City of Omaha says Farewell to a Great Musical Leader

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March 22nd, 2018

Johnson: “Really, when a musician is in command of her instrument and is able to express not only the notes on the page but the emotional content of the composer and then bring to it her own personal point of view, when they are capable of doing that, because they have the technical gifts that a professional musician has, that can be an experience like no other for a listener.”

CEO of the Omaha Symphony James Johnson is passing the baton as he enters his last month with the Omaha Symphony before moving on to lead as Chief Executive Officer of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. For the last seven years, he has brought new life to the Omaha Symphony and new meaning to their relationship with the community. As a leader and someone who is always looking for new opportunities, I was eager to find out when and where his musical aspirations began.

Johnson: “I started playing music when I was 8 or 9 years old and my passion for music started when I saw my school librarian as a first grader play bass in front of a class of us and that was when the spark was lit.”

When Johnson first came to Omaha, his first impressions made him confident that this was a city that would support its orchestra.

Johnson: “Omaha is a city that is in love with its culture. We don’t have the mountains, the oceans, the beaches; we have to make do with the people of the city. So, we decided to make culture a calling card for Omaha. We’ve also decided to make higher education an important calling, cultural institutions like our museums and attractions like the Henry Doorly Zoo. These are important facets that set us apart from other cities.”

Along with the support of his colleagues, Johnson also found friends and had a lot to share about Maestro Thomas Wilkins.

Johnson: Having him as a colleague has been revelatory for me. We are also golfing buddies, it’s hard to say who is the worst golfer of the two of us. We are both pretty terrible, simpatico in our terribleness on the golf course. We enjoy each other company and found that it’s a great way to bring others, who might be skeptical of a Symphony CEO and Music Director in a concert hall or office situation, but they would enjoy spending a few hours with us on the golf course. So, we have used that judiciously to invite people over the years to get to know the Omaha Symphony better. Thomas is someone I am going to miss a great deal, and I look forward to keeping in touch with him over the years. I am excited that he has accepted a position at the University of Indiana in Bloomington as a conducting professor, so he’s going to be stepping up his activities there and hopefully we can meet in the middle and play some golf once in a while. I hope to have him conduct the Indianapolis symphony as well.

Johnson’s job really is a 24/7 commitment that he stays dedicated to. In many respects he takes his position and representing the Omaha Symphony to heart, so I wanted to know besides golfing and concerts, where he finds solace.

Johnson “My other hobby is I volunteer at the Henry Doorly Zoo as a diver in the aquariums. I work primarily in penguins and puffins, including the exhibits. SO, a little known fact that yes, CEO’s can be cleaners of tanks and the thing I love about that is that it’s very quiet.”

And some final thoughts about Omaha and the symphony.

Johnson: “I just want to say to the people of Omaha, don’t take it for granted. The symphony is a living, breathing, dynamic project that is never finished and continuously needs support. If we don’t take care of it every day by attending concerts, by making contributions, by encouraging others to attend and get involved, the symphony won’t be here. The city represents Omaha as it’s best. We strive for excellence every day in what we do as an orchestra and I think that is something that this city shares.”

The city of Omaha and KVNO thanks James Johnson for his service, leadership and ongoing inspiration to work together. Good luck in Indianapolis, you will be greatly missed.

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