Woman of Interest: Carolyn Bess

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Woman of Interest

Executive Director, Waco Symphony Association

You don’t have to drive to Dallas or Austin to have a first-rate arts experience. Music is a universal language that can unite people of all backgrounds and create community. Gracefully intertwining her knowledge, appreciation, talent and love of the arts, Carolyn Bess has returned to her roots and taken over as executive director of the Waco Symphony Association.

Her education and career has taken her around the globe working with world-renowned artists, authors and statesmen and stateswomen. Bess said she hopes to bring people together through music, no matter their age or background. “I want people to feel that the WSO is their community’s orchestra, feel proud of it as the cultural gem it is,” she said. “And to see themselves reflected in the artists on stage and by those surrounding them in the audience.”

A year after moving from Dallas back to her hometown, Bess and her husband Craig — along with their cats Zephyr and Winnie — are finding that life in a smaller town has its own rewards.

WACOAN: When did you first become interested in the arts?

Carolyn Bess: My parents often took me and my brother to art museums and to Waco Symphony Orchestra concerts when we were growing up. I’m so fortunate that they encouraged me starting at age six to study the piano with Doyce Edwards for 12 years, followed by flute lessons, singing in our church choir and the Waco Girls’ Choir. And to take all manner of dance lessons — ballet, tap, jazz, and pointe — with our family friend Joy Burkhart at Joy’s School of Dance. At the time, Joy’s dance studio was in her converted home garage. I have the best memories of my father playing the piano as I drifted off to sleep every evening. Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” thus became a perennial favorite, and I learned it myself later on.

WACOAN: And how did you decide to pursue it as a career?

CB: I majored in English at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, but fell head over heels for Art History my sophomore year of college. A light bulb went off in my head while studying at Oxford the summer after my junior year. I spent so much time in art museums. I could envision myself having a career working in museums and the arts. I ultimately received my master’s degree in art history from Williams College. I knew by then that I wanted to work in an art museum as either a curator or an educator.

I remember both Dean Sternberg as conductor and the early years of Stephen Heyde’s tenure as music director/conductor before I went to college, so the WSO has been imprinted on my history. It’s an honor to return to my hometown after 25 years and to help shape the future of the symphony and the arts in Waco.

WACOAN: As an executive for arts organizations, are you more a right-brain or left-brain person? How are you able to use your best talents and skills in your roles?

CB: I feel like I have a strong synergy and balance between my right brain and left brain. I exercise the right side of my brain when playing with creative combinations and programming possibilities between art forms. The left side may currently be a bit more dominant because much of my current job involves organization of people — a board of directors of 45 members — as well as production details and logistics. It also requires a high degree of analysis, including contracts, audience trends, marketing strategies and problem solving.

WACOAN: How much do you think the arts, in general, contribute to a person’s or a community’s quality of life?

CB: I think the arts inspire us personally to experience life’s beauty in a space of awe and wonder. Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”

I think the arts also greatly enhance our community’s quality of life in a variety of ways. The arts and the Waco Symphony add to the economic engine of our community. Our patrons dine at restaurants before performances and our featured artists and attendees stay at local hotels. As many as 15 percent of our attendees come from outside McLennan County zip codes. Local merchants are used for printing, advertising, services and more. Plus, we’re providing consistent jobs for musicians here in our area.

Maestro Heyde has focused on recruiting and developing musicians, at least two-thirds of whom live in our area. The Waco Symphony is like an artistic chamber of commerce, putting a positive face forward that will help attract new residents to our community and show them that Waco has a blossoming cultural arts scene.

You don’t have to drive to Dallas or Austin to have a first-rate arts experience.

WACOAN: Tell me a little about your professional background, the Dallas Museum of Art and before that.

CB: While in school, I worked as a teaching assistant in art history and at both the McNay Art Institute in San Antonio and the Williams College Museum of Art. After finishing my master’s degree, I served a graduate internship in museum education at the Dallas Museum of Art. Thankfully, that internship turned into a full-time job, and I worked at the DMA for 25 years.

For six years, I served as head of academic and public programs designing lectures, gallery talks, workshops and performances. All inspired by the global collections of art ranging from thousands of years ago to contemporary times. Then, I spent 18 years as director of “Arts & Letters Live,” the DMA’s literary and performing arts series featuring award-winning authors, actors and performers. They were often in creative combination with art or exhibitions.

I grew the scope of programming to 50-plus events annually, serving approximately 20,000 people.

WACOAN: What are a couple of the highlights — or most treasured experiences — you had at the DMA?

Bess: One of the most impactful community engagement initiatives I led was part of an exhibition called “Seeing God: Art and Ritual from Around the World.” We invited community members to write a label from their own personal perspective and faith tradition in response to a work of art.

What was ground-breaking at the time was that those labels were exhibited side-by-side with the curator’s labels, giving the community an equal voice in interpreting those works of art. It stirred thoughtful positive dialogue about the meaning of these religious works of art.

“Arts & Letters Live” and the DMA gave me the freedom and latitude to dream and commission new work, including new suites of dances inspired by Matisse, Chagall and Jackson Pollock exhibitions, and to invite writers and singer/songwriters to create new poems and songs in response to art and exhibitions.

Some of the most memorable author events I planned included Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Amy Tan, Malcolm Gladwell, David Sedaris, Ian McEwan, Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice, Laura Bush, chef Ina Garten, actor Emma Thompson and many others.

I also organized a Late Night featuring E. L. Konigsburg, the author of “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” If you grew up reading that book, as I did, you know that Jamie and Claudia deliberately hid in the Metropolitan Museum of Art overnight.

I had a blast creating choose-your-own-adventure tours written from the perspective of Jamie and Claudia and other unique experiences that brought the book to life in the museum after hours.

WACOAN: What are your responsibilities as executive director of the Waco Symphony Association? What is your mission — not just the organization’s mission, but your personal mission?

CB: As executive director of the Waco Symphony Association, I am responsible for raising support for and managing all the logistical operations that allow the WSO to perform to its greatest potential.

My personal mission is that no matter your age or background, no matter whether it is your first symphony concert or your 100th, that you would feel welcome and inspired by the music you experience.

I want people to see WSO as their community’s orchestra, feel proud of it as the cultural gem it is and to see themselves reflected in the artists on stage and those surrounding them in the audience.

Music is a universal language that can unite people of all backgrounds and create community.

WACOAN: How is working with performing artists and musicians similar to and different from working with visual artists?

CB: Visual artists often have a more solitary creative practice working in a studio. And the result is often something physical and tangible, even though museums don’t let the public touch the art for good reasons. It was my job at the DMA to help the public connect with the artist’s vision and interpret meaning for themselves, personally. Every person brings his or her own unique lens and perspective to interpreting visual art.

Working with performing artists and orchestra musicians is fascinating to me because of the group dynamics between the conductor and the musicians on stage. Each musician in the orchestra rehearses the works first individually, striving to know their own parts as best they can before rehearsals start.

The WSO comes together for only, at most, four rehearsals. The conductor has studied the musical score in advance, knows it inside and out, and is the interpreter of the composer’s vision. During that short time, the conductor hones the orchestra’s collective interpretation, artistry and connection together.

Maestro Heyde is like a magician in his ability to conjure a high level of artistry as a whole. It’s truly amazing to me how he can hear what is needed from a particular section of instruments and understand how a small change can improve the performance and its impact on the audience. Live music is fleeting and experiential.

Both visual art and music rely on the viewer or the audience to complete that beautiful experience.

WACOAN: You’re filling some pretty big shoes, as Susan Taylor Heyde had been the face of the Waco Symphony for 44 years. What do you see as her legacy?

CB: Susan’s hard work, dedication and depth of relationships here in Waco have created a strong board of directors and solid base of support for the Waco Symphony. She galvanized community resources to bring in some of the world’s best classical and popular musicians to Waco, including Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming, Doc Severinsen, Branford Marsalis and many others. Not many communities Waco’s size can boast they’ve had that caliber of guest artists on their stage.

WACOAN: What is your vision for the Waco Symphony — as far as growth, development and community engagement? Are there any new, exciting changes patrons can look forward to?

CB: I would like to take the orchestra out of the concert hall and into the community more often, meeting people where they are — schools, parks, farmers markets, zoos.

I have some ideas for unique ways to do that — all it takes are resources and staff capacity to support it.

The WSO has been named a 2022-2023 Charity Champion by TFNB, and as part of that program, we’ve been invited to dream big and make a “big ask” by inviting the community to partner with us to further a goal connected to our mission.

To celebrate our 60th anniversary season this year, we’re seeking to raise $60,000-plus to further our education and outreach initiatives in years to come.

Given my background, I’m looking for new opportunities to combine music with other art forms that will give audiences a new experience.

On January 18 for “A Magical Evening in the American West,” the WSO will play Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite.”

We’ll hang three large screens over the orchestra, and photographer/multimedia artist Nicholas Bardonnay, who spent more than two months in the Grand Canyon, will live choreograph hundreds of his images of the majestic canyon to the musical score, which he has memorized. It’s truly an immersive experience marrying art and music.

At our January and March 2023 concerts, we’ll also feature the first two of four finalists in our search for a new music director/conductor to replace Stephen Heyde, who retires November 30. The community can see and hear the conductors who may be the future leader charting the next chapter in the WSO’s history.

WACOAN: What performances are you most excited about in this upcoming season?

CB: I’m excited about Avery Fisher Prize-winning pianist Jeremy Denk (November 10), who will also do a talk the night prior about his New York Times-bestselling memoir, “Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, In Music Lessons.”

We partnered with Fabled Bookshop, and I’m just thrilled for the community to have the opportunity to hear one of WSO’s featured artists share his personal story of becoming a classical pianist and about the composers and music influenced and inspired him.

You can also meet him and get your book signed.

“The Nutcracker” is a treasured holiday tradition in my family, as it is for many. December 11, the WSO will team up with Ballet Frontier of Texas and 50-plus local student dancers for this year’s production.

I’m especially excited about our concert on April 20 with Tony Award-winning vocalist and Broadway leading lady Kelli O’Hara. She also currently stars in HBO’s miniseries “Gilded Age.”

As Maestro Heyde likes to say, “she has a once-in-a-generation voice,” with an amazing vocal range. You should watch her singing “They Don’t Let You in the Opera if you’re a Country Star” on YouTube. She’s hilarious too!

WACOAN: What’s a misconception some people might have about attending a symphony performance, and how would you dispel that?

CB: A common misconception is that you have to dress up to attend. Or just people feeling as if it wouldn’t appeal to them. We encourage people to “come as you are.”

Orchestras these days are experimenting with unique programming to attract new audiences. For example, films in concert with the orchestra playing the score during a full-length feature of the film. Even if someone doesn’t routinely listen to classical music, I hope they will open their mind and heart to try it once and let the beauty work its magic on them.

Another misconception is that all contemporary music by living composers is atonal.

Not true — some is beautiful and accessible.

WACOAN: COVID was hard on the arts. Talk a little about the challenges facing the arts today in our community, as well as in general?

CB: It paused live music and large gatherings for more than a full season. In order to launch our season last Fall, we had to determine safety protocols that would allow 80-plus musicians to sit in close proximity with one another on stage. No small task! And then it had to be approved by the musicians’ union.

Unfortunately, we had to cancel two fundraisers in two consecutive years, and our major pop concert, America, cancelled due to COVID concerns after rescheduling several times. That was my third day on the job.

We made lemonade out of lemons by bringing Lyle Lovett and his Acoustic Group to play with the WSO. It was Lovett’s first symphony collaboration here in Waco, and he was brilliant and personable, sharing insightful stories about his songs and creative process too.

His concert drew people who rarely attend classical music performances, which is exactly what I hoped would happen.

I’m thankful that Waco audiences came back in strong numbers over the course of last season. You can’t experience music through a screen in the same impactful way as you do live in a concert hall surrounded by an audience. There’s an electricity to the in the air and something about experiencing it collectively that is unique and magical.

What continues to be a challenge for us and for many orchestras and performing arts organizations more broadly is that season subscription numbers are down.

COVID interruptions and cancellations have caused audiences to be cautious and shift to purchasing single tickets closer to concert dates. It makes it difficult for us organizationally to predict our income and base of support for the year with these trends. Ticket income only accounts for about 40 percent of our annual budget.

Our performing arts venues locally are also showing their age.

Plans are in process to envision a new performing arts center downtown near the Brazos River that could serve as a home for many arts organizations locally and meet the multi-faceted and ever-expanding needs of the Waco community. I hope that we will come together to imagine the programming possibilities it could create here and raise the support to make it a reality.

WACOAN: What does a typical work day look like for you? What kinds of things are you doing? What do you look forward to each day?

CB: Every day is a little different and there’s never a dull moment.

I’m making plans for and managing many details for upcoming concerts and guest artists, raising support, overseeing marketing and promotion plans, giving media interviews speaking on behalf of the symphony and much more.

Of course, there are also finances to track to make all this work possible. I look forward every day to interacting with board members, volunteers and supporters who are passionate about having the best symphony we can have in Waco.

Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and help however they can.

WACOAN: What is the most challenging thing about your job?

CB: Most days I feel like I’m juggling about 20 balls.

This job requires an incredible amount of multi-tasking not only of my own work, but also delegation and empowering board members and Waco Symphony Council volunteers to further our collective work and mission. Sometimes it can feel a little frenetic, but it’s also energizing. There are days when I feel like an air traffic controller.

WACOAN: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?

CB: I’d say it’s experiencing the joy and wonder on students’ faces during a WSO concert or a children’s concert, when nearly 6,000 students experience a symphony performance, many of them for the first time.

During last April’s WSO “Sounds of the Cinema” concert, there was a young boy sitting across the aisle from me, perhaps seven-years-old, sitting on his father’s lap. When the recognizable notes and rhythm of the “Star Wars March” by John Williams began, he had the most awestruck, wide-eyed expression on his face.

It was like watching a lightbulb go off in his head and in his heart at the same time.

WACOAN: Is there someone who has served as a mentor or an inspiration to you?

CB: I’ve been fortunate to have several inspiring mentors over the years.

Kay Cattarulla, founding producer emerita of “Arts & Letters Live,” chose me to succeed her as director of the DMA’s literary and performing arts series.

I had the amazing opportunity to work alongside Kay for a full year to learn the ropes and fully integrate this originally an independently run series into the fabric of the museum’s mission, branding, programming and budget.

I understand now, looking back, how rare and beneficial that extended mentoring relationship was, and we’re still in touch with each other. Kay opened my eyes to the rich possibilities of creative programming in combining art forms.

Or, when actors bring short stories to life on stage. She possessed astute skills as both an editor and an events producer, and I honed my skills in thinking through various logistical challenges (and potential problems) that could arise during an event and how best to avoid or overcome them.

A year ago I made the big leap career-wise to learn all the complexities of running a symphony orchestra — during COVID, no less. With this multi-faceted organism and organization, I am fortunate to be connected twice a month by Zoom with other executive directors from Texas regional orchestras.

Two women, in particular, Laurie Garvie of the Richardson Symphony Orchestra and Robin Hampton of the East Texas Symphony Orchestra, have more years of experience and wisdom in managing orchestras that I do. I’ve had them on speed dial, we met in person recently and they’ve been so generous in sharing helpful insights with me.

WACOAN: What kinds of things do you enjoy doing for fun outside of work?

CB: Once upon a time, in my high school days, I played on the varsity tennis team at Vanguard and had a pretty wicked backhand. Regrettably, I have not kept up my game. But driving by the Ridgewood tennis courts makes me want to attempt a comeback. Darrell Johnson – I need some lessons, stat!

I enjoy quilting even though I don’t have much time for it these days. I was taught by master quilter Connie Watkins, who lives here in Waco.

In recent years I’ve enjoyed doing artistic Bible journaling. My Bible has a blank page opposite every page of text. It’s become a spiritual practice for me to use art to focus my study of the Word. I’ll pick a verse that I’m drawn to and interpret it visually on the blank page opposite the scripture. I use calligraphy and hand lettering, watercolor, acrylic, collage, colored pencils and other artistic media.

I also love traveling, especially active adventures while traveling. I have a hard time sitting on a beach to relax. One of my favorite trips with my husband Craig was visiting Banff, Lake Louise and Lake Moraine in Canada. We enjoyed hiking and canoeing there and in Alaska. Craig’s parents lived in Germany for 13 years, and they were generous with their frequent flier miles. We were engaged in Mainz Cathedral in Germany during Christmastime, visited Prague and Bruges and went hiking and whitewater rafting in Switzerland.

WACOAN: What does your perfect Saturday or Sunday look like?

CB: My perfect Saturday involves an early morning walk with my husband, followed by a trip to Bonnie’s Greenhouse or a neighborhood nursery to pick out some new plants. I love container gardening and combining different colors and textures of plants together. Though, this summer it’s definitely been a risky experiment in keeping them alive.

Dinner with friends and a boat ride on Lake Waco at sunset are the perfect way to cap off a day. Crawling into bed to read a book with a cat in my lap is my favorite way to wind down.

On Sundays I love attending St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, especially the Evensong services, because Anglican choir music is near and dear to my heart. St. Alban’s newly renovated sanctuary is beautiful with stunning stained glass designed locally by Stanton Studios, and the new organ is truly a treasure.

I studied organ for a few years during college with Dr. Robert Delcamp at Sewanee and locally with Becky Ward at First Presbyterian Church during the summers. It was far more challenging to learn than I ever imagined and I have the utmost respect for anyone who can play it well. Bradley Welch’s recent concert as part of St. Alban’s music series blew my mind because he played nearly everything from memory.

WACOAN: How do you take time to care for yourself?

CB: I find that walking combined with prayer in the morning at sunrise focuses me — prayer walking. I’ll pray for friends and family and then try to identify a few tasks that have to be taken care of that day, inviting God into my work, connections, and interactions with others.

When I start to worry about my never-ending list of ‘to-dos,’ I ask God to show me what has to be taken care of in the envelope of today and to give the rest back to Him for tomorrow.

In the evenings, I love watching the sunset over Lake Waco from our living room with a cup of Yogi lavender honey tea.

WACOAN: Do you have a personal motto or mantra or scripture you try to live by or that is grounding for you?

CB: A few of my favorite scriptures that guide and ground me are: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” ⎯Philippians 4:13 and “Be still and know that I am God.” ⎯Psalm 46:10.

I was fortunate to host the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver for an event at the Dallas Museum of Art. A line from the end of her poem “The Summer Day” has become a bit of a personal motto for me. It reminds me that my time on earth is finite and to focus my life’s work and passion. She says, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

WACOAN: What passions or causes do you like to support? Any local organizations near and dear to your heart?

CB: I’m still learning about all the nonprofits here in Waco that are doing impactful work. I’d like to find creative new ways for the WSO to partner with some of them to multiply our collective efforts.

Last year we gave Nutcracker tickets to Mission Waco’s afterschool program. Perhaps this year we could partner with Caritas to have our audiences bring canned goods or donated clothing to Waco Hall to help feed and clothe the hungry in our community. All of the cats we’ve ever owned (or who have owned us!) have been rescues, so I admire Fuzzy Friends and their mission.

Carolyn’s Must-Have Items:

– My remarkable tablet – it’s a note-taking device with a stylus that allows me to take and keep notes organized on one device and to convert my handwriting to text, share documents, turn notes into PDFs, and more. It feels like writing on paper and keeps me focused on projects, and to-do lists without digital interruptions. I’ve only scratched the surface of its functionality. I’m hopeful it will help me keep all the various facets of my job organized and available to me anytime on the go. Plus, it’s eco-friendly!

– Favorite tennis shoe: On Cloud – I love that I can slip them on without lacing them. They’re so lightweight and comfortable!

– Favorite app – John Eldredge’s “30 Days to Resilient” in the One Minute Pause app – my husband and I have enjoyed beginning and ending our days by listening to these short meditative messages that draw us closer to God. I’m looking forward to reading the book and exploring the study guide to dive deeper into the insights.

– Favorite hair product – Shu Uemura’s universal balm – it tames my flyaway hairs without feeling sticky or heavy and doubles as a hand and cuticle cream.

– Favorite lip balms – Daytime on-the go: L’Occitane’s Cherry Blossom because I love the flavor. These make a great stocking stuffer. Nighttime: La Neige Vanilla lip sleeping mask because it’s thicker and keeps my lips hydrated.

Favorite Spots:

– Fabled Bookshop – it’s truly my happy place. That’s probably not surprising since I ran a literary series for 18 years. It’s the most well-curated independent bookstore – one of the best in Texas, in my opinion. I could linger for hours exploring the shelves and reading their staff’s recommended picks, which always inspire me to buy a new book. I also can’t seem to leave without purchasing something from their paper goods section. I enjoy sending friends handwritten notes, and they have an amazing selection of cards. I also buy my Rifle Paper Co. planner there every year.

– Milo All Day – favorite restaurant close to my office for a lunch or brunch with friends. My go-to items are the Little Gem Salad with salmon and their Brussel sprouts. If I’m going for brunch, I usually order the Farmers Daughter bowl. In a moment of weakness, I tried the Biscuit Bread Pudding French Toast at a friend’s 50th Birthday bash, and the combination of the blueberry compote and lemon curd on top was divinely decadent. It put me into a sugar coma.

– Beeloved boutique at Sironia – I love their selection of colorful clothes and accessories with an Anthropologie vibe at reasonable prices. Their Instagram posts are eye-catching and lure me into the store to shop.