November 2014, so he was already known and loved by local audiences.  As The New York Times put it, he has “jaw-dropping technique and virtuosity meshed with a distinctive musicality,” and to add to the package, a friendly, outgoing and generous personality that is the same onstage or off.  Finally, he has the rare talent of being a master improviser.  He knocked the ball out of the park with his dazzling performance of the Ravel concerto, and then played an encore improvised on the spot after asking audience members to pick the first four notes.

Sometimes turning on a dime brings positive artistic results. The unforeseen may start out by bringing havoc, but if properly embraced it can result in high flying!

Leonard Bernstein: America’s Musical Department Store

Composer, conductor, educator, pianist, cultural ambassador—Leonard Bernstein filled all these roles and more with aplomb.  Igor Stravinsky admiringly termed him “a department store of music.”

The global celebration titled “Leonard Bernstein at 100” officially began on August 25, 2017 and continues for exactly one full year; Symphony Tacoma’s season opening concert on Saturday, October 21 featuring Bernstein’s music is among the earliest events worldwide—and first in the South Sound.

Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Leonard Bernstein grew up during a time when Western music was exploding with different sounds and styles.  Still recovering from the 1913 premiere of Rite of Spring, the classical world was set reeling again just six years later when—in a seeming complete about-face—Stravinsky launched into his sparse, crisp Neoclassical period with L’Histoire du Soldat.  Meanwhile, Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School was busy advancing its new Twelve-Tone system, a controversial method that did away with all vestiges of tonality.  Bartok was incorporating percussiveness, rhythmic irregularity, and Eastern European folk music into his compositions.  Varese was introducing a highly experimental musical aesthetic he termed “organized sound.” Electronic music was heard for the first time with the introduction of the theremin.  Escaping from its Ragtime cradle, Jazz was radiating from the hottest clubs of New Orleans, St. Louis, and Chicago, influencing composers from Copland to Milhaud, Ravel to Shostakovich.  Radio and vinyl records made listening in the privacy of your home, whenever you liked, widespread for the first time.

It must have been a heady mix for a budding young musician!

Bernstein received his first permanent conducting job in 1943, serving as Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic. On November 14, 1943, he was called upon to substitute (on a scant several hours’ notice, with no rehearsal, and after a night out partying) for an ailing Bruno Walter at Carnegie Hall.  Broadcast nationally on radio, the concert caused an instant sensation and made Bernstein a celebrity almost overnight.

As Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, he led more concerts with the orchestra than any previous conductor.  His famed Young People’s Concerts were broadcast on national television for fourteen seasons, well beyond his tenure as Music Director. For an entire generation, Bernstein came to exemplify and symbolize a new, distinctly American classical maestro:  young, handsome, charismatic, approachable, debonair, passionate, and compassionate.  (Though he had his critics: Oscar Levant famously quipped “he uses music as an accompaniment to his conducting.”)

His fame as conductor tended to overshadow that of composer, but in works spanning chamber music, symphonies, opera, film and Broadway, Bernstein revealed himself as a gifted composer who gathered, absorbed and synthesized the sounds of his age—from Neoclassicalism to jazz—and made them his own.    According to conductor John Mauceri, he projected a message “of understanding and hope employing both complex and simple forms and styles—yet always sounding like ‘Bernstein.’”


The birth of a concert

Every concert, taken individually, involves at least a year’s worth of planning and preparation.

The program itself—the music we select to perform—evolves organically. Choices are influenced by the guest artist Sarah has invited as her primary collaborator; Sarah’s own artistic sensibilities; her desire to captivate the audience and provide a compelling concert experience; and her wish to inspire the orchestra and encourage its artistic growth.

Other factors include the rest of the season’s programming and how a given concert fits in with the rest. We try to achieve a balance of musical periods—Classical, Romantic, Modern, and others. We also strive for an attractive blend of styles—French, German, Russian, and the like. We even have to consider what other orchestras in the region might be performing. Finally, there is the more prosaic concern of the overall artistic budget, and how much a particular concert will cost.

For every piece that makes it onto a program, there are five to ten others considered and rejected. This process, in which Sarah takes the lead and has the final say, happens with each concert on the season and there is at least six months of filtering and sifting before the season brochure even goes to print.

We launch subscription renewals in late winter and the new subscriber campaign in late spring. Copy for the playbill is written, edited and proofed over the summer; simultaneously, the playbill advertising campaign takes place. Contracts with music publishers, guest artists, the musicians, and the Broadway Center are finalized and signed.

In early fall, season ticket packets are filled, assembled and mailed to each subscriber. Depending on the concert, subscribers account for somewhere between a third and half the house. Direct mail, online, print, TV and radio, and social media advertising, along with free publicity, all combine to bring in (hopefully!) the single ticket buyers.

Eventually, it’s all in place and there’s nothing more to be done. I spend several weeks biting my nails and watching the attendance numbers slowly climb. Today’s single ticket buyers, blast them, are increasingly 11th hour shoppers. It has become normal for 90% of box office sales to occur during the final week before the concert. Sometimes we sell over a hundred tickets at the door.

After all this, there’s nothing like the feeling I get when my stage announcement is done, the orchestra is tuning, I make my way into the house and sit down next to my wife. This is the magical moment when I shed all that preparation and become an audience member along with everyone else. It’s what I live for!

Feet off the ground!


Capture the imagination of the community with extraordinary performance experiences, educational offerings and community partnerships that bring diverse people together.


I remember when we first introduced the above Vision back in 2011. At the time, the TSO was entering a transitional phase, with the Board just starting the national search that ultimately led to the appointment of Sarah Ioannides. It is gratifying and exciting to note, four years later, how closely it reflects what is now unfolding before our very eyes, with each passing month.

As we conclude the 2014-2015 Season, the orchestra and Sarah have established a strong working collaboration. With each concert cycle, less time is spent just getting re-acquainted; basic expectations are internalized and no longer need to be reiterated. This frees up more rehearsal time for artistic development, refining the performance, and building ensemble strength.

It’s like watching the orchestra transform into a single instrument, in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The resulting atmosphere in the concert hall is electric. The interplay between conductor and orchestra is one of total concentration, communication and connectivity. The audience responds in lockstep to this connection; their collective involvement and absorption, in turn, further energizes the orchestra. After the performance ends the musicians exit the stage, and the audience exits the hall, with a similar air of exultation. Following a recent concert, a patron said to me: “Every time I think it can’t get any better, it does.”

Feet off the ground: this is what live symphonic music is all about!

The more the orchestra plays together, the more this process will escalate. Our core season has stood at four Classical Masterworks concerts, Sounds of the Season, Messiah, a spring Symphonic Pops concert, and an a capella Chorus concert for years. Last December we added a repeat performance of Messiah at Chapel Hill in Gig Harbor. Next season we expand our presence in Gig Harbor to two performances, in December and March, and move to a five-concert Classics lineup downtown. Future expansion is under discussion, with the recognition that growth must be driven by community demand and corresponding financial support.

In the area of Community Engagement, we have just completed our third season of the Mini Maestros series for children ages 2 to 8, including two daytime residencies at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Lakewood Boys & Girls Club. Our first season of Simply Symphonic utilizing Carnegie Hall’s groundbreaking Link-Up curriculum—a partnership instigated by Sarah—was received with enthusiasm by teachers and school district officials… and most of all by the students! Next season we will continue these activities and add side-by-side performances with the young players at Tacoma Youth Symphony and Annie Wright School.

Clearly, the TSO is at an inflection point. Rarely has there been an alignment like this: a dynamic new artistic leader backed by a cohesive, skilled administrative team (I prefer to call them our change agents), a committed, passionate Board, and a supportive, enthusiastic patron base. This is a carpe diem moment—a time to leverage growth of our orchestra as a cherished community resource. This must be done with a combination of boldness and solicitude. When artistic vision is balanced with sound risk management, growth in service will happen while we keep our feet firmly on the ground.

Except during concerts.

Building Community Through Music

The four words of our newly rephrased Mission Statement communicate the essence of our entire Strategic Plan and articulate the focus under Music Director Sarah Ioannides: to build ownership and pride throughout the orchestra, make every concert an event where ensemble and audience fully connect, increase community relevance, and foster long-term stakeholder relationships.

Building community through music:  the phrase popped into my brain one day during a particularly heady period last fall, when we were in the process of launching new Music Director Sarah Ioannides.  Our first two concerts had sold out, the audience was buzzing, Sarah and I were meeting daily with donors and civic leaders, and ideas and energy were flowing freely in every committee meeting.  I suddenly realized that everything we were about could be boiled down to these four words.  The rest is just details.

Gradually, I shared the idea with others:  Sarah, musicians, volunteers, staff members, and the Board leadership.   Although we hadn’t been looking to reword our Mission Statement, this new phraseology seemed so succinct, memorable and compelling, and the timing so fortuitous, that we decided to adopt it.

The seeds of this restated mission were sown before Sarah’s arrival, during the development of the Strategic Plan and the music director search process.  In place of the traditional “top-down” approach, musicians, audience members and donors joined board members on the search committee.  The wider public was engaged through social media, open rehearsals, meet-and-greet receptions, and post-concert talk-backs.  As a result, patron engagement rose markedly. Audiences were clearly inspired by the sense that they were not mere witnesses but vital participants in the selection of the new conductor.

Since Sarah’s arrival, this sense of community has escalated to a new level.    Her arrival has been an inflection point for the TSO: an opportunity to re-energize the musicians, scintillate our audiences, and generate buzz.  The resulting groundswell of excitement has attracted a new influx of attendees and donors.

All of this is going a long way toward helping us realize the goal so clearly stated in the 3rd Cornerstone of our Strategic Plan:  to foster an intra-organizational community with patrons at its center.  We are not just maintaining an ensemble, but creating a space where live symphonic music is celebrated in fellowship—where people are welcomed wherever they are in their experience of classical music.  It’s about making this art form available throughout our city and its environs, including those who are chronically underserved by the arts.

Building community through music:  four words that convey the essence of the organization we have been growing into for years.  It’s a fresh take on the role of an orchestra today.  It’s something we’ve been learning to do—and getting better at—all the time.  We have a long way to go—but building community through music is a role the Symphony Tacoma is uniquely positioned to fill.

The Major Orchestra Myth

“There is a point in the perfection of artistic skills beyond which further progress is without artistic value,” composer and critic Virgil Thomson once wrote. “The surface becomes so shiny that nothing else can be perceived.”

I have sometimes gotten this sense myself at concerts by major orchestras. The quality of the playing is so creamy and perfect it’s like you’re listening to a CD performed live, right before your very eyes.  It’s all so flawless that it no longer seems connected with humanity.  And thus it ends up canceling out its own desired end.  To paraphrase former Chicago Symphony president Henry Fogel, “your feet never leave the ground.”

I remember attending a performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring by an undergraduate ensemble several months after hearing a pro orchestra performance.   Guess which one was more compelling?

That’s an illustration of extremes; obviously there are a lot of touch points between full-time pros and student undergrads.  But the American orchestra industry—steeped in what Thomson called the “cult of orchestral precision”—has long regarded artistic excellence as its sine qua non.

20 years ago, Norman Lebrecht published The Maestro Myth, which took on the industry’s tendency to virtually deify the conductor.  The book’s point was not that conductors aren’t important, but simply that “the era of the megalomaniac conductor waving his baton like Voldemort’s wand at an orchestra of powerless musicians” was at an end.

But there is another fable that is even more persistent:  the major orchestra myth—the worldview in which only full-time, salaried ensembles can turn out artistically profound performances.

In Tacoma, we know better.

The TSO is what the industry calls a “per-service” orchestra, employing professional musicians who are paid by the rehearsal and concert on a fixed scale.  It has built a reputation for artistically satisfying performances that often reach the level of transcendence.  This is especially so since the advent of new Music Director Sarah Ioannides, who has taken Tacoma by storm since her arrival in October, with sold-out concerts and a new level of community engagement and visibility.  At the recent Beethoven & Tchaikovsky concert, the audience’s feet didn’t just leave the ground.  We left the theater floating like Michael Keaton inBirdman.

Meanwhile, the full-time Atlanta Symphony is the latest in a series of major orchestras in financial crisis due to the breakdown of its business model.  The group has operated at a loss for years, racking up deficits that are no longer sustainable.  A tense and controversial collective bargaining session, concluded recently, resulted in the reduction of its full-time ranks from 94 to 77 players – a small complement by national standards.

Although the new contract is undoubtedly a step in the direction of financial sustainability, many fear it may spell the end of the ASO as a “world-class” orchestra.

At issue is the fact that many classical, Romantic and contemporary works require larger instrumentation than the ASO’s new full-time roster, necessitating the frequent use of extra musicians to round out the forces.  The core players—so the argument goes—know the hall, the conductor, and each other inside and out, and with that familiarity comes a level of nuance that will be compromised by the influx of outsiders.

As Michael Cooper wrote in a recent New York Times column, “musicians warn that an overreliance on freelancers endangers the things that make orchestras great: the cohesion that comes from playing together over many years, the performing traditions that are developed and passed down, even the ability to divine in a flash what a familiar conductor is seeking with a cocked eyebrow or a flick of the wrist.”

All this may be true.  Undoubtedly the sound of these orchestras is going to change.  If the definition of a “great” performance is one in which the seams are never revealed, in which the color is airbrushed onto the canvas with nary a visible stroke, no doubt the advent of freelancers will have an effect.  But it begs the question:  is that really what makes a performance “great?”

Even back in the 1940s, Virgil Thomson called the Boston Symphony “overtrained,” its concerts displays of “executional hypertrophy.”  As a result, the performances were less about the music than about “how beautifully the Boston Symphony Orchestra can play.”

The phenomenon has only gotten more widespread since then.

This doesn’t mean that artistic excellence doesn’t matter, or that orchestras shouldn’t try to play in top form.  Of course it does, and of course they should.

But when the incorporation of freelance musicians into a full-time ensemble is cast as a fate worse than death, and when musicians at the majors are willing to drive their orchestras over a financial cliff rather than submit to it—that’s not “great,” that’s pathological.

I’ll make a further point.  I think the orchestra world’s obsession with being “great” is grandiose and uninviting.  It has become a turn-off and a barrier to many, including the younger audiences we all covet.

I suspect that those who grew up listening to rock and jazz prefer to take their music with a little less “great” and a little more “grit.”   They’re looking for passion and energy, not necessarily perfection.  Some of the seminal jazz recordings of yesteryear are full of technical flaws.  As for rock in its infancy, it was raw, naive, and calamitously unsteady.

I suggest that we scrape off some of the shine on our surface, play with more daring, even risk a little occasional unpolish.  Perhaps the brush strokes are part of what makes the canvas compelling, if not “great.”

Maybe that’s exactly what will happen at major orchestras as they incorporate freelance musicians into their ranks, effectively changing from closed to open systems, with graduated boundaries.  And maybe it will be just what Dr. Thomson ordered.

I suggest that it won’t be the contaminating influence they fear—and may even add spice and seasoning to their sound.  Maybe the ASO and orchestras like it will find that, by sacrificing a little ensemble cohesion, they’ve gained immediacy and impact.

Bubble-gum cards for our musicians? Maybe…

I was tremendously inspired by working with Sarah Ioannides last winter on planning her inaugural season, and I am excited to be, at last, entering the “Era of Sarah”!

Music Directors are the public “face” of an orchestra and never more so than during an inaugural season.  Notwithstanding this, both Sarah and the Board want to make sure the profile of our musicians is raised at the same time.  In baseball, the pitcher is the star, but the other players are also visible and valued; we want to emulate this (without resorting to bubblegum cards!).

On this website in the ABOUT section, there is a page listing the entire orchestra, including bios and photos of our principal players.  In perusing these, one is struck not only by the breadth of experience represented, but also by their far-reaching influence.

Concertmaster Svend Ronning also serves as Artistic Director of Second City Chamber Series and chair of the string division at Pacific Lutheran University. 2nd Assistant Concertmaster Debra Akerlund is Assistant Concertmaster of the Des Moines (Iowa) Opera, and plays in the Yakima Symphony and the Britt Festival in Southern Oregon.  Principal Second Violin Janis Upshall maintains a private studio of 30 violin students, is Concertmaster of the Tacoma Opera Orchestra, performs with Northwest Sinfonietta and is co-founder of the Chamber Creek Trio with cellist Margaret Thorndill and pianist Jeffrey Meeks.   Principal Trumpet Brian Chin is the Artistic Director of Common Tone Arts, creator of the Universal Language Project, and Associate Professor of Music at Seattle Pacific University.

Those are just some examples from within the classical music field.  Beyond that, Associate Concertmaster Gwen Taylor is active in the Celtic music scene, regularly playing for Scottish Country Dancing.  Assistant Principal Second Violin Rachel Nesvig is a Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle player.   Assistant Principal Viola Maria Bokor is a physical therapist, and directs a youth jazz/gospel orchestra at Tacoma’s Trinity Church.  Principal Harpist Calista Kovin plays piano in a Celtic band she founded with her brother.

Principal Percussionist Amy Putnam is the founder of A. Putnam Mallets.  APM mallets can be heard in every leading American orchestra from the New York Philharmonic to the Seattle Symphony.   Principal Bassoon John Ruze is the inventer of the “ruzette,” a patented device that clips onto a music stand and securely holds a metronome, tuner, microphone or other small items.  And did you know that Principal Horn Richard Reed is a master auto mechanic who owns and operates “Maestro Motors” in Seattle?

The TSO is a “per service” orchestra, in which the musicians are paid a set amount for each rehearsal and concert.  For most, TSO is a treasured but relatively modest part of a wide-ranging, busy professional life.  Many are career musicians who support themselves with a combination of teaching positions and performance contracts with multiple arts organizations.

They are an amazing group of people, and we want to make sure our patrons know just how remarkable they are.   So far, we haven’t resorted to musician bubble-gum cards.  But maybe we should.