A new era of leadership and musical direction has arrived at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Former DSO vice president and general manager Erik Rönmark has been appointed to take longtime president and CEO Anne Parsons’ position at the helm, as Jader Bignamini settles in as the orchestra’s 18th music director.
It’s a lot of change for any operation to undergo in a short period of time, and some of those changes are arriving earlier than expected. After 17 years, Parsons stepped down in December, to focus on her cancer treatment. (Update: On Monday, March 28, Parsons died following her courageous battle.)
She has led one of the city’s oldest cultural institutions through plenty — the appointment of two music directors, labor disputes, and navigating a pandemic that reinforced the DSO’s commitment to digital interaction with an aging audience.
Rönmark will carry that torch, having worked with Parsons his entire career as he moved up the ranks. The 44-year-old started as a part-time assistant in the music library there in 2005.
“She was always pushing us when we were working together,” Rönmark says. “She wanted us to think about what’s next for the orchestra, what’s next for our industry, and what is the role of an orchestra for a city like Detroit. That’s embedded in our DNA now. I’m really excited about leading it.”
Rönmark is a classically trained musician and plays the saxophone (he even performed alongside Branford Marsalis at Orchestra Hall at a recent DSO fundraiser). A native of Sweden, he grew up listening to DSO recordings and holds a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Michigan.
Now, he has a chance to leave his mark on the institution for decades to come. Rönmark says that begins with making it more accessible for Detroiters.
“A lot of the initiatives that we have going now are trying to really be more in the city. We are in Midtown, but Detroit is a huge city,” Rönmark says. “We want to be something for everyone in Detroit. If you can’t come to Orchestra Hall, we want to find a way to come to you.”
Joining him in this mission is Music Director Jader Bignamini, who was hired in 2020 and is in the midst of his first season leading the orchestra in front of a live audience.
“The music director has to convince all the musicians that we are on the right track,” laughs Bignamini, a native of Italy who has conducted for some of the most acclaimed orchestras around the world. “It’s not easy work, but here at the DSO, I think it’s easier because we have a very good team and very good leadership. [Rönmark] knows business, but he also knows music.”
In May, Bignamini will conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — a marquee classical music performance that includes “Ode to Joy.” Those performances will be paired with work from 40-year-old living composer Hannah Lash — a point of focus for the DSO and other orchestras looking to embrace a wider range of contemporary work from a diverse palette of composers.
Rönmark says that one-third of the works being performed this season are by living composers and that 25 percent of those composers are Black.
“One thing we have focused on for many years here are neglected composers,” Rönmark says. “Such a big part of an organization like ours is not just playing the music of dead composers — because it is their works that have stood the test of time — but how can you add new works to that if you don’t explore and see what’s out there?”
At the DSO, that exploration is marked by a new era under new leadership. But there’s no doubt Anne Parsons’ influence and legacy is the foundation on which Rönmark and Bignamini are building “new works.”
To view a video clip that WRCJ’s classical music hosts, Peter Whorf and Dave Wagner, recorded on Tuesday, March 29, remembering all that Parsons meant to them and to the city, go here.
March at the DSO
Experience the DSO at Orchestra Hall and throughout metro Detroit, at programs curated and performed by DSO musicians
Upcoming performances at Orchestra Hall include: Classical Roots: Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis alongside the DSO, March 4 and 5, and
The Best of Rodgers & Hammerstein, March 25-27.
This month’s community programs take place in Ferndale, Southfield, Monroe, Beverly Hills, Plymouth, West Bloomfield, and Grosse Pointe. Go to dso.org/events-and-tickets/list for a full schedule.