A trained opera singer, Jessica Mallow has survived her first winter as a Michigander, moving from Florida to lead Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. She stepped into the role of executive director in early December as the orchestra prepares for its 100th anniversary season in 2020 – 2021.
After a national search, Mallow was hired for her experience and expertise in nonprofit arts management, development, and community involvement. She previously served as director of business partnerships at Jacksonville Symphony and held positions with other colleges and arts organizations around the country.
Mallow, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recalled the event that led her to a career in arts administration: a catastrophic flood in Cedar Rapids in 2008 caused 19 feet of water to flood the stage of Orchestra Iowa’s performance space.
She remembers the scene in her hometown and the community that came together to rebuild the historic theater. Mallow will never forget the night the symphony returned to the renovated hall.
“With Harry Connick Jr. on the stage, a sold-out hall and no dry eyes in the house, we’d brought the symphony back home. We’d brought the music back. It was as though a light switched in my mind, and I knew that this was what I would dedicate my life to: bringing music to communities. This — music, the arts — gives people a reason to come together and a reason for being.”
Tell us a bit about your background in the arts.
As a child, I always was drawn to classical music. When I discovered a track of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on our family computer, I would dance around the living room attempting to conduct. At 7 years old, my dad took the leap and brought me to my first symphony concert — magical! I begged for piano lessons and began my lifelong musical journey. When I discovered my singing voice a bit later, I turned to study classical voice and proceeded to be an operatic voice major in college.
But I also studied marketing. That was the “backup plan.” I performed professionally as a mezzo-soprano during college and after, but I fell into my first orchestra job as a happy accident just after graduating college. I’d just sung a show with Orchestra Iowa and was grateful to have been offered a position to stay and join the team for the summer. Realizing that my music and business skills had found a way to align, I quickly discovered how much I loved working with symphonies.
What interested you in leading the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra?
I’d heard about the incredible Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in the national arts community. Its programs, such as Orchestra Rouh — a free, year-round music program serving children of refugee families and recent immigrants newly resettled in Kalamazoo — had made national news. I was eager to use my background and skills in such an inclusive, vibrant community. It’s been an interesting adjustment, joining Michigan winters from sunny Florida, but the warm hearts make up for the cold air!
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
Outside of the symphony hall, you’d find me caring for our dozens of house plants! We love to care for and collect all kinds of plants — a little tropical presence in our new Midwestern home! My fiancé, Ben Gulley, is an opera singer, too; luckily, I can continue my love of opera by regularly hearing his amazing tenor talents on stages across the country. We travel frequently, which we absolutely love, and occasionally, you’ll hear me sing at a community event, sometimes with Ben.
What is your favorite symphonic work and why?
It’s a tie between Vaughan Williams’ “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus” and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for very different reasons. The Vaughan Williams work, if you’ve not heard it, uses folk melody to bring you on the most beautiful, storied journey. I’ve always been drawn to the folk melodies that made us, and this piece speaks to me on so many levels. The Beethoven piece is a tale of great joy overcoming struggle. This is something we all know in our own ways, our own stories. It’s one of the greatest works ever written.
What are your short-TERM and long-term goals for the symphony?
Our mission is to serve our community through outstanding listening and learning experiences. We focus our goals around making symphonic music part of everyday life. By listening to and engaging with the community, we’re growing, as ever, to meet the needs of the people here.
This includes partnering with other local organizations and artists to create new collaborations that uniquely use live, symphonic music, and music education programs that bring the joy of music and creative learning to a new generation of students.
Working with the incredible maestro, Julian Kuerti, our programming brings the great symphonic masterworks to our own stages, along with other collaborations and performances that introduce new works. By opening these new artistic doors and being present throughout the community, we hope new to find new listeners across the region joining us for performances.
What are the biggest challenges facing the organization and the symphonic world in general?
It’s a challenging time for many different types of arts nonprofits in this national environment, but the arts have and will continue to prevail in the face of any challenges; communities need live music. As we’re seeing during and after this difficult time of pandemic, music brings people together in many ways, across nations. Generally, competition in the entertainment or live music industry, changing audiences and rising concert costs affect our industry every day. Symphonies rely heavily on the support of their communities to make our music possible. As we continue to discover that, scientifically, live music positively affects learning and the brain, I hope that we can continue to unlock new ways to serve our communities and enhance learning in young generations.
Next year is KSO’s 100th anniversary season. Can you offer a hint at what is to come?
In our centennial year, with plenty of surprises along the way, you can expect a special festival celebrating one of our favorite composers who is turning 250 years old, the “Resurrection” of one of the greatest symphonic works by Mahler, and some incredible guest artists and special guests. Not to mention, a very memorable 100th anniversary celebration and concert.
For those who have never been to the symphony, why should they attend a concert and give it a try?
Symphonic performances can often have a stigma about them: how people should dress, when to clap, how to experience the evening. We’re here to break those barriers. For anyone joining us at the symphony for the first time, we hope you’ll relax in your seat and let the music take you wherever it will. It’s an experience like nothing else, listening to a live symphony, a break from our daily lives. When you purchase a ticket, you extend support to the working musicians of our country and help sustain the arts for all to come.
Is there anything else you would like to say or want readers to know about you?
Marcel Duchamp famously said, “What art is, in reality, is this missing link, not the links which exist. It’s not what you see that is art; art is the gap.”
I believe that this is why we need music in our lives. Music is that which draws us together from the gaps in our lives; music connects us. I try to bring a positive spirit to my work every day, and I hope that in some way this spirit can help us, at the KSO, to bring a positive spirit to the lives of all of those who join us in — and out — of the concert halls.