After a long process of national searching, committee meetings, interviews and a small inconvenience named Harvey, Houston Symphony has finally found its new CEO. John Mangum comes to Houston with almost two decades experience in the classical music world – most recently as president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.
You come to Houston Symphony with a background as an artistic director. How will that influence what you bring to the organization?
I think it’s important to always think about the audience experience and what the orchestra is doing to engage its audience. For me, that’s an artistic question. The first Houston Symphony concert I attended with Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducting was part of the search process and it opened with a piece by Charles Ives. Ives can be a little bit dense, and sometimes it’s hard for an audience to get into the music. Andrés did such a brilliant job of having the audience find a way into this tricky music. The performance was superlative, but the audience was deeply engaged in a piece many times people just endure! That for me was a real artistic success. I saw instantly the organization was in great artistic health. You can really build on that.
Houston Symphony is working to become “the most relevant and accessible top 10 orchestra” in America by 2025. What does this mean to you and how are you planning to help the Symphony achieve this vision?
It’s a combination of artistic excellence and being thoughtful about the programming. I think continuing to do projects that push the boundaries of classical music will keep Houston Symphony at the cutting edge of what an orchestra can do that is meaningful and has real impact for its audiences. I think it’s important for the Symphony to be reflective of its community in its programming. A question we constantly have to ask ourselves is: how are we reflective of this great, vibrant, diverse city of Houston in what we put on the stage?
What are you most excited to accomplish at Houston Symphony?
I think I’m just excited to be in the office and get down to work. And of course I’m really excited to have the chance to work with Andrés and the musicians.
You recently joined the orchestra on their European Tour. What was that like and had you met any staff or orchestra members before joining them on tour?
This was the first chance I’d gotten to spend a major amount of time with the musicians, some of the patrons who helped support the tour, and of course Andrés was there as well. My favorite part of the tour was Vienna. It’s the beating heart of classical music. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and many great musicians made their careers in Vienna. To go there as an orchestra and to perform, the stakes are high. Our orchestra played at the absolute highest level and they were received with an overwhelming ovation from the audience in Vienna. And this is an audience that hears the greatest orchestras in the world week in and week out! The Houston Symphony was second to none that night.
Moving from California to Houston must be quite an adjustment. What was it about this city and organization that guided your decision to make the big move?
There’s always some adjustment. One of the things I really like about Houston as a first impression is the people seem really friendly and welcoming. It seems like a place that will be fairly easy to adjust to. Houston has its own unique identity – I can feel that already. We’re really looking forward to immersing ourselves in everything the city has to offer.
The Houston Symphony board was conducting the nationwide search to fill the CEO position when Hurricane Harvey flooded Jones Hall and the Theater District. What was your reaction to seeing how the organization responded to the natural disaster? Did it make you apprehensive about the challenges you might face should you get the job?
I had my first conversation with the search committee in November, but I had tracked closely what the orchestra did in the aftermath of Harvey: moving its concerts over to Rice University in Stude Hall at no charge, the musicians taking it on their own initiative to go out into the community and play for people who were affected by the hurricane, and so much more. All of that was so impressive and such a wonderful response to terrible adversity. It sent the absolute right message. It was genuine – they were doing it because it was the right thing to do. It strengthened the impression I had that this was a great organization.
Do you have any hidden talents?
Well, I have a 10-year-old boy who likes to play video games – specifically Mario Kart. So for a middle-aged dad I’m pretty good. I give him some competition.
What’s the last thing you watched on TV?
I just watched both seasons of Stranger Things and really liked it! As a child of the 1980s it really spoke to a cultural sensibility formed by Steven Spielberg and horror movies and that sort of thing.