Symphony San José took two steps into the future this month. The organization announced both its 20th-anniversary season and a new general director, Robert Massey, who will take over from the orchestra’s founding director Andrew Bales.
Bales was previously an executive with Cleveland Ballet, which was in partnership with the now-defunct Ballet San José. When the original San José Symphony shut down, the ballet was without an orchestra and the resourceful Bales founded another, partially to fill that role. The orchestra and the ballet became separate entities in 2002 and Bales became chief of the new symphony, then called Symphony Silicon Valley.
Under Bales, the orchestra took advantage of a deep pool of Bay Area musicians to build a quality ensemble, Bales expanded the funding and advertising steadily, and committed to a European system of guest conductors and no music director. There’s a diversity of conductors and soloists both this year and in the coming season that is unusual for an orchestra that is financially in the third tier of American orchestras, according to the League of American Orchestras scale (annual budget is around $4 million).
But Bales presided over a hugely successful, complete live presentation of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2015), which involved more than 250 musicians, and all of the Harry Potter movies (2017–2021), and he had programmed the recently cancelled Dragon Ball Z extravaganza, comprising both music for the video game and the movie.
In fact, keeping his orchestra abreast of entertainment trends was a priority for Bales, who has been determined to make Symphony San José earn its keep. He told SFCV that originally, compared with the recently defunct orchestra, he lowered the number of concerts the new orchestra played while increasing ticket prices by about 15 percent across the board, and never received any audience pushback. With a touch of understandable pride, he mentioned that Symphony San José has always had one of the highest pay rates for musicians per service among organizations in the Bay Area. And yet, the orchestra earns an astounding 65 percent or more of its income from ticket sales and other earned revenue. For the average orchestra, that number is around 35-40 percent. The setup for the incoming director is enviable, but the orchestra world being what it is, there are surely challenges to be met.
Robert Massey, the search committee’s choice, comes with a resume heavy with equivalent experience. His 25-year career includes stints at the Jacksonville Symphony, Opera Festival of Chicago, Louisville Orchestra, Orchestra Iowa, and the Washington Bach Consort. He has co-founded the Opera Festival of Chicago, Iris Orchestra, and Opus Concert Café. As a leader, he has commissioned new work from compositions to stage productions — over 50 works in total — and has run two arts venue construction projects and led multimillion dollar fundraising campaigns. On paper, he seems like the candidate with the balance of experience and vision that this orchestra was looking for.
Meanwhile, the orchestra’s season focuses heavily on star soloists on a variety of instruments, as well as adding three new-to-San José conductors to the roster. The heavy hitters are present right off the bat, when trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth jets in to play the virtuosic concerto by mid-20th-century composer Henri Tomasi (Oct. 1 and 2). Conducted by Andrés Cárdenas, who, like Helseth, is making his San José debut, the concert also includes Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture, Maurice Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin, and Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish.”
A young star, English violist Timothy Ridout is next up, performing Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Suite for Viola and a Niccolo Paganini sonata, while conductor Tito Munoz leads Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Ballade in A Minor and Felix Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony (Oct. 22-23). Jo Ann Falletta returns to San José along with cellist Julian Schwarz for Eduard Lalo’s Cello Concerto, with Joaquin Turina’s Danzas fantásticas and Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 rounding out the concert (Dec. 3 and 4).
Another new-to-San José conductor, Jayce Ogren takes the baton in the new year with flutist Denis Bouriakov as soloist in an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. That gets some points for new and unusual. Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 7 and Igor Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes complete the bill (Jan. 21–22, 2023).
Feb. 9–12 brings Cinema Paradiso in concert, with the orchestra playing the famous Ennio Morricone score; then plays Jon Nakamatsu plays Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, the first work he ever played with this orchestra. Aram Demirjian, another new face, also conducts David Amram’s Jhaptal and Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 (March 18–19). Violinist Anne Akiko Meyers brings Arturo Marquez’s concerto Fandango, fresh from its Hollywood Bowl premiere, and conductor Tatsuya Shimono leads Gerald Finzi’s Prelude for String Orchestra in F Minor, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 (May 6–7). As usual, The Symphony San José Chorale, under Elena Sharkova, joins the orchestra for the big finale, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, featuring the Cantabile Youth Choir, soprano Maria Valdes, tenor Martin Bakari, and a baritone yet to be announced. Carlos Vieu has the honor of taking the last bow of the season from the podium (June 3–4).
As usual, the orchestra’s concerts are all in the California Theatre, and every program has an evening performance and a matinee. Tickets will shortly be available on the orchestra’s website.