Virginia Symphony Orchestra names Eric Jacobsen new music director

JUN 02, 2021 AT 12:01 PM

NORFOLK — In April 2019, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra announced its longtime music director, JoAnn Falletta, was leaving after 29 years with the organization.

The search for a new director began but, in musical terms, last year was the fermata that seemingly had no end.

The long pause is over, and the VSO has named its new music director — Eric Jacobsen, a 38-year-old cellist and conductor. He begins his tenure July 1.

Jacobsen has a talent for mixing classical canon and moving works by undiscovered composers. Jacobsen — who also serves as music director for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and the Greater Bridgeport Symphony in Connecticut — calls it framing, and considers it his biggest programming challenge. He likens it to creating the perfect dinner plate.

“Everyone knows that a New York strip steak or a filet mignon is going to be delicious,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But what else is on that plate with that so that it’s different than the last time you had it?”

In other words, how do you spice up shows where the centerpiece is a beloved Berlioz or Bach? Jacobsen likes to sprinkle in a bit of the unknown, slyly introducing audiences to new compositions in a way that makes them feel familiar.

“It’s borderline green eggs and ham, right?” Jacobsen said.

Food analogies aside, Jacobsen said his relationship with the VSO happened organically. It wasn’t until he was invited back in March 2020 to guest conduct that he realized it was part of the organization’s search.

“That was even more exciting,” he said. “I wasn’t just me loving this orchestra, it was going in both directions. There was a symbiotic thing going on.”

The search attracted more than 100 candidates and was chaired by Michael McClellan and his wife, Andria.

“The joy he has for making music is contagious,” Michael R. McClellan said in a news release about Jacobsen. “I believe his approach to collaboration and making concerts fun experiences will energize a new generation of musically curious audiences.”

Jacobsen said he’s thrilled to get the job and pick up where Falletta left off. He does have big shoes to fill, and he’s not reluctant to admit that. Her strong leadership led to great stability within the organization and community, “so much clarity and a lot of love,” he said.

“Really, the next steps are just about where is it going from here and how big can this grow,” he said.

VSO President and CEO Karen Philion echoed Jacobsen’s sentiments.

“We now look forward to building on our success and momentum,” Philion said in the news release. “Eric’s innovative vision, musical curiosity, and boundless energy are in perfect alignment with this moment, and with the VSO’s commitment to serve the entire community in new and exciting ways.”

In addition to his music director roles, Jacobsen is also a member of the Silk Road Ensemble founded by Yo-Yo Ma and a founding member of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, dubbed “one of the wonders of contemporary music” by the Los Angeles Times.

Jacobsen said he’s excited to experiment with the performance format and programming and bring in new fans. It’s a hefty task for any music director, he said, and the effort doesn’t stop when people buy a ticket and sit down in the concert hall.

The concert itself needs to be “more than bait.”

“It’s gotta be more like hook, line and sinker,” he said. “We have to show them that coming in was worth their time, and it’s worth their time to come back.”

In any good concert, Jacobsen said there should be a moment where time bends just slightly. When the music is piercing and creates vulnerability. When, without words, the musicians communicate at the deepest level. That only happens when conductors and musicians are willing to take risks and let their guard down, Jacobsen said.

“You’ve got to be willing to expose yourself and then something can happen where the audience is able to feel something meaningful.”

Amy Poulter, 757-446-2705,

VSO Guest Artist: Andrew von Oeyen

Hailed worldwide for his elegant and insightful interpretations, balanced artistry and brilliant technique, Andrew von Oeyen has established himself as one of the most captivating pianists of his generation.

Since his debut at age 16 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, Mr. von Oeyen has extended his interpretive voice to a broad spectrum of repertoire as both a soloist and recitalist. He has collaborated with such ensembles as the Philadelphia Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Atlanta Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Mariinsky Orchestra, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic, Singapore Symphony, Grant Park Orchestra, Ravinia Festival Orchestra, Vancouver Symphony, Utah Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique de Marseille, Geneva Chamber Orchestra, Spoleto USA Orchestra, Slovenian Philharmonic and Slovak Philharmonic. As both soloist and conductor he has led concerti and orchestral works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel and Kurt Weill. On July 4, 2009, he performed at the U.S. Capitol with the National Symphony in “A Capitol Fourth,” reaching millions worldwide in the multi-award winning PBS live telecast.

‍Mr. von Oeyen has appeared in recital at Wigmore Hall and Barbican Hall in London, Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Boston’s Symphony Hall, Zürich’s Tonhalle, Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Hall, St. Petersburg’s Philharmonia, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Royce Hall in Los Angeles, Herbst Theater in San Francisco, Spivey Hall in Atlanta, Sala São Paulo, Teatro Olimpico in Rome, in Mexico City, Hanoi, Macau, and in every major concert hall of Japan and South Korea. Festival appearances include Aspen, Ravinia, Grant Park, Mainly Mozart, Saratoga, Schubertiade, Spoleto, Brevard, Grand Teton, Chautauqua and the Mariinsky’s “Stars of the White Nights.”

Mr. von Oeyen has recorded for Warner Classics since 2017. His albums under that label, including works for piano and orchestra by Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Gershwin and a disc including Debussy’s Fantaisie pour Piano et Orchestre, have been met with critical acclaim. Mr. von Oeyen has also recorded award-winning recital albums of Liszt, Debussy, and Stravinsky under the Delos label.

Mr. von Oeyen, of German and Dutch origin, was born in the U.S. He began his piano studies at age 5 and made his solo orchestral debut at age 10. An alumnus of Columbia University and graduate of The Juilliard School, where his principal teachers were Herbert Stessin and Jerome Lowenthal, he also worked with Alfred Brendel and Leon Fleisher. He won the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award in 1999 and also took First Prize in the Léni Fé Bland Foundation National Piano Competition in 2001. Mr. von Oeyen lives in Paris and Los Angeles.