Making Beautiful Music

Alan Jordan helps the beat go on

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Alan JordanAlan Jordan, executive director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, has a knack for finding and following his muse. In 1999, it led him home to the state he’d left 20 years earlier to pursue his education in music.

It’s possible that being executive director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra is Alan Jordan’s ideal job. That’s good news for Vermont, because at one time he dreamed of eventually being manager of the Boston symphony.

“I’m not sure I have that dream any more,” he says. That’s partly because, with larger orchestras, “there’s a distance, in many cases, between the musicians and the executive director. You also are separated from your staff in a lot of ways.”

He would also miss his relationship with Jaime Laredo, the orchestra’s music director. “There are so many war stories of tense relationships between executive directors and music directors,” he says. “Jaime is a prince among music directors — a peach.”

Sure, Jordan says, the size of the orchestra — 55 full-time musicians — and the small, $1.5 million budget are challenges, limiting available resources. “The frustration is we only do 40 orchestral concerts a year, and that 40 is only about a dozen different programs, because we do two statewide tours. On the other hand, it allows everybody, especially me, to be able to keep my fingers dirty in a lot of areas.”

On any day, he might be working on sponsorship for next year or envisioning the next summer’s tour schedule or working on the Masterwork series for the 2008-09 season.

If Jordan has any frustration, it’s that he spends more time than he would like trying to raise money and not as much time as he would like analyzing. “I’m one of those sick people who love to play in Excel, making real expenses and income connect back to the budget somehow.

He also enjoys being involved in artistic planning, something executive directors don’t do in larger orchestras.

When Jordan was hired in December 1998, he wasn’t exactly a stranger here. Although he was born in Edgewater Park, N.J., his family moved to Newport when he was a senior in high school, having followed friends who bought the East Charleston Country Store.

His parents decided not to become partners in that venture, he says, “but we got the Vermont bug; left the rat race of suburbia; and I went on to graduate from North Country Union High School.”

His father, a mechanical engineer in civil service for the Air Force, commuted for a while, although he was present for ice hockey games and band performances, says Jordan.

“The week I left to go to the New England Conservatory in Boston, my parents closed on the Miss Newport Diner; they owned that for 10 years.”

Jordan went to study voice — his bachelor of music is in vocal performance — but in his freshman year, work-study introduced him to concert hall work.

Vermont Symphony performs in Okemo, Vt.The VSO performs about 40 orchestra concerts a year, but only about a fifth of them in Burlington. This photo was taken at a July 2007 concert at Okemo.

An early job his sophomore year was stage-managing a concert for the Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players. When the manager of the chamber players called later asking if he would be interested in working at Tanglewood in the summer, it was a no-brainer for Jordan.

“Shortly thereafter,” he says, grinning, “when I saw some of my colleague vocal majors spending their day jobs working in food service and living on tuna fish, I realized maybe vocal wasn’t the way to go.”

He spent nine summers at Tanglewood, and after graduation in 1983, also worked full time for the conservatory, where a job had been created for him, doing house management for the concert hall and running the musical instrument library.

In 1985, he married fellow voice student Karen Lacroix. “We were two, as I call them, throats,” he says.

In 1987, Jordan took his first full-time orchestra job doing production with the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in Melbourne, Fla. “I dragged my New England wife down there to suffer with the scorpions and the heat for five years,” he groans. Within a year, the manager became pregnant and resigned, and the board offered him the position.

In 1992, he landed the job of orchestra manager with the New Hampshire Symphony in Manchester. He and Karen were happy to return to New England. A few years into that job, his boss moved on, and he was again named executive director.

Toward the end of 1998, Jordan learned about the opening for executive director in Vermont. “We were pretty happy in New Hampshire,” he says, “but the VSO had a consultant, Nick Webster, the retired manager of the New York Philharmonic and a flying buff, who called me and said, ‘Let’s talk.’”

In a meeting at Manchester Airport, Jordan “heard about some of the cool things going on in Vermont,” he says.

“I learned that Jaime Laredo, this unbelievable world talent, happened to live in Vermont, and he had agreed to be kind of a transition person [following Kate Tamarkin], with hope that a transition could be forged. I thought, ‘This is sounding more interesting all the time.’”

The board made the offer and, in 1999, he and his family moved to Vermont.

The education program and the quality of the orchestra were the major factors in his decision to come here, says Jordon. “The VSO Symphony Kids is the most pervasive program of any orchestra in the country. We regularly reach 60 percent of the communities in our state, between 40 and 50 percent of all elementary and middle school students in the state.

“When I hear the New York Philharmonic issue a press release saying, ‘Gee, we reach 10,000 New York schoolchildren,’ I think, ‘Well, we reach 25,000 Vermont schoolchildren over 9,609 square miles, and we only have 320 miles of Interstate.”

His third reason was “the support this orchestra receives, from the state, individuals, foundations and businesses.”

The VSO was the first orchestra in the country to have a line item in its state budget, he says, “back in 1939 when the VSO asked for money to send the orchestra to the World’s Fair in New York. This coming year, we’re going to get about $122,000 and change.” That’s about 8 percent of the annual operating budget.

VSO staff members mug for the cameraVSO staff members mug for the camera. From left: Mike Peluse, development director; Ann Fingar, office manager; Eleanor Long, orchestra manager; Rebecca Stone, development associate. In front: Rebecca Kopycinski, production and marketing assistant.

Richard Schneider, president of Norwich University, who sits on the VSO board and who, Jordan says, has become something of a mentor for him, praises Jordan’s “unique combination of being a very good musician, but also a good businessman and a wonderful advocate for the VSO. No job is too large or too small; if he sees a gap in something that needs to happen, he just makes it happen.”

This was clear in the way Jordan took advantage of his “honeymoon period” to address a couple of challenges. The organization had taken on two new major artistic projects.

First, because the single-night concerts were selling out all of the Flynn’s 1,400 seats, a second concert had been added. The result, says Jordan, was selling 1,700 or 1,800 seats, “so instead of one full hall, we had two not-nearly-full halls.”

The second financial challenge was a summer concert series in Manchester that didn’t succeed, most likely because of schedule conflicts with other presenting organizations and the seasonal nature of some of the population.

Early in the winter of 2000, to address these financial challenges, the VSO cut staff and eventually eliminated the two programs.

Jordan led the board into a self-evaluation process, which then led to a planning process that generated a 10-year program. That takes the VSO into the 75th anniversary season in 2009-10. Recently, a restructuring of the statewide governing board and the addition of two regional boards to the existing four, was announced. These regional volunteers can use their connections to bring a local flavor to symphony contacts.

An important job for volunteers is the housing and feeding of musicians, which, Jordan says, is “really unique in the orchestra world. Usually an orchestra that’s traveling is put up in a Motel 6, they go to McDonald’s for dinner and get paid $20 per diem. Here, the orchestra musicians traveling stay in people’s homes and get a bed, bathroom and breakfast in the morning.

“If the family isn’t there for the weekend, the musician knows where the key is and is sometimes asked to feed the dog.”

Supporting the organization is a staff of five full-timers, a freelance bookkeeper and a newly created, three-quarter-time position of development associate recently filled by Rebecca Stone, the former executive director of the Vermont Mozart Festival.

Stone speaks highly of Jordan. “One of the things I appreciate is that he is very relaxed and does not micromanage. I feel like I’ve been given a blessing and the freedom to do the things I need to get my job done.”

Eleanor Long, the orchestra manager, carries the institutional memory. Long started with the VSO in 1974 as second oboe under the VSO’s first conductor, Alan Carter. She began doing part-time office work, first as librarian, and eventually went full-time. In 1983, she retired from the oboe chair.

“The orchestra is my life,” she says. “I’ve seen managers, staff and board members come and go. Now, we’ve got the most amazing team. They’re good at what they do.”

Jordan has a contagious zest for life. Although he laughs and says, ‘I mow the lawn!’ when asked about his hobbies, he quickly confesses that he is an avid baseball fan. For seven years, he has coached Little League in Charlotte, where he and his family live. “I’m a diehard Red Sox fan,” he adds, “and I love the Phillies.”

His 17-year-old daughter, Katie, will be a senior at Vergennes Union High School, where she tuitions in with her mother, the chorus teacher there. Katie is a budding French horn player, says Jordan. “She plays with the Vermont Youth Orchestra, but she did not go to China, because she’s down in D.C. with the National Symphony Orchestra Summer Music Institute. She also plays piano and sings pretty nicely. She’s planning on pursuing music in college.”

Christopher, 11 and entering sixth grade at Mater Christi in Burlington, plays trombone, piano, baseball and basketball.

Jordan also finds time for music — playing tuba with the Vergennes City Band. He joined a few years ago because Katie was going to play, “and it was before she had her driver’s license.” He even persuaded Mike Peluse, development director and a French horn player, to join the band.

Even though Katie’s no longer there, “we’re having a blast!” Jordan exclaims. “It’s a Vermont experience like no other. I’m struck by how many people in the Vergennes City Band also play in the Hinesburg band and the Bristol band.

“This is a good sign for the VSO,” he adds, returning, as always, to the orchestra, “because what they have learned on the national level is that 70 percent of people who attend orchestra concerts have at one time played musical instruments.” •