Thank you to Jonathan Gramling for interviewing our Executive Director Robert Reed in a recent issue of Capital City Hues! This is part 2 of the story, which appeared in their February 20, 2023 issue.

Read Part 1 of the Story


Last summer, Robert Reed became the CEO of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. He seems perfect for the job. He’s a professionally trained clarinetist who transitioned to the administrative side to the music. Reed is outgoing and obviously enjoys what he does. He is passionate about classical music in all of its variety.

As Reed helps chart the course of the symphony for the next 100 years, he will help MSO delve further in diversity, in all of spheres of the organization and make it relevant for a new generation of audiences — and musicians — coming up. One of the first things is to help people move beyond the stereotype of what a symphony is.

“The one thing that symphonies probably suffer with is they are viewed as people who wear formal clothes,” Reed said with a smile. “They are on stage and they are elitist. And they make ugly faces when they are playing their instruments. They feel like someone is asking them to pass Grey Poupon to each other. And the people in the audience wear long dresses and have opera glasses looking in.”

But Reed emphasizes that the music is part of our everyday lives, from movies and TV shows to mall music to sports team themes. And it plays a big part in our lives.

“When people allow music to touch their lives, it really affects a person,” Reed said. “I always love music because it makes you feel. It can make you feel great. It can make you feel sad. It can make you feel other things. And that’s a great thing about it. Sometimes when I am alone and I want to clean, I can crank up certain music and it can make cleaning a lot easier. And if I am sad, there is music that I can play that helps give me solace and makes me feel better. Music is a part of all of our lives.”

And so he urges people of all backgrounds to give the symphony’s music a try, to diversify their musical tastes.

“Most African Americans don’t grow up thinking about symphony orchestras,” Reed observed. “You can realize that, ‘Who says that since I have not had a symphony background that I can’t enjoy this?’ Maybe my enjoyment starts out slow. But I start to realize that there are some programs that would actually be nice to go to and experience. And these myths that it is going to be too expensive or this and that, that is not necessarily true. As with most things in life, if you really want something, you can always find a way of getting it.”

And while Reed wants people of color to come experience the symphony, the symphony must give people musical paths to experience the symphony.

“I want to make sure that MSO is representative of the entire community,” Reed said. “I am fortunate that I have a music director who also feels that way. We want to make sure that what we present definitely reaches people of all different ages, genders and musical tastes. Last year at one of the concerts, we did a nice classical repertoire and then the soloist was an African American violinist who played a Wynton Marsalis violin concerto. No one would have known that Wynton Marsalis wrote a violin concerto, which is very jazzy in its writing. It’s our responsibility to introduce people to things like that and to realize that there are people of all different ages and colors and backgrounds who have been involved in music. The arts industry as a whole is finally starting to understand that and is starting to expand.”

And if Mohammed can’t come to the mountain, then bring the mountain to Mohammed.

“Another thing that I try to do is that despite how wonderful the Overture Center is, is to take the orchestra out of the Overture Center and go to different communities,” Reed said. “I have a concert scheduled in Penn Park on the south side this summer. I know I am having concerts in Verona, Sun Prairie and other communities. We’re even going to play in the Wisconsin Dells because not everyone is always going to come to you. Sometimes you have to go to them. We realize that we aren’t so wonderful that everyone has to come to us. We’re going to go to them. Hopefully we will build alliances with communities and people that if they like it so much, they may come back to see us. We are definitely looking forward to being more involved. A few slogans that we say to ourselves regularly is, ‘We want to recognize our past, embrace the present and empower ourselves for the future.’ Another thing that we want to do is music for different people. We recognize that we can’t do the same thing and everyone is going to want it. So we’re just going to do a little more diversity in what we present, more partnerships, get ourselves even more on a stronger financial footing — we’re on an excellent financial footing right now — and make ourselves so relevant in this community that when people think of the orchestra, they know the Madison Symphony is something to feel a great deal of pride for.”

The work of MSO isn’t limited to giving performances. It’s also about helping to bring along the next generation of musicians as well as help heal people within the community.

“We have extensive education and outreach programs,” Reed observed. “We do lots of things with the school districts, Madison Metropolitan, Middleton, Sun Prairie, Verona an districts in the surrounding area. We’re working actively with them to involve them in some of our events. We have concerts where we bus the kids in to the Overture Center. You’ll see school busses all around the Overture Center. We also do things with the Chamber music. You may have a quartet. A few musicians will go off to the schools and perform and do demonstrations there. We are definitely finding ways. But even more than just the kids, we’re also doing a good job with adult education. One of my favorite things is something we call Heartstrings where we go to the memory care facilities. People dealing with Alzheimer’s and dementia are there. And we are playing for them. Sometimes we work with the musical therapist in, helping them gain dexterity and all of those things. I’m glad that we’re not just doing something for young people, but doing something for people who are sometimes forgotten.”

Music is something that heals us, that helps us learn and that elevates us to our highest potential as people. It is something that plays an intricate, almost unnoticeable, role in our daily lives. And Robert Reed is working — and planning — to ensure that the Madison Symphony Orchestra plays that role in all of our lives.