Classical musicians find themselves happily homeless
Janna Hymes and her Maine Pro Musica orchestra are always on the road, bringing classical music to the far, underserved corners of the state.
ROCKPORT — When Janna Hymes looks at orchestras around the country that are failing under the weight of financial pressure, one thing she notices they have in common is layered administrations.
There often is an executive director, an artistic director and a staff to attend to the orchestra’s every need — production, marketing, development and so on.
When she began the Rockport-based Maine Pro Musica orchestra in 2008, Hymes decided to dispatch the red tape. With the help of a small volunteer board, she runs the orchestra from an upstairs room in her marvelously restored 1850s home that very nearly overlooks Rockport Harbor.
“The model for the large orchestras can work. But if it’s not working — if every cog in the wheel is not working in unison with the others — you get off track and things fall apart,” said Hymes, a former Fulbright scholar who moved to Maine in 2000 after stints as associate conductor at the Indianapolis Symphony and resident conductor of the Charlotte (N.C.) Symphony.
“But our model is so easy. We are completely free of administrative bureaucracy.”
Maine Pro Musica is unique. It is a professional orchestra whose members all live and work in Maine. As artistic director and founder, Hymes handles just about everything. She hires the musicians, programs the music, conducts the concerts and helps raise the $100,000 or so that she needs to keep the orchestra afloat.
While the 55-member orchestra is based on the midcoast, it has no home. Hymes models Maine Pro Musica after those turn-of-century bands that traveled by rail and steamship, playing in small communities across rural America.
The mode of transportation has changed, but the orchestra prides itself on bringing music to communities that rarely get to hear live orchestral music. Last summer, Maine Pro Musica played concerts in Ellsworth, Rockland, Damariscotta and Fryeburg.
Musicians are paid about $85 per service, which includes both performance and rehearsals. They carpool around the state, vehicles packed to the gills with instruments and gallivanting merry musicians.
BRINGING MUSIC TO THE PEOPLE
“This orchestra has a strong commitment to get into areas where people do not have a lot of live music, and orchestral music on top of that. We are giving them access to music they might not have otherwise,” said Dana Lundy of Gardiner, who plays the violin.
In addition to her paid gig with Maine Pro Musica, Lundy plays with the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra as a volunteer. She had a blast touring Maine last summer, and particularly enjoyed the concert at The Grand in Ellsworth.
“The audience was really tiny, but the front row was filled with at least one, if not two, families. They were young children, some of whom were watching their violin instructor, who was part of the orchestra,” Lundy said. “Those children I am sure do not get a chance to see her play on stage in an orchestra like this. It was quite an experience.”
“We can do what Portland and Bangor cannot do,” Hymes said, referencing the state’s two best-known professional orchestras. “We can go into the small communities and fill a void.”
Hymes is busy preparing the orchestra’s annual holiday pops concert, set for Dec. 17 at the 826-seat Strom Auditorium at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport. But she has her eyes firmly set on next year. In 2011, Maine Pro Musica will play five concerts. For 2012, her goal is 10 concerts.
The key to the success of Maine Pro Musica is two-fold, said David Bannister of Rockport, the orchestra’s board president. First and foremost is Hymes herself. She has an engaging personality and dynamic enthusiasm, he said. She motivates musicians, and is able to rally support within a community.
That latter trait feeds the second element of the orchestra’s success: Community partnerships. Maine Pro Musica goes where people want it, based on the ability of community groups to raise money to pay the musicians.
The holiday pops concert offers an example. Hymes handles all the programming, which is no small feat given the scope of the show. In addition to the musicians, the concert will involve three choirs, two soloists and a dance troupe.
United Mid-Coast Charities, which raises money for charities across the region, sponsors the concert and reaps the financial benefits. It handles ticket sales and helps promote the show. This is its third year, and organizers expect a quick sellout.
It’s a perfect partnership, said Bannister. United Mid-Coast Charities uses it as a major fundraiser, and the concert exposes the orchestra to a wide, family-oriented audience.
Hymes came to Maine to raise a family. She has two sons, now ages 14 and 18. She wanted to live in a rural area that offered good educational and recreation opportunities for her boys. A New Yorker, she had come to Maine as a child for camp, and always harbored the idea of coming back.
She did not intend to make music here. She had just finished her gig in Indianapolis and was looking for conducting work elsewhere. She eventually found it in Williamsburg, Va., as music director of the Williamsburg Symphonia.
Hymes began that job in 2004, and it remains her bread-and-butter musical pursuit today. She loves her work in Virginia, and travels there several times each year for concerts.
But her home is in Maine.
After establishing herself in the community, Hymes began itching for musical opportunities here. She worked as music director of Maine Grand Opera from 2000 to 2005, and began Maine Pro Musica in 2008.
“I’m busy with Williamsburg from September to May. I was looking for something to do in the summer, and the Camden Library called,” she said. “They wanted to do a kids concert in the park, and asked if I would be interested. I saw it as a golden opportunity, so I put an orchestra together for a family concert of ‘Peter and the Wolf.’ ”
The holiday concert followed at Camden Opera House, and it was a huge success — so much so that Hymes moved it to the much-larger Strom.
After this early success in the summer and at the holidays, Hymes thought to herself, “I think I’ve got something here.”
She formed a board, incorporated Maine Pro Musica as a nonprofit for the purpose of fundraising, and began exploring options. As she surveyed musical opportunities around the state, she realized that the single biggest void was a touring orchestra.
Portland and Bangor have established orchestras, but their logistics prevent them from going on the road. Because Maine Pro Musica has minimal administrative costs, Hymes realized she might have the perfect vehicle for bringing music to small communities.
“When you look around at places like Rockland and Fryeburg, they’re showing the Met in HD. The chamber festivals are well supported. People love classical music,” she said. “But there are no orchestras. I thought, ‘Let’s see if we can pull this off.’ ”
‘PLEASE COME AGAIN’
It has proven to be a building process. Audiences for first-time concerts are small. but when the orchestra pulls out of town, the emails come in.
“When are you coming back?”
“We loved the concert.”
“Thank you for coming to our town.”
“Please come again.”
In 2012, Hymes hopes to return to each community where she brought the orchestra this year, and then some.
In May, she plans to work with the funk band Motor Booty Affair at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center. The orchestra has secured a Maine Community Foundation grant to commission a new piece of music to be used in an educational concert and multi-media presentation about water. That project, called Waterways, will involve raising about $50,000 to create a program that can tour statewide.
Coincidentally, Hymes is also an old friend of folk musician Bela Fleck. They went to high school together.
Fleck, who plays the banjo, has written orchestral music, and is talking to Hymes about coming to Maine to present music with Maine Pro Musica.
“We’re taking baby steps,” Hymes said. “But we’re definitely moving forward. We are building something here that is pretty special and unique.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photographs Tim Greenway