Orchestras need a strategic restart and J.C. Barker has some ideas

New Delaware Symphony Orchesta Executive Director J.C. Barker at The Grand. Photo by Joe del Tufo.

The Delaware Symphony Orchestra’s Classics Series that begins Jan. 21 includes works by Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Holst, Brahms and Bach, but the repertoire for the 2022-23 season will look far beyond the dead white European males who make up the Western orchestral canon.

The DSO is rethinking its mission, said J.C. Barker, its new executive director. 

“We need to shift the way of what we do and where we do it,” Barker said. “Orchestras have become very siloed.” 

Among other issues, he hopes the process uncovers orchestral works “by composers of color and women and of all different genres.”

Barker, who worked in various roles for the Mobile Symphony in Alabama for 13 years, replaces Alan Jordan, DSO’s executive director from 2015 to 2019. At the DSO, he is reconnecting with music director David Amado, classmates 30 years ago at the Juilliard School with Amado’s wife, Meredith. 

When asked what he told Barker to encourage him to come here, Amado said: “I made an effort to present to him a clear, honest picture of what we are, where we are and what we do. Like with so many jobs, it is as much about skills as it is about fit. I tried (thankfully successfully) to lay out what we were, are and want to be, and tried to give J.C. the space to evaluate the potential fit.”

Barker was hired in February of 2020 and moved to Delaware in May of 2020, picking an apartment at the Residences at Mid-town Park. He not only wanted to be close to work, he wanted easy access to the restaurants and everything else that downtown offers. He also wanted to be part of the geographic “cradle” that created the DSO, which dates back to the Tankopanikum Orchestra, founded more than a century ago by Alfred I. du Pont.

He moved north with Snapper, his 23-year-old cat, who passed on a few weeks later. This summer he adopted Bird, a cat from Faithful Friends.

Barker, who is 59, was 13 when he started studying music. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music in 1986 from the University of Southern Mississippi, with his Juilliard certificate in 1992. 

His career began by running a National Endowment for the Arts rural residency program, followed by work as personnel director for the Symphony of the West Valley in Arizona, lecturer at the University of South Alabama, and consultant for the Atlantic Classical Orchestra in Florida.

He has also served as principal clarinetist for three orchestras, recorded classical and contemporary music for multiple record labels, and performed across North America and Europe.

Since moving to Delaware, he has returned to the South for several performances as a clarinetist. “I like to keep my fingers in the world of music,” he said. “That background is a big part of me, and I think it helps understanding musicians’ positions.”

“Professionally, J.C. has a gift for reading a situation, understanding the different perspectives and bringing consensus. He really respects differences, and people appreciate that,” said Karen Outlaw, a board member of the Mobile Symphony.

DSO music director David Amado helped encourage J.C. Barker to consider a new challenge with DSO. O&A file photo/Moonloop Photography

“Personally, he has a great sense of humor, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. It makes him fun to be with. He can talk to anybody!”

Barker’s first big responsibility in Delaware was ensuring that the DSO survived the pandemic, and he credits the state’s leaders and the orchestra’s donors and musicians for working together.

The next was what he called a “cultural reckoning” following the death of George Floyd and other cases that highlighted the Black Lives Matter movement. That means seeking compositions that have not received the attention they deserve, he said, “whatever the reason, prejudice or lack of exposure.”

Then there’s a need to make the DSO more accessible, which he said includes performances “that cross all socioeconomic lives,” events downstate and family-friendly outdoor concerts.

“We’re not abandoning a column of concerts at The Grand,” he added.

He inherited a 2016 plan for outdoor concerts in Yorklyn, and just after he started work he toured land that the state park system is considering for an amphitheater. “It’s a terrific idea,” he told Greenville & Hockessin Life. “That falls in line with our strategic planning for outdoor concerts. It’s an exciting project, and we’re still interested in discussing and planning it.”

Barker is offering plenty of notice that things will change, including an address at the DSO’s annual meeting last June. 

“The Delaware Symphony must find a way to work with all facets of the community through increased outreach, education, and collaboration, and we must start now,” he said. “We must bring new voices to the table. And listen. And change.”

He made the pitch to a wider audience in his News Journal guest column in October: “While we certainly will continue to serve our loyal classical music lovers, we must find ways to take our musicians out of the concert hall and into the community.”

“Yes, it’s important what we play, but we must also give people ‘the chills,’ ” he said in an interview, quoting Wilmington percussionist and arts leader Jonathan Whitney on that “visceral reaction to art. All music is an intimate experience with the audience. We will take this big acoustic machine out of the same four walls and into the world.”