Andre Gremillet observes the first anniversary of his appointment as president of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra this month; and the NJSO marks its 10th midwinter festival this month with three batches of weekend concerts from January 4 to 27. The two anniversaries are parallel. This year’s festival, "Coming to America," features composers who visited America as professional musicians or who pursued their careers here as immigrants. Gremillet shares both of those experiences with the chosen composers. A native of Montreal, he left for some years in the 1990s to study at New York’s Mannes College of Music, and then returned to serve as NJSO’s president and chief executive officer. He now lives in Jersey City.
The theme of coming to America pays homage to those who play the music, as well as to those who created it. NJSO artistic director Neeme Jarvi, a buoyant shaper of programs, was born in Estonia. Among the orchestra’s musicians, nine foreign countries are represented: Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Taiwan.
This year’s midwinter festival includes works by eight composers who came to the United States: Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Bartok, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Hindemith, and Martinu. Jarvi conducts the first two weeks of the festival.
An American citizen since 1987, Jarvi has a special personal history with one of the pieces programmed, the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s opera "Eugene Onegin," which opens the second week of the festival. In 1979 Jarvi made his Metropolitan Opera debut conducting the opera.
The first week of the festival takes place in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium on Friday, January 4, and in New Brunswick’s State Theater on Sunday, January 6. Featured performer, pianist Yefim Bronfman, born in Uzbekistan and a U.S. citizen since 1989, plays Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Other composers included in the week one program are Sibelius, Hindemith, and Stravinsky.
Prokofiev wrote his third piano concerto during his four years in the United States from 1918 to 1922. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuted the piece in 1921 with Prokofiev as soloist. He described the part that he had written for himself as "devilishly difficult." Prokofiev himself can be heard in the piece online on YouTube with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Piero Coppola.
Carnegie Hall this season has entrusted NJSO soloist Bronfman with organizing a seven-concert Perspectives series. The pianist has chosen to give Carnegie Hall concertgoers a bird’s eye view of his wide-ranging interests by scheduling a solo recital, an evening of chamber music, and appearances with five ensembles. Bronfman’s Carnegie programming ranges from Mozart to Prokofiev. He plays Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw on February 5. Incidentally, NJSO’s Jarvi has recorded the Prokofiev concerto with the Concertgebouw and pianist Horacio Gutierrez.
Week two of NJSO’s midwinter festival includes a performance at on Thursday, January 10, at the State Theater with Jarvi conducting the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s "Eugene Onegin," as well as music by Czech composers Martinu and Dvorak. The featured work is Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 ("New World").
Week three includes a performance on Saturday, January 26 in Trenton’s War Memorial with London-born guest conductor Gilbert Varga leading Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Haochen Zhang, a Shanghai native. In 1891 Tchaikovsky visited New York to inaugurate Carnegie Hall, where, among other pieces, he himself conducted his Piano Concerto No. 1.
`I arrived just after the festival in 2007," Gremillet says in a telephone interview from his Newark office at the NJSO. "Audiences love the mini festival and exploring a theme." Past themes have included Brahms, Wagner, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, Dvorak, and Mozart.
"I go to all the concerts," Gremillet says. "That’s the nice part of my job." Gratification with a noticeable part of his job seems only appropriate for the man who has piloted the orchestra through a whirlpool of change during his first year as president.
Having emerged successfully from touchy negotiations, the orchestra has wiped out its long-term deficit. By selling its collection of 30 Golden Age string instruments, it has simultaneously managed to eliminate its debt, while retaining the right to use 28 of the instruments for five years. "Euphoric" is Gremillet’s one-word summary of the situation. "We are debt-free for the first time in 11 years," he says.
Taking on a multi-million dollar debt, the NJSO bought the 30 instrument collection, originally touted as having a value of $50 million in February, 2003, from NJSO benefactor Herbert Axelrod, who offered it to the orchestra at what he called a bargain price. In August, 2004, following investigative reporting by the Newark Star-Ledger, an internal investigation by the orchestra re-valued its worth at $18 million. Taking into account donations of one kind and another, the orchestra now estimates the collection’s net purchase price at $15.9 million.
In March, 2007, the orchestra announced its intention to sell the instruments; the sale was completed in November. Among the purchasers are 37-year-old identical twins Seth and Brook Taube, Harvard-educated investment managers and amateur violinists. Each of the brothers obtained a Stradivarius violin as part of the deal.
The $20 million that the orchestra received from the sale enables it to pay off the $10.5 million still owed on the instruments, as well as $3.7 million in other accumulated debt, in addition to increasing the orchestra’s endowment.
"Our endowment of $10 million is not sufficient," Gremillet says. "It should be several times that amount. My goal is to make the NJSO stable, business-wise. I’ve felt that strongly since I arrived."
During the 2006-’07 season the orchestra incurred no debt from operations. A special initiative raised more than $2 million in addition to regular fundraising. Furthermore, the orchestra’s sales revenue grew by 11 percent, despite the fact that ticket prices remained unchanged. Gremillet calls that growth "a tremendous increase. Sixty-nine per-cent of our seats were filled, up from 45 percent the previous season."
Since arriving, Gremillet has developed a three-year strategic plan to put the NJSO on healthy fiscal footing. He has presided over an administrative reorganization that aims for sleekness. When he arrived the orchestra lacked a financial officer and a development director. Now with Roxanne Kam and Nicole Kagan on board, it has both.
"I have a very strong senior staff team," Gremillet says. In a flight of hyperbole, he adds, "I don’t do anything; I’m the president; I let them work. It’s a very close collaborative environment and an open work environment."
Gremillet, now 40, comes from a family that enjoys music. His father, now a retired chef, was a choir boy from Epinal in northeastern France, who immigrated to Canada at 18, attracted by the vast landscapes. Gremillet’s mother, who comes from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula, worked with her husband in the food industry. Their younger son, Frederic, a podiatrist, lives near Montreal.
Son Andre started piano at five. He earned an undergraduate degree from the Universite du Quebec in piano performance and music education as well as an MBA from Montreal’s McGill University and a postgraduate degree in piano performance from New York’s Mannes School of Music.
"When I graduated from business school, I wanted to do what I’m doing now," Gremillet says. Before joining the NJSO he was president of Casavant Freres, a manufacturer of pipe organs located near Montreal. "Casavant was a happy interlude," he says. "I learned tremendously. It was a wonderful company, 35 years old. But I felt too far from the music."
`The lure of the NJSO was really the music," Gremillet says. "I have my piano with me but I don’t get to it very often. When I find time I play Bach. If there ever was perfect music, Bach is it. It’s perfect emotionally and structurally."
Gremillet reveals the reflex caution that a good CEO needs after I ask what kind of piano he has. "What?" he explodes. "You want me to endorse a brand?"
On Gremillet’s watch the NJSO has logged a collection of various achievements. In addition to selling the Golden Age instruments and improving the NJSO’s short-range fiscal position, the orchestra has moved to new offices, this time with windows. Furthermore, the charismatic Jarvi has renewed his contract until 2009. In addition, the governance of the orchestra has been modified to create a 15-member executive committee for a 50-member board.
On December 20, the orchestra witnessed the resignation of Victor Parsonnet, who served for 21 years on the board, 16 of them as chairman. He now becomes chairman emeritus for life, retaining the rights and responsibilities of an orchestra trustee. A cardiac surgeon with an international reputation, Parsonnet was the first in New Jersey to perform coronary bypass and heart transplant surgery. He is known among NJSO colleagues and friends for his energy, devotion, and graciousness. At 83 he continues to operate and to play singles tennis. "Don’t make too much of 83," he told Peggy McGlone of the Star Ledger. "My patients think I’m 33."
Still to play out are the consequences of Parsonnet’s retirement. Replacing him are board members Ruth Lipper and Stephen Sichak, Jr, who will serve as co-chairs, and whose choice Parsonnet approved. "I didn’t really want to step down until I felt comfortable," he says.
Winter Festival: Coming to America, Friday, January 4, 8 p.m. New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton. Yefim Bronfman plays Prokofiev. $52 to $65. 800-ALLEGRO.
Also, the same program will be performed on Sunday, January 6, 3 p.m., at State Theater, New Brunswick, $20 to $78.
From the New World, Thursday, January 10, 8 p.m. New Jersey, State Theater, New Brunswick. $20 to $78.
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto, Saturday, January 26, 3 p.m., Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton. Haochen Zhang on piano. Gilbert Varga conducts. $20 to $78.