San Diego Symphony gets a leader
By David Dixon
This has been a big year for the San Diego Symphony. Not only was last season’s Summer Pops concert series the most successful one to date, but Martha Gilmer was named the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Symphony this fall. The new chief executive was able to find time to participate in a phone interview during an otherwise busy week for the hard-working music lover.
Gilmer said her passion for music started when she began taking piano lessons at the age of four.
“I played the piano through the beginning of college, but I realized I wasn’t meant to spend time alone in a practice room,” she said. “I really love to be with people and organize things.”
This epiphany eventually led to a degree in music and arts administration, which included an internship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a place she called her “professional home” for the next 35 years.
“I was the vice president for artistic planning and audience development,” she said of her role at the Windy City orchestra house. “My real passion was connecting audience members with the music itself.”
After learning about San Diego Symphony’s search for a new CEO and hearing positive comments about the orchestra from colleagues, she visited America’s Finest City to be interviewed for the position. Gilmer was offered the job and said she already feels San Diego is “quickly becoming home.”
Shortly after taking over, Gilmer was able to see a musical-themed performance during the Symphony’s highly popular Summer Pops series, called “Broadway Tonight.”
“I am delighted it was such a successful summer,” she said. “I think the quality of the experience has to do with the increase in attendance.”
Gilmer believes the Pops season has a lot to offer, from its picturesque location to the eclectic programming. These aspects, along with such high quality live music, result in “the total package” experience for attendees.
“It has become iconic and more people do not want to miss these events in the summer,” she said.
Part of the reason Gilmer has so naturally eased into her position is her admiration for the musical artists involved with the Symphony.
“This is a really fine ensemble made up of highly trained individuals,” she said. “I really look at this orchestra as a beacon both within the community and what an orchestra can be for the 21st century.”
Although the current 2014-15 season of entertainment was planned before Gilmer was brought on board, there are a lot of musicians on the schedule she is looking forward to seeing perform.
“Louie Lortie will be playing in November, and he is a fantastic pianist,” she said. “He will be playing an unusual, but fascinating concerto from Camille Saint-Saens, ‘The Egyptian.’”
Gilmer said that Saint-Saens wrote the composition while vacationing in Luxor, and that the music features influences from a variety of locations around the world.
“Lortie is the kind of pianist that loves to present something that is unfamiliar to many, but sounds completely engaging,” she said.
Another performance Gilmer is anticipating is “Ling Conducts Mahler,” which features the Southern California premiere of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 in E Minor.
“Mahler created a work of huge emotional impact, and his music takes the audience on a journey of life,” she said.
Gilmer is equally enthusiastic about the possibilities for the Symphony and already has ideas where her impact can be felt over the course of the next decade.
“One of the things that is important for our audience is to make people really aware about what this orchestra does do and can do,” she said. “For instance, our musicians perform in smaller groups within the community, which people should be aware of.”
Gilmer believes the passion the players have for being members of a dedicated group is vital.
“Someone said not so long ago that you can’t have a great city without a great orchestra; but I would also add that a great orchestra significantly contributes to a vibrant, cultural community.”
Though the Symphony has already been having an exceptional year, Gilmer hopes to attract even more new fans in the future.
“The biggest reason to give a concert at the Symphony a try, is that it is going to enrich one’s life,” she said. “Some people are apprehensive about going to a performance, because they think they do not know enough to appreciate it.
I hope to start a first timer’s event, because I have had experiences where attendees were unsure whether they would like going to a concert, due to the complexity of the music. I can assure you that the music at the Symphony is not intended to intimidate; the music is meant to evoke emotion.”
For more information about the San Diego Symphony, visit sandiegosymphony.org.
—A fan of film and theatre from a very young age, David Dixon has written reviews and features for various print and online publications and is currently a student at San Diego State. You can reach him at email@example.com.