After 15 years with the WSO Janna Hymes says goodbye to Williamsburg

aheymann@vagazette.com

Soon the Kimball Theatre stage will fill with musicians tuning their instruments for a final moment in the spotlight with the woman who has given them direction for the past 15 years.

After a few moments of chaos and clatter, conductor Janna Hymes will lead the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra in a performance of “Adagietto” from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. It will be her last concert heading the orchestra.

“I think (Williamsburg is) a fascinating place and, of course, the orchestra is amazing, but it’s time for me personally and artistically and also career-wise to move on,” Hymes said, which she says she’ll do with no regrets.

While Hymes still lives in Maine, she began conducting the WSO in 2004. Hymes is also the mother of two adult sons.

“Every day I wake up and I love my job, I love what I do and I love the people I work with,” Hymes said. “I’m very satisfied as an artist and that’s all I’ve really ever asked for … there’s more to come for me.”

Carolyn Keurajian, executive director of the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra, said Hymes’ touch will impact the orchestra for years to come.

“Life changed for our orchestra when Janna Hymes came here, without a doubt,” Keurajian said. “She brought a tremendous amount of energy. She had a vision of the level of quality she wanted the orchestra to obtain and she spent years putting work in to make that happen.”

In Williamsburg, Hymes accomplished three main goals she had set for herself.

The first was strengthening the orchestra’s playing skill.

“When I first started with the orchestra, I’ll tell you, probably the first two or three years ... I programmed pretty basic concerts to really hear what they were doing and really work on basic techniques,” Hymes said. “I just feel the orchestra was not nearly what it is today.”

This included basic technique tuning including bowing, which how a musician moves their bow up and down an instrument’s strings.

To do this, she had the orchestra play mostly classical pieces, including Beethoven and Mozart. Think of it as perfecting drawing a straight line, because the shape is so simple, it's very unforgiving to mistakes.

“It’s so difficult because it’s so obvious, it’s so transparent,” Hymes said. “I just wanted to be able to play that music very, very clearly and precisely but beautifully.”

Once Hymes was confident in the musicians’ skills, she began her second goal: programming lesser-known composers and pieces.

“I would listen to the musicians, and I would often take their suggestions — and there’s not a lot of music that we’ve played twice,” Hymes said. “I would say over the 15 years, maybe a few Beethoven symphonies, but we’ve played a lot of music just once. The variety has been great and I think I've really stretched everyone, including myself, in order to perform music from all eras.”

“She’s always brought in the tradition and the new elements so it always inspired (the orchestra,)” said Akemi Takayama, concertmaster and violinist for the WSO.

Hyme’s third accomplishment: introducing pops concerts and more educational programming to the orchestra. She said that kind of programming is important for orchestras in every town.

“The Holiday Pops we now (perform) … they’re sold out typically, and they’re very popular,” Hymes said. “We didn’t do that before I came and I thought with the big weekend of Grand Illumination we would get a lot of tourists and we do.”

One way the educational aspect has grown, according to Hymes, is every two years the orchestra performs “Peter and the Wolf” at schools in the area.

“And all of those are important, and I’ll tell you why they’re important — because not everybody wants to hear the masterworks, it might not be their thing,” Hymes said. “But they’ll come to a pops concert, or their grandchildren or kids hear the educational concerts. ... So whether you’re in your 20s or you’re 8 years old, you have the opportunity and will probably will be hearing the orchestra at some point.”

“She gave us a very strong base to work with and for that, we will be eternally grateful to her,” Keurajian said. “She had good programming ideas; without a doubt she will be missed.”

Takayama said she will miss Hymes not only as a music director but as a friend.

“I’ll just miss talking to her regular(ly),” Takayama said. “I don’t want to think of this is the end because the musical world is so small, it’s not like we say ‘goodbye’ and that’s it. I just wish her continued success.”

What’s next?

Hymes is also the music director of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra in Indiana as well as the WSO. Because of this, she only travels into town during the week of a performance.

“I’ve been there a year and a half and I was doing both orchestras and it’s pretty busy,” Hymes said. “You know, I do have a private life, but I hardly have a private life. I travel a lot for work ... I have a lot of people that work for me and we just got together and I said ‘it just feels right now’ and everybody agreed it was just the time to move on, and that’s what music directors do, they often will move on.”

The struggle to maintain a work-life balance as the head of two orchestras is one reasons she’s leaving the WSO. Hymes said she’s currently working on getting to know the community in Carmel better and moving the orchestra in a different direction.

However, Hymes said she is mostly interested in seeing what’s going to happen next for her.

“Unlike some people who are really smart and like to plan out and determine where they want to be in five years and do all that I kind of don’t do that,” Hymes said.

What’s next for the WSO?

The committee looking for the next music director is comprised of WSO board members, musicians and members of the community. The orchestra started its search last summer, according to Keurajian.

“And it started with posting that the job was open on all the musical sites,” Keurajian said. “Once we posted the job, we received about 194 applications from all over the world for the position."

People turned in applications with resumes and videos of themselves conducting.

“A lot of orchestras take one to two years to go through this process, and we wanted to do it in six, seven months. We worked very quickly and we’re excited that we’re going to be announcing our final candidates at the end of May,” Keurajian said.

The committee has narrowed the search to five applicants. Keurajian said each person will conduct one of the five masterworks concerts performed by the WSO next season.

“So each candidate will come in for the week, they will rehearse the orchestra, conduct the concert and they'll be meeting with groups while they’re in town,” Keurajian said.

“Then once the concert is finished, we’ll be sending out surveys to the audience, the musicians and the search committee and we will be tabulating all of that information to try and get an idea of what they think of the candidate.”

Keurajian said the orchestra will announce their music director candidates in the next couple of weeks at williamsburgsymphony.org.

“It’s going to be a very exciting year and we just want the audience to know that their participation is not only welcome, but it’s going to play a huge role in who we select as our next music director,” Keurajian said.

One challenge Hymes foresees for the next music director will be the WSO’s venue.

Since the Kimball has been taken over by the College of William and Mary, Hymes said the orchestra has had to perform at different locations around town.

“And Williamsburg’s a small town. It’s not a major city, and to build a concert hall is a large undertaking and I don’t see that in the future,” Hymes said.

She said the orchestra has been lucky because of its location to play at Jamestown and Yorktown for significant events and anniversaries.

“But as far as a real concert hall for an orchestra to play in we’re somewhat limited — so I think that’s something that will be on the table moving forward with the next music director.”

Want to see Hymes’ last concert?

Masterworks 5 will begin at 7:30 p.m. May 21 and 22 at the Kimball Theater, 428 W. Duke of Gloucester St. Tickets are $10-$58 and can be purchased at 229-9857.

Heymann can be reached by phone at 757-298-5828 or on Twitter at @HeymannAmelia.

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