Novelist Thomas Wolfe’s declaration that “you can’t go home again” has its exceptions.
Matthew Herren has come home successfully—with a twist. He left as a musician playing for an orchestra and returned as an orchestra administrator.
A native of Lancaster and a graduate of McCaskey High School, Herren had music performance ambitions as a young man, later obtaining bachelor and master’s degrees in cello performance from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. In the mid-1990s, he played that instrument, which he had first embraced in sixth grade, in the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra.
Then “love beckoned,” taking him away from the orchestra and central PA. He played music professionally before entering the world of arts administration. Until recently, he was the executive director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas.
But then he saw a notice about—and applied for—the parallel position at HSO. He was accepted, starting as the orchestra’s new executive director in June.
“I wasn’t looking for a new job in a certain sense,” he said. “I was curious and looked at weekly listings at orchestras. The opening at Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra leapt off the page. I had a lot of good memories here.”
Herren’s homecoming, said Stuart Malina, the symphony’s music director, is a “testament to the artistic quality of our orchestra, that we were able to bring someone of Matthew’s caliber and experience back to the region.”
In turn, Herren said that he was pleased to see the “tremendous growth” that had occurred in the area he was coming home to.
The executive director is responsible for the human and financial resources of the HSO. Herren, who manages a team of eight full-time and eight part-time staff, said he is grateful for following the successful 17-year tenure of his predecessor, Jeff Woodruff.
“He left good systems in place,” Herren said.
People Need Music
Overall, things are bright at the HSO, which this year marks its 90th anniversary, just as Malina enters his 21st year as music director.
The orchestra aims to do additional outreach to the community and to reach younger and more diverse audiences. Meanwhile, audiences are very loyal, Herren said. Many continued to support the orchestra when the pandemic set in, even though performances were suspended.
The orchestra’s devotion to the community is strong, as well, Herren said. The HSO reaches some 40,000 people annually through its Masterworks and Pops concerts and educational and other programs.
Like other organizations across the country, HSO is watching to see how the coronavirus affects its 2020-21 season. It had put many programs on hold and instituted public health measures in keeping with government regulations regarding the size of gatherings and other restrictions.
What might be possible for other arts organizations would not be so for the orchestra, which has few filmed productions that can be live-streamed. And by their nature, orchestras play music written for a large number of instruments, unlike chamber groups.
One way of adapting is through offering “evergreen” programming. Concerts and other programs are announced only shortly before they’re due to take place, so people don’t make plans in advance that may fall through.
Despite the worries, Herren likes to quote Malina, who “speaks of a big bump, not an existential threat” from the pandemic.
“We will be here,” he said. “People need live music in their lives. There’s nothing like walking into a hall and hearing it live.”
Herren noted that there’s a non-pandemic concern that often plagues performing arts groups—the perception that audiences are “graying.” In other words, since younger people seem to have less interest in the arts—an assumption based on buying habits—eventually there will be no audience left.
The 49-year-old Herren dismisses that fear, asserting that younger people, especially those with children and jobs, may not have the time or disposable income to buy tickets to concerts and other artistic events.
“There will come a time the children will be grown, and the parents will have the income,” he said.
He also believes that the three youth orchestras that HSO sponsors are another step in the right direction.
“They may not necessarily train professional players, but will help the students understand music and come to appreciate it,” Herren said.
Music appreciation remains strong in him, even though he plays cello now only for his own enjoyment. He actually prefers to listen to soprano instruments and voices. And he remains convinced that, pandemic or not, “It’s a wonderful time to turn to the arts.”
For more information about the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, visit www.harrisburgsymphony.org.
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