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This article by Elaine Struass was prepared for the August 25, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New President, & New Direction for NJSO
Simon Woods, president of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) since the end of March, is a man of phenomenal discretion. His amazing prudence comes into view as he talks about his wide-ranging taste in music. After a brief run-through of his musical heroes, which run from the baroque to saxophonist John Coltrane, I attempt to probe the limits of what he likes by inquiring how he feels about music based on electronically generated sounds. He replies, "There are only two sorts of music: good music and less good music." When I point out that he didn’t declare the division to be good music and bad music, he says, "I was being tactful."
His wariness continues as I try to collect details about new directions in store for the NJSO. It seems like a no-brainer to look for changes of course. During the last six months the NJSO has installed a new top leadership. Woods was named president shortly after the orchestra appointed the distinguished Neeme Jarvi as its artistic director. An NJSO spokesman makes it clear that Woods is an insider’s insider. "Simon," he says, "is directly responsible, in conjunction with the Board of Trustees, for all activities of the orchestra." Yet, to every aspect of orchestral operations that I bring up, Woods says, "We’re working on it. Ask me in January." If you’re looking for a leak, cross Woods off your list.
Woods’ circumspection comes into play, also, when he asks an interviewer to refine questions. He waits for an inquiry, rather than initiating remarks, and likes to have the issue carefully spelled-out. Blurting and blithering are outside his style of rhetoric. He would make a meticulous trial lawyer.
Woods replaces Lawrence Tamburri, who has moved to the Pittsburgh Symphony. Artistic director Jarvi stipulated that he have the last say on Tamburri’s replacement, and he anointed Woods. Details of the 2005-’06 season will be announced in January, 2005; it is the first season that Jarvi and Woods will have actively planned.
Woods lets go of his caution when he talks about the NJSO’s new artistic director, its possession of the world’s largest concentration of 17th and 18th century string instruments in one orchestra, and the pleasures of New Jersey. About working with Jarvi, he volunteers, "We’re both passionately committed to artistic growth."
"The hiring of a world class conductor, plus acquiring the golden age instruments at about the same time, gives us an opportunity for the NJSO to be an ambassador for the culture of New Jersey well outside of New Jersey," says Woods. "It’s a little early to say how this will play out. We have the normal wishes, touring, and media exposure. We’re working on them, but there are major financial hurdles. The thing you can address easily is focusing on the identity of the NJSO. We have the unique confluence of a new conductor and the Golden Age instruments."
Clearly, this orchestra, like every other orchestra in its peer group, is facing acute financial challenges. Unlike some orchestras, the NJSO has everything lined up for a spurt of growth and development. The Golden Age instruments and the acquisition of Jarvi are part of a strategy for financial stability. These two extraordinarily bold steps forward take the organization to a place it hasn’t been before. "We’re approaching financial stability through artistic growth," says Woods. (The accumulated debt of the NJSO stands at $5.8 million.) Donors appreciate an organization on the move. The next task is getting the public to know about it.
"New Jersey has an amazing treasure in the NSJO," Woods says. "It’s one of the top 20 orchestras in the country. It’s an orchestra of great musicians. People don’t have to go to New York for music." With an annual budget of about $15 million, the NJSO falls into Group I, in the American Symphony Orchestra League’s ranking of orchestras. Group I consists of orchestras whose budgets exceed $13.5 million. "Though the NJSO is one of the smallest Group I orchestras budgetwise, its quality musically is far in excess of its reputation," Woods says.
"The NJSO has long suffered from the negative impression that faces so many New Jersey institutions," Woods says. "It’s fascinating how rich New Jersey is culturally, in natural beauty, and on a human level. It’s a diverse, very rich part of the country. But the message hasn’t always gotten out."
We consider the elephant in the room. It seems almost obligatory to give Woods a chance to comment on Herbert Axelrod, source of the Golden Age instruments, and his much publicized flight abroad in a cloud of allegations about irregularities with his federal taxes. The focal point where instruments meet taxes happens to converge on Axelrod, but the convergence shows no necessary connection. "I have nothing to say about Axelrod directly," Woods says. "My main goal is to reaffirm our belief and total conviction that we have acquired an amazing collection of instruments at a good price, which will have an inestimable effect on the orchestra."
Performing organizations exert a particular attraction for Woods. In the 1980s he was a corporate development officer for the London Philharmonic. From 1988 to 1997 he was a record producer with EMI Classics in London. "Though I loved my time in the record business, I was eager to get back to a performing arts organization," he says.
For seven years before coming to the NJSO, Woods was a senior administrator with the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he oversaw artistic planning and operations, touring, broadcasts, and recording. "The switch from Philadelphia," he says, "feels like the right career move. I’ve been very senior at a large organization. Now I’m running a smaller one." (With a budget of almost $40 annually, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s operation is almost three times as large as that of the NJSO.)
‘Philadelphia is one of the world’s greatest institutions. Its artistic quality is uncompromised. Those values really stick with you. Even before Philadelphia, when I was working at EMI as a classical record producer, it was the same values," says Woods. "The NJSO is positioned to make some giant leaps in international and national recognition. It is also poised for giant leaps in terms of artistic growth. My conviction about the importance of artistic quality is one of the reasons I came to New Jersey."
Woods knows orchestras. A faculty member of the American Symphony Orchestra League’s Orchestra Leadership Academy, he was one of the principals in a four-day seminar in late April. His presentations touched on using orchestral programming to create an institutional identity, as well as the business end of presenting programs. As for how the NJSO intends to use programming to further its institutional identity, Woods falls back on, "We’re working on the 2005-2006 season. Call me in January."
Woods is not unduly reticent when it comes to providing biographical information. An only child, born in 1964, he grew up in London. Music was part of the daily life in his family. His father, who took the lead, had what Woods calls "enormously eclectic" musical tastes. "He’s a culturally inquisitive person, interested in all the arts," Woods says of the recently-retired architect.
Woods remembers that at age five he spent hours in the attic listening to old 78s on his "wind-up gramophone" – and now and again his speech shows his British origin. The family attended concerts at London’s Royal Festival Hall. "There’s a tremendous importance in exposing young people to music," Woods says. "It’s an NJSO strategy I passionately believe in."
"I always loved orchestral music," Woods says. Among his earliest memories of listening to music are Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, Mozart’s "Prague" symphony, and Beethoven’s "Eroica."
"London is a very rich place musically," Woods says. "I used to hear the Proms concerts. We would camp outside Royal Albert Hall. The queues would form about lunch time for an evening concert. It would be particularly crowded when there was an important event, like a major orchestra from abroad. There was a culture of the queue. The Proms had the most adventurous and eclectic concerts. We were always hearing new composers. It was an amazing musical education."
Woods’ instruments are clarinet and piano. He was most active with clarinet playing before he went to university. He studied musicology as a member of Clare College, Cambridge, "a wide-ranging course," he calls it. "It went from how to write Renaissance polyphony, to studying Bach’s harmony, to the history and development of music," he says. "As a musicologist, I’m extraordinarily eclectic in my tastes. I’m very committed to new music. Cambridge gave me a broad background in music. I never lost that. I don’t have many blind spots."
"At university, I put my energy into musicology and conducting," Woods says. "I haven’t conducted for 15 – make that 20 – years, but I’m not ruling out the possibility that I might inflict myself on somebody again." After earning his Cambridge degree in 1985, he added to his credentials a diploma in conducting from London’s Guildhall School of Music.
In addition to his musicology and conducting, Woods is a composer. He has written chamber music and music for piano. He has been on the board of the American Composers’ Forum and is still a member of its Philadelphia chapter. He would like to write an orchestral piece. However, he is not likely to finish that project soon. "Composing is terribly time consuming," he says. "Running a $15 million organization and having two small children doesn’t allow time."
Woods is married to Karin Brookes, a journalist and writer, who edits the magazine of WRTI, the Temple University-based National Public Radio station that stresses classical music and jazz. In Princeton the place on the FM dial to catch it is 90.1.
The couple’s children are Barnaby, age five, and Isabel, age two. "They love music," Woods says. Like his father and grandfather, Barnaby shows every sign of having eclectic musical tastes, the father says proudly. Barnaby uses his Walkman when he goes to bed. "Sometimes he listens to Peter and the Wolf, sometimes it’s Beethoven symphonies, and sometimes it’s Pat Metheny, the jazz guitarist," Woods says.
Unfettered musical taste is a constant for Woods. He found it at home when he was a child. He has it in his own family. And he brings it to the office with him.
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