The Houston Symphony warms up at Jones Hall.

Mark C. Hanson is the Executive Director and CEO of the Houston Symphony. We recently caught up with Hanson to discuss the symphony’s 2013–2014 season, its centennial year. It's also an interregnum year, with Hans Graf departing last season and music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada only starting full-time next season. 

Houstonia: What does Houston have to look forward to in the symphony’s centennial season?

Mark C. Hanson: I’m excited about everything. The centennial season has given us a wonderful excuse to celebrate with free and ticketed shows, both inside and outside Jones Hall. It’s also given us a great reason to increase the number of free concerts we’ll be featuring this season. [This year features 25 free community performances from the full symphony, and 90 Houston Symphony ensemble performances offered as part of the Community Connections program.] For instance, we’ll be celebrating Earth Day with a free concert at Discovery Green on April 22. We’re also introducing a youth orchestra festival on Sunday, March 9 that will pair performances from several of the Houston-area youth orchestras with a performance by the Houston Symphony. So both before and after our paid subscription concert on May 9 we’ll be showcasing the talents of at least two of our area youth orchestras.

H: Hans Graf said farewell at the end of last season, and Andrés Orozco-Estrada won’t take over as full-time music director until the 2014–2015 season. What challenges and opportunities do a season without a music director present?

MH: It really worked out so well to have the centennial season fall directly between Hans’s final season and André’s inaugural season, because it allowed about 150 Houston Symphony family members—musicians, staff, board members, volunteers, chorus members—to be involved in the artistic planning process for the season. Another big focus on the centennial is not just to launch the era of Orozco-Estrada through his four weeks of concerts—and all four of those weeks are going to be blockbuster weeks for us—but to invite all living former music directors back to conduct concerts for us. Hans Graf will be back for two weeks, and then former music directors Lawrence Foster and Christoph Eschenbach will each have a single week. The only living former music director who wasn’t able to participate because of health reasons is André Previn. It’s a wonderful mingling of the past and future. I also want to mention the tremendous number of superstars who will be joining the symphony, from the Renee Fleming opening gala to Joshua Bell to the concert with John Williams conducting Yo-Yo Ma.

H: Was the symphony’s centennial season a draw for those musicians?

MH: Most, if not all, of those artists have worked with us before, so it’s not as if they waited until the centennial season. What I think is unique is that we have a larger number of classical music superstars this season—and that was our decision. We wanted to make sure that our centennial season feels hugely significant, and is a launching pad for the next century of performances. Nothing is more important for the Houston Symphony than to continue to grow our audience base. And the community response has been great—subscription sales are tracking 10 percent ahead of where they were at this time last year.

H: In terms of reaching out to audiences, where does your program based on Día de los Muertos fit? 

MH: La Triste Historiais a continuation of our goal of bringing to Houston multi-media productions that are as much visual as they are aural. It’s also a way to celebrate the rich diversity of Houston’s population by prominently featuring the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead. What we’ve done is commission two artistic works—a symphonic score, and a 40-minute animated film that tells a love story that incorporates the tradition of the Day of the Dead. So it’s a wonderful opportunity for us to partner with the Mexican Institute, the Mexican Consulate General, and other organizations to showcase this significant tradition in Mexican culture. It’s also a way to bring in a larger number of Hispanics to Jones Hall. In fact, during that concert weekend in early November, we’ll be displaying, in partnership with the Mexican Consulate, 10 Day of the Dead altars throughout the lobby of Jones Hall. So Jones Hall will not only be a performance venue, it will also serve as a museum of sorts.

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