Located next to the High Museum of Art in the Woodruff Arts Center, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) building can be intimidating to passers-by. As I walk in, I pass a colorful children’s playground with orchestral music resounding from hidden speakers. Tapping into my inner child, I stand in the middle of a rainbow of toys and waving colorful drapes, taking in the full-body experience created by the swell of sound — 100% aural and visual pleasure — similar to the feeling of entering the majestic Symphony Hall.
Despite it’s imposing facade, the building and the people within are anything but intimidating. Stephanie Smith, executive assistant to Jennifer Barlament (Executive Director of the ASO and my interview subject for the day), comes in the large hall to welcome me and take me upstairs to Jennifer. She’s accommodating and friendly and we bond over the wonderful office view of the High. Shortly after, Jennifer welcomes me in her bright office and offers her undivided attention. Her voice is firm and warm; during our interview, she looks me straight in the eyes and smiles often.
Born in the States, Jennifer moved to Germany when she was five. The four years she lived there had what she calls “a huge formative influence” on her. During German elementary school, she took the first step in her musical career by taking recorder lessons. Her exposure to the arts went further (and farther) since her parents were art-lovers and traveled with Jennifer and her sister around Europe to enjoy all the beautiful art the continent had to offer. When she was nine, the family moved to Hinesville, Georgia, where she began taking clarinet lessons. Why the clarinet, you ask? Her first choice, the trumpet, did not cooperate with her efforts; on the other hand, she found the clarinet’s appearance and sound novel and beautiful. She laughs as she explains that, since the clarinet is a key instrument in German orchestral music, she “must’ve seen it before.”
Along with her musical focus, she found a talent for math and was sure she wanted to become an engineer when she arrived at Emory as an undergrad, declaring physics as her primary major. When picking which Atlanta-based school she would attend, Jennifer vacillated between Georgia Tech and Emory, but chose the latter because she could study music with Laura Ardan, the then principal clarinetist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. While in college, she visited the ASO almost weekly. In a leap of faith, she switched to majoring in music with a minor in physics during her junior year.
“With a liberal arts education you can really go anywhere,” Jennifer explains as she recounts her winding undergraduate career. She encourages student to “keep an open mind.”
“Think about all the different strands of information you learn at Emory and absorb it, digest it, make it part of you, then use it all in the choices that you make and the work that you do. I find myself still looking back and plucking gems from the various things that I did while at Emory,” she says.
Her professors’ encouragement and her own passion for music led to Jennifer attending the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York where she got a M.A. in clarinet. While there, she founded The New Eastman Symphony, a student-lead orchestra. As the leader of the group, she learned that she enjoyed managing organizations. She soon was accepted into a fellowship program in orchestra management with The League of American Orchestras, which allowed her to shadow an executive director while he was working with groups in San Francisco, New Jersey and Detroit.
After her fellowship, Jennifer worked with symphonies in Detroit, Baltimore, Omaha and Kalamazoo. After this impressive string of positions, she became general manager for the Cleveland Symphony, one of the five American orchestras informally referred to as the “Big Five.” Her position there lead to an offer from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where she has been the executive director for nearly two years. She is happy to be back to a familiar place that taught her so much and grateful to be close to her family — including her parents, brother, musician-husband Ken and six year-old son David.
Placed under the Woodruff Arts umbrella, the ASO is part of a larger Atlanta arts system, gifting her “brilliant colleagues from the theater company and the art museum” that she interacts with on a regular basis.
The ASO was founded in 1945 as a youth orchestra before becoming a professional orchestra a few years later. It has had four musical directors in its history, each bringing a different viewpoint that shaped the orchestra that we know today. The second and longest-standing director was Robert Shaw, founder of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, a group that tours and records on its own. “It’s unbelievable given the fact that they are all volunteers, they don’t get paid to sing in the chorus. They are a real jewel of the institution,” says Jennifer.
Robert Spano, the current director, has a passion for contemporary music. Under his leadership, the Atlanta School of Composers was created – it custom-makes music for the orchestra. “Robert Spano and I are co-conspirators,” explains Jennifer. “He’s responsible for the orchestra hiring and its artistic operation, but I help facilitate everything that the orchestra does, making sure that they have everything they need to be a great ensemble.”
Jennifer admits that her work brings her a lot of joy.
“The orchestra itself and its impact in the country — I’m not sure everyone understands quite how highly esteemed ASO is as an artistic institution throughout the world — We have a great reputation not only for having a unique sound that was influenced by our various music directors, but also for having a real commitment to contemporary music, to really pushing the boundaries of our repertoire and bringing new works to life.”
“The orchestra has won 27 Grammy Awards for its recordings. That’s a lot more than any one artist in Atlanta – we’re really the most renowned musical institution in the city. The biggest, best thing that happened this year was the completion of our endowment. We had a goal to raise $25 million to support new positions in the orchestra, but thanks to the generosity of the community, we are on a hiring spree because we raised more than $27 million and we finished the campaign almost two years earlier than scheduled. It was a huge wind in the sails for the orchestra. At the end of next season, we’ll have 88 members.”
The musicians, including violinists, cellists and clarinetists, come from all over the world – the concert master himself is Norwegian. “Only the cream of the crop come to audition for the ASO. We’re one of the 20 most prominent large institutions in the country, and as a result, we attract only people that are interested in playing at a really high level and having really challenging work environments where they get to work with great leaders such as Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles [ASO’s Principal Guest Conductor].”
How does a regular work day look for Jennifer? Her time is split across different areas. She manages the internal institution through staff meetings, conversations with individual team members, anabout strategic planning and hiring. She also reaches out to people externally –donors, community members, influencers, leaders– and gets them interested about the Symphony’s activities. Lastly, she is involved in the planning of the artistic endeavors of the orchestra.
“In addition to classical programming, the orchestra has a long history of entrepreneurship. Besides playing Bach and Beethoven and Mahler and all these great symphonic works, they also play a good amount of contemporary, popular music. For example, they played a concert with the music of John Williams from the Star Wars movies this summer at the Verizon Amphitheater. That’s always fun because people in the community dress up as the characters and they help make it a fantastic experience, especially for families and kids. We also play concerts for popular performers — for example, we’ll do a concert with the Indigo Girls (Emory’s own!) later this month, with Trey Anastasio from Phish and with Rufus Wainwright – popular performers whose music translates well to the orchestral idiom.”
This season, the orchestra will focus on the music of Bernstein and Beethoven –Bernstein, to honor his 100th birthday celebration August 2018 and the broad repertoire of genres he brought into the world; Beethoven, because the two musicians share a similar humanist view of the role of music in society. In addition, ASO will feature a film series with live orchestral accompaniment for the Harry Potter movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Jurassic Park and La La Land.
“People just don’t realize how integral orchestral music is to making great films great. We celebrate that by playing film soundtracks with the movie right there,” Jennifer says.
The ASO’s motto is “creating a world in concert” and Jennifer underlines the importance of music being an art form for everyone to explore and enjoy.
“My job is almost a religious quest for me – I love music, it changed my life. I would like for people to have a profound experience with music. Their lives will be better. It’s all about people reaching their full potential, as individuals and as a city, as a society, as a culture. What do we value, what type of city do we want to be? Do we want to have a culture that works for everyone, or one that provides inspiration for only a few? I’m very much on the former side. We’re here to make sure it’s possible, in perpetuity, for everyone to have the experience of good music. In the end, I want to be a good member of the society, to bring contributions to my family and successfully raise my son in a way that will make the world a better place. I want both myself and the ASO to be a part of the fabric of the city and to be a value to as many people in the community as possible. We want to be more stable financially, and more vibrant creatively.”
“For me, in my daily work, that’s a large part of why I’m here. A friend of mine told me recently, ‘80% of winning is showing up.’ In terms of where I go, who I talk to and what I do with my time, I think it’s all about showing up in the right place at the right time, being part of the dialogue that will remind people that the symphony is here for you, or in the case of the orchestra, for them to know that I’m on the same page, that I’m here to support them.”
Which musician’s talent and skills reframed Jennifer’s passion for music? She mentions Yo-Yo Ma, who will also be a featured musician for the ASO in the upcoming year.
“He’s a great cellist but he’s also a really fine thinker and reacher-out. I think he once said this to someone, and he also very much exemplifies it: he’s not here to serve the music, but to serve people by playing his music as beautifully as he can. For him, every performance is about communication. He’s trying to give a gift to the audience, a gift of inspiration, and he’s playing in a way that touches people deeply. He’s done many things across cultures – he doesn’t care about boundaries or music that is popular or classical – it’s all just music to him and connection with people. Yo-yo talked about the ‘edge effect.’ On the African savannah, the place where you start to see the most interesting variations of species is at the edge between territories. Likewise, different cultures come together and start behaving differently. The same is true with different kinds of music: when you bring together different cultures, you come out with a much more fertile, new and innovative way of making music.”
She advises art students and aspiring artists to expose themselves to as much art as possible. “This world needs a lot more human expression and an openness to sharing our human enthusiasm for what we do. Make art as much as you can, and as personal as you can. Talk about your art, talk about your passion.”
By Loli Lucaciu