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October 30, 2017
On the record

Portland Symphony strikes a chord with the community

Photo / Tim Greenway
Photo / Tim Greenway
Carolyn Nishon, executive director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra since 2015, at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland.

Founded in 1923, the Portland Symphony Orchestra is the largest performing arts organization in Maine and regarded as one of the country's top regional orchestras. Carolyn Nishon has served as executive director since 2015.

Nishon has been with the symphony since 2008 and holds bachelor of arts degrees in English and psychology from the University of Michigan, where she was publicity director and executive director for the student-run Michigan Pops Orchestra. During her third season as the PSO's executive director, the 32-year-old has a front-row seat to the search for a successor to long-time music director Robert Moody.

Mainebiz: What's new and exciting this season?

Carolyn Nishon: There are two key things that make this season very special. No. 1 is that it's Robert Moody's tenth and final season, so we are really focusing on celebrating him, looking back at his last 10 years, and recognizing the great progress that's been made. The organization has been operating in the black for nine consecutive seasons, and there are a lot of things that have to do with that success, but that began when Robert began here. The other really exciting thing happening this season is the search for a new music director.

MB: How did you decide on the public audition process?

CN: When Robert let us know in 2015 that he was going to wrapping up his tenure this year, we said 'OK, time to pull a committee together.' We pulled together a team of five musicians as well as some community members, trustees, and two staff members to make up the search committee. Then we had to look inward and think about what we were looking for in our next music director. We talked to musicians and the board, and came up with a list of characteristics, which had to reflect our strategic plan.

MB: The strategic plan covers what time period?

CN: It started in 2010 and then it was renewed in 2014. It outlines our mission and where we want to go. We've made sure not to let it just sit on a shelf, it's been our compass. With all of that, we said, now we need to put together a job description and it has to reflect all of those years. Something that was really clear to us when we were looking at the old job description of 10 years prior when Robert was auditioning is that there were a lot of things we couldn't say at that time. We couldn't say we were a financially responsible organization and we couldn't say we had buy-in from the community. Our strategic plan centers on things like literacy and connecting people through music. That led us to create programs in the community that focus on all of that. All of those pieces filtered into the job posting and the description. Then we posted it to the world and got 240 applications back from men and women all over the world.

MB: How will you choose from the three finalists?

CN: The search committee will take all the information that we received over two years, and determine who is the right fit for the Portland Symphony, most likely at or near the end of this season. Our goal is to find the right and best fit to grow the orchestra and move it in the direction that fulfills our mission.

MB: And your longer-term goals?

CN: Making sure that we continue to grow, supporting our musicians and the artists and new works that we're commissioning, and making our programs as accessible as possible. One of my big goals is how when I walk out on the street and I ask somebody what they know about the Portland Symphony, that they might have some semblance of those three things that they would talk about. It's really important that people feel that their orchestra is doing that for their community.

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