Conductor Focuses on Music Education, Programs
By LINDA COMINS
WHEELING — Conductor John Devlin is eager to visit the Friendly City this week and meet music leaders and other members of the community.
Devlin, who holds two positions in Hawaii, is one of five candidates for music director of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
“I’m so excited about Wheeling,” he said, citing the support for innovation voiced by WSO musicians, staff, board members and search committee.
The candidate remarked, “This has felt perfect the whole way … the beautifully supportive way they have responded. I want to meet in person and work with the orchestra for the first time. I think we may have found the perfect fit.”
Devlin is conducting the WSO’s Masterworks concert, featuring Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, at the Capitol Theatre, 1015 Main St., at 7:30 p.m. Friday. He also is leading the next pops concert, “Once Upon a Time,” at the Capitol Theatre at 7:30 p.m. April 26.
“It’s a thrill to be able to be considered for the position, but also as a finalist, I get to come out and conduct the orchestra twice,” Devlin said. “They are two very different programs, but ones that I care deeply about.”
Devlin, Andres Franco, Timothy Hankewich, Silas Huff and Roger Kalia are finalists for the position, which was vacated by Andre Raphel at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season.
Currently, Devlin is music director of the Hawaii Youth Symphony and artistic director of the Pacific Music Institute. He is a former cover conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra.
He has never visited Wheeling, but knows of the orchestra’s “wonderful musicians” from colleagues in the Washington, D.C., area where he lived for 10 years. Now, he welcomes the opportunity “to be introduced to the community and meet the people who care so much about the orchestra.”
Six months ago, Devlin moved to Honolulu to accept the new position with the Hawaii Youth Symphony. “I live in a very special place now. I’m a minority for the first time. It’s predominately Asian in background, of Japanese or Chinese heritage.”
There, he is discovering an “incredible” store of great Asian music written by “an amazing school of Japanese composers.”
He also has observed contrasts between Honolulu, the 15th biggest city in the country and a place of considerable wealth, and other parts of the state that have “an incredible lack of resources” for youth. “Many of the students have no access whatsoever to music education,” he said.
Teaching young people who are interested in music is a way to ensure the future of professional musical entities, he believes.
As director of the Hawaii Youth Symphony, Devlin works with 700 students every week. “We are the only statewide organization that supports music,” he said. “For many, it’s the only outlet they have to classical music education.
“We fly four students from neighboring islands to participate on the weekend, on Sunday. That’s dedication, and we’re only too happy to make that possible financially for them to have the same opportunity musically,” he said.
Discussing his other role, he said the Pacific Music Institute presents a two-week festival in Honolulu and serves about 250 students every summer. “Half of the faculty is drawn from the local community and half from all over the country and world to work with students,” he said.
“I have a passion for music education,” he commented. “The fact that the Wheeling Symphony has a youth orchestra is right in my wheelhouse.”
He regards training the next generation of people who will love classical music as being “good not only for classical music, but also the good of everyone.”
If chosen for the WSO position, he said that educating young people and building awareness of classical music “would be a principal focus of mine … I want to leverage that good work to create more people to love classical music.”
Devlin also seeks to “create a canon around great American music” and “highlight the great composers who have not been included in the canon of great American music.” Striving for imaginative programming, he wants “to explore repertoire that is both very familiar and groundbreaking at the same time.”
He remarked, “As classical music history extends almost 500 years, we have to define what type of music resonates to our communities. Soon, we will not be able to be responsible for all music, all periods. That history is too long. Orchestras are starting to stretch now.
“My burning passion is not only to do what you expect, but also something unexpected,” he added.
However, Devlin acknowledged it is premature to speculate on specific programs he might develop if he were selected to lead the Wheeling Symphony. “I’m not sure yet. I need to live in a community and be with its musicians before I can design projects specifically with a community,” he said.
“I don’t want to come in and tell a community what kind of innovative projects to do,” he added. “I want to learn from the community …”
Known for designing concerts that frame orchestral music in new ways, Devlin has been involved in innovations such as Gourmet Symphony, Go-Go Symphony, Seamless Symphony, Interactive Symphony and the New Retro Project.
Utilizing music with funk beats, he formed Go-Go Symphony with orchestra, band, rappers and street musicians and a projectionist. “Both authenticity and respect were cultivated properly,” he said regarding the development of this initiative.
“Not only did I wait several years, but also it took two years to find the right music, the right projects,” he explained. “I learned authenticity is key. You must relate to the collaborating art form in a way that is authentic, then design it in a way that is respectful to both art forms.”
As the founding artistic director of Gourmet Symphony, he decided to “throw all the rules out, figure out objectively what’s boring, what’s missing” in order to create programming “for people who don’t otherwise go to classical concerts. Movies and sports arenas have figured this out.”
For instance, in Washington, he said, “We partnered up with a few forward-thinking chefs to incorporate food and music … We highlighted those similiarities, (with) research from the community in what they wanted in a classical music concert.”
In this project, musicians ate and drank with the audience, resulting in “less of a barrier and more of a collegiality between musician and audience member,” he said. “Throughout these events, we sold out every single concert.”
Devlin commented, “I want to take those lessons to a place like Wheeling and ask, ‘Do any of these make sense?’ That data informs the type of programming. I want to sit down with the team and see which of these ideas might resonate with them. That’s when something is going to succeed.”
On a personal level, he said, “The art form that I love the most besides music is television … I learn a tremendous amount of art by how these great creators tell a story. Watching other great artists through the medium of television has helped me be a better musician.”
His wife Camille grew up in Puerto Rico, earned a master’s degree in vocal performance and transitioned to arts administration. A supporter of the arts, she does freelance work in marketing and communications.