Tag Archives: Omaha Symphony

Orchestrated by God, Encouraged by Parents

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

At his first public concert, a benefit for disabled children in Ecuador, Washington Garcia realized that he was put on Earth to serve others through music. “It was a revealing moment,” Garcia says.

He was only 7 years old.

The next enlightening moment came when he was 10. He played and won his first national competition. The boy realized that he could earn money playing the piano.

Every step along his career has involved meeting the right people who could help at the right time. It’s something he and his parents believe God has orchestrated, placing him on a path that enables him to serve and give to a new generation of young artists.

That path led to Omaha in 2016. Today, the former child prodigy from Ecuador is the director of the School of Music at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

He started down his musical path at an early age, reaching for the piano as an infant and trying to recreate music before he was in school. “It was natural when we were little, my parents wanted us to be involved in music,” Garcia says.

At age 4, he tagged along with his 6-year-old sister to the music conservatory. By the end of the school year, his sister’s teacher contacted Garcia’s mother, Miryam Eljuri, and told her that he was a prodigy.

Miryam knew at that moment Garcia’s wish to play music was something the family had to support.

“Washington’s success was achieved as a team,” Miryam says through her son’s translation. It was Miryam who helped him apply for the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program in his teens, Miryam who lined up an airline sponsorship to fly her son around the world for his concerts.

Garcia’s father, also named Washington Garcia and one of the most respected neurosurgeons in Ecuador, helped as well, driving his son to classes and guiding him to become a responsible young man.

At age 18, Garcia simultaneously graduated high school and college, earning a Bachelor of Music from the National Conservatory of Music in Ecuador. By then, he’d played with the national symphony and performed for a former Chilean president. He’d won first prizes at the Guillermo Wright-Vallarino National Piano Competition in Quito, the Elizabeth Davis Memorial Piano Competition and the 19th International Young Artist Piano Competition in Washington, D.C., the 2004 Baltimore Music Club Piano Competition, and the Harrison Winter Piano Competition.

Garcia was accepted into the Kennedy Center cultural exchange program, earning a $25,000 fellowship to help cover his master’s studies at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. He graduated at age 20, returning later to complete a doctorate. At 25, Garcia became the youngest Latin American pianist to have ever earned a doctorate performance degree from the university.

Throughout his studies, he cultivated an impressive international concert portfolio, which up to that point, included performances and lectures in Asia and Europe. His desire to continue playing while helping students led him to a career in education. He taught seventh and eighth graders in Baltimore before taking his calling to a higher level.

Garcia became an assistant professor of piano at Texas State University. In nine years, he rose in rank to become the appointed chair of the keyboard area and then the assistant director. It was a dream position, allowing him to work with more people, fundraise, build relationships internationally, and play music. He knew his next step in life was to become a director of a music school.

He was hired at UNO in January 2016.

His career path has taken him around the world, and so, his choice to reside in Omaha has puzzled some people. He tells them that he fell in love with the friendliness of the city and the culture of the school on his first visit.

“The faculty at the school of music was so talented and so collegial that I fell in love with them,” Garcia says. “We have one of the best faculty in Nebraska. It’s a collaborative faculty, and this is huge, because it doesn’t matter how good you are if you cannot collaborate with others.”

Already, Garcia has helped establish an international concert series at the school. In the next year, he hopes to begin renovating UNO facilities, including adding another concert hall; start a radio broadcast program to showcase students; and increase community engagement with other organizations.

The School of Music already has a student recital series at First Christian Church and, in the fall, will begin another one at Gallery 1516. At the end of March, the school will be among many cultural institutions performing at the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping and FEI World Cup Dressage Finals at the CenturyLink Center. In 2019, he hopes to launch an international music festival in Omaha.

“My goal is to continue to establish Omaha as one of the most important cultural and academic destinations in the U.S.,” Garcia says.

It’s an exciting time at UNO, according to Garcia. And it’s exciting for his family. While visiting over Christmas to see Garcia and his wife’s newborn son, Garcia’s parents spoke about their son’s career.

“Obviously, he came here with a clear mission and vision from God,” Garcia’s father says. “I know that he is going to fulfill his mission here in Omaha.”

Garcia will debut with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra Oct. 8 at Joslyn Art Museum. He will perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 under the baton of maestro Thomas Wilkins. Visit washingtongarcia.com for more information.

From left: Miryam Eljuri, Washington A. Garcia, and Washington H. Garcia

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Bravissimo! The Holland Performing Arts Center

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by provided

Dick and Mary Holland didn’t sit in their well shaded home all summer, waiting for the grand opening of the performing arts center that bears their names. By early May, they’d toured construction progress a dozen times.

But the privilege of joining them on a progress tour in late August proved that they see the great effort with fresh eyes on each visit. Both Dick and Mary asked pointed questions of project manager Steve Smayda, and Holland had friendly greetings for the men laboring on the job.

He’d recently treated the workers to ice cream, hiring three of those ding-dong trucks and sending them to the 11th and Dodge work entrance. “I’ve never been around guys so damn proud
of what they are doing,” he says. He’d long since donned his yellow hard hat to become the first to sing from the new concert hall stage.

“La Donna Mobile?” “No, something from Faust,” he jokes, but more like scales. The former member of the Opera Omaha chorus then offered a few baritone notes.

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Make no mistake, the Hollands are enjoying their singular involvement, starting with a major gift and a hand in planning the $92 million Holland Performing Arts Center at 13th and Douglas. Any discomfort comes from their more specific roles in that Oct. 21 grand opening performance, emceed by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

A news story reported that Dreyfuss was chosen partly because of starring in the movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” That got a groaning “I hope not” from Omaha’s Mr. Holland. As for that opening night, “We’re certainly going to be there, but I haven’t asked for anything.”

Such reluctance won’t surprise anyone who has followed the story of the Hollands and their “enormously successful” investment with Warren Buffett. When the Omaha World-Herald ran a big spread on their philanthropy (“Giving Their All”) a few years ago, it was noted that they don’t talk about their fortune “and declined to be interviewed” for the article.

When questioned by this writer last year for the University of Nebraska at Omaha magazine Alum, Dick added to the basic account in a Buffett biography. Married a month after his 1948 graduation from then Omaha U., Holland took over his father’s advertising agency and the newlyweds moved into their present home near 80th and Pacific in 1957.

That left him short of funds when he found Buffett, the first person he’d met whose investment ideas “made sense.” So Dick borrowed $10,000 on his life insurance policy and Mary contributed a “significant” amount from her own resources. The rest is history oft-told by biographers of “the Oracle of Omaha”: The insightful ones who invested $10,000 with Buffett in 1957 and let it ride through the founding of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., saw it grow to roughly $280 million.

Still, the Hollands remained in that same modest house, but gave away millions to causes ranging from the fight against poverty to arts organizations. Last year, $43 million remained in their charitable foundation, despite the many gifts.

Anyone tempted to second-guess their large contribution to the Holland Center must challenge two points: “Our top giving goal is to raise a whole lot of people,” especially children, “out of poverty.” And they both place great importance on the arts.

Born in Dundee and a graduate of Brownell Hall, Mary majored in childcare at Mills College in California. Dick, who grew up near 60th and Pacific, and Mary had attended the same Brownell dances, but didn’t meet until after World War II, when he returned to studies at Omaha U. “Mary still loves to dance,” Dick says, “and she’ll dance till the stars fall out of the sky.”

On music, “We’re all over the map,” he observes. “I like the modern Russians, Mozart, Brahms, some Beethoven. Mary likes some things I don’t particularly like, those compositions full of approaching doom. We go to some Broadway shows twice. We always go to Fiddler on the Roof twice, but this last time we were in Arizona.”

Mary puts it this way: “Life isn’t just reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than that. Music penetrates the soul. It causes us to reflect. Painting, dance and creative writing work that way, too. Observe the joy it brings. Not just the applause and cheers, but the quiet pleasure.”

Though Dick’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus was his most recent performance participation in local arts activity, he came close to a career as an artist. His father, Lewis, had been a talented painter, and Dick won an art award while playing football at Central High School.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was nuts about Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Now I like the contemporary—the Jackson Pollock is the best art at Joslyn.”

He started college planning to be a chemical engineer, like his older brother William, but military duty in that field turned him to art on his return to the classroom at Omaha University, the alma mater of Dick and his three siblings. “I never carried it far enough,” Holland explained. “I was just learning to draw, to paint, but I was still an amateur.”

He dreamed of going to the Art Students League in New York City, but then met Mary. “She wasn’t going with me, and I needed to make money” to support her “in even half the style to which she was accustomed.”

That explains the goal, one he now calls “tasteless,” that ran beneath his senior photo in the university yearbook: “To have money and a business in art and advertising.”

That business, for many years, was known as Holland, Dreves and Reilly, second only to Bozell and Jacobs in its advertising/public relations heyday. (Valmont, UniRoyal and Omaha National Bank were prime accounts.)

Dick didn’t entirely abandon art when he delved into vocal music. He tried some life drawing, some painting. “The thing about it,” he notes, “is I’m just so totally into myself when working on canvas,
so absorbed.”

But football and fencing gave way to golf. The tall man shot in the upper 70s in his prime at the Omaha Country Club, and freely advised fellow golfers. And painting gave way to five years of voice lessons, studying with the Germanic Josie Whaley.

“She’d say, ‘Meester Holland, if you keep doing the baaaa, the scales, you’ll have a remarkable voice.” In Dick’s words, “Keep training and your range is raised a hell of a lot.”

In the course of their board work and their contributions to the opera and the symphony, the Hollands and others developed a vision that led to the Performing Arts Center opening in October. Joan Squires, in her third year as president of Omaha Performing Arts, cites that vision and “Dick’s perseverance for eight years or more” as a key to the center’s completion.

She has toured construction with the Hollands and “wished I had a tape recorder and a camera. It’s a thrill every time thru with them.” She joined them again, along with their daughter, Andy, when this writer shared the experience.

In particular, Squires recalls Dick’s first reaction to the downtown center: “It’s so big.”

Yes, that was a surprise, he admits, having viewed it first in model form. He’d visited other arts centers and the committee headed by World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk added sites as far as Vienna and Lucerne to their tours.

The Hollands helped engage architects famed for the renovation of Carnegie Hall and design of the Clinton presidential library, along with the Fisher Dachs Associates as theater consultants who’d done work for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Even more intriguing were the acousticians from Kirkegaard Associates.

“I had to learn how to pronounce AK-u-stishun,” Holland noted. And, of course, to test their talents by singing that passage from “Faust.”

He stood on that 64 by 48 feet stage in the classic shoebox configuration of the main concert hall, 80 feet wide by 180 feet deep, where 2,000 will hear sounds ranging from soloists to full orchestras. Later, the Hollands will sit sans hard hats in what the architects call a surrounding of “warm, fine-grained woodwork.”

Concert-goers won’t see that the hall is “sheathed in zinc,” but before entering they’ll eye the great illuminated glass lantern above and they’ll see that the acoustically isolated hall is clad in limestone. A thousand will sit at orchestra level, with 400 in the mezzanine, and 600 in the upper balcony.

Squires is quick to remind that the $75 to $150 tickets are just for opening night, with early activities including two or three free events, plus tours, and other performances in the $35 and $45 range.

The “black box” recital hall will seat 450, and the terraced courtyard, designated as a third performance venue, will hold 1,000. The Holland Center will house parties and educational activities as well. The Orpheum, fully equipped with stage rigging, will remain home for Broadway musicals and other events.

Squires, who came to Omaha from the Phoenix Symphony, commented on the wide range of upcoming performances. “One of the reasons it’s a joy to work with the Hollands is because they bring such broad understanding and interests,” she says. “They’re eclectic, but don’t impose their taste. It’s a low key, quiet influence, and we respect their desire to stay out of the spotlight.”

“We won’t attend all the early events,” Dick adds, “but there are some we’ll definitely see.” They especially anticipate Renée Fleming’s appearance with the Omaha Symphony on Dec. 9. “I was president of Opera Omaha when she first sang here.” He also takes pride in their presenting of the great Beverly Sills, but notes that the biggest local paycheck of $100,000 went to Placido Domingo.

But now comes that grand opening with Dreyfuss, the other “Mr. Holland,” and a program that includes Oscar winner Alexander Payne, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, bandleader Branford Marsalis and others, including the symphony and the opera chorus. Squires takes pains to point out even this higher-priced event is not black tie, but cocktail attire.

Tickets went on sale in mid-August and began to sell quickly. A pre-event cocktail party sold out almost immediately.

Lest purists fear that Dick Holland’s brief aria was the only pre-testing of the acoustical marvels, it must be noted that an extensive “tuning” process gave professional musicians ample opportunities to experiment with the new concert hall, even before a long rehearsal period.

During the run-up to the grand opening, acousticians “tuned” the hall. Musical ensembles of varying size and style (classical, symphonic, chamber, pop, rock and jazz) performed during the weeks of late September. At each performance, acousticians positioned each of the moveable acoustic reflectors and panels, matching the reverberations to the size and sound of each group. The positions were locked into preset configurations, which could be used for future performances with ensembles of that size and style.

That’s fine by Holland who recalls his first piano lesson: “Auto stop, I’m the cop, drivers take warning.” The memory brings a smile and makes him happy to give the stage to the pros while he sits back with Mary in Row P of the Holland Center and enjoys their talents.

It’s not just a new asset for the performing arts. It enriches the city where both were born and where they stayed to make good use of their “enormously successful” investment.

Dr. A. Barron Breland

July 8, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Creighton University’s choral conductor, spontaneously volunteers the answer before even hearing the question.

“The ‘A’ stands for Ashley,” says Dr. A. Barron Breland with a dimpled grin.

As in Ashley Wilkes?

“Yup, absolutely. My parents were all about Gone with the Wind.”

This son of the South, born in Alabama but raised outside Atlanta, quickly brings the name game full circle.

“All the men in my family have traditionally gone by their middle name,” he explains. “It’s just one of those random Southern quirks.”

There’s nothing quirky about the success and esteem Breland has enjoyed since moving to Omaha eight years ago, although he sheepishly admits thinking Omaha was the state capital. “What did I know?” He says with a laugh.

A former singer with the prestigious Atlanta Boy Choir, Breland worked hard, earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in choral conducting from Indiana University. Choral jobs are hard to obtain, but Creighton showed an interest in him.

Within a year of his arrival, the Creighton Chamber Choir, which requires auditions, and the University Chorus, which does not, each doubled their number of concerts to two per semester. The repertoire became ambitious. The expectations grew, even though Breland knew the parameters before he accepted the job.

ABarronBreland1“I don’t have the singers here that I might have in Lincoln,” he says. “No one is coming to Creighton to make chamber music. They’re coming to be doctors and lawyers and business executives and wonderful liberal arts thinkers, which is beautiful.”

And yet Breland manages to get the most out of his choral ensembles, which caught the attention of Omaha’s tight-knit music community early on.

“We musicians like to keep our ear to the ground, and there was a buzz that something special was happening at Creighton,” says Ernest Richardson, resident conductor and principal pops conductor of the Omaha Symphony. Richardson went on a reconnaissance mission and came away impressed. “The choir was very well prepared and sang as a unit, pronouncing their consonants at the same time. Barron also achieved great balance in the sound of the voices.”

Maestro Richardson’s spy mission eventually resulted in a collaboration between the symphony and Breland, who has served as chorus master for large projects like Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. His deep knowledge of several genres of music, from classical to contemporary, has also given him more opportunities in the community. Breland serves as artistic director of the River City Mixed Chorus, where membership has increased from 40 to 102 people. More recently, he became the music director of Résonance, comprised of trained singers.

“They’re the best vocal group in town, no matter what kind of music you want,” says Breland. “They’ll go from the annual Christmas show with the symphony to Stravinsky’s Mass, to a cabaret night with show tunes. Résonance keeps me on my toes and excited.”

Becoming the chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Department at Creighton in August will also keep the boyish-looking 36-year old busy, but his new duties won’t temper his ambitions for the school’s chamber choir. He is planning a national tour with the group in 2017.

“I keep getting more and more fulfilled in my musical life in Omaha,” Breland says. The city he knew little about has become his happy home.

Symphony Kids

December 14, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The Omaha Symphony’s annual holiday performance includes children, and the appearance of a group of young musicians with their small violins in hand always gets a reaction from the audience.

“The last couple of years we’ve had about 40 kids on the stage. Whenever the littlest ones come out, the audience gasps audibly,” says their instructor, Anne Nagosky.

She owns Nagosky Violin and Viola Studio, with a roster of approximately 70 students, and she’s been a full-time violinist with the Omaha Symphony since 1998. She started out as a child violinist herself, first asking for lessons after a kindergarten classmate brought in a violin for show-and-tell, then beginning instruction at age 7.

“I actually didn’t want to be a professional musician for most of my growing-up years,” Nagosky says. “But I worked hard all that time.”

Luckily for Nagosky, her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, is home to the world-class Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and some of the best string teachers in the world. Her first violin teacher, Mimi Zweig, is the current director of the school’s Summer String Academy. Although several of her school-age classmates dreamed of a life onstage, Nagosky never pursued a music career until she attended music camp the summer before her junior year of high school.

“I have to say that I would not have had the chance to make that choice so late had I not had such a good foundation,” she says. In college, she began teaching occasional private string lessons.

“I realized that not only did I enjoy it, I had an aptitude for teaching. It was not necessarily something I pictured I would end up doing, but as I did it more and more I realized how rewarding it was,” Nagosky explains. “As much as I love performing—and that’s still my other job and the other part of my life—I think my most rewarding musical experiences have all been as a teacher.”

Nagosky started her own studio in Omaha 20 years ago. She’s taught students as young as age 3 as well as older youth and even some adult students, but the majority of her students are children.

“I just feel like I feel I have a particular strength working with children,” she says.

Her students first appeared onstage with the Omaha Symphony in 2003.

“Watching professionals perform shows a student what’s possible,” she says. “It’s great for students to have the perspective of, ‘What could I do and what is possible if I continue to work hard?’ The kids see the symphony musicians, and, especially for the younger kids, it’s kind of like seeing rock stars.”

The annual holiday performance on stage with the area’s most talented musicians brings out the best in her young performers, Nagosky adds, and they are invigorated for months afterward.

“Kids can do a lot more than we sometimes expect of them,” she says. “That’s one thing I’ve learned as a teacher; that there’s nothing wrong with having high expectations.”

nagosky.musicteachershelper.com

Symphony-Kids

Omaha Performing Arts

October 13, 2015 by
Illustration by Devin Golden

When Tony Bennett took to the stage at Holland Performing Arts Center in 2005, it was just another in the long list of innumerable venues he had played over the course of his legendary career. By the time he left, it stood out as one of the best.

That’s because as he began to sing, he paused, put aside his microphone and said, “I don’t need this.” Bennett was able to perform without technical enhancement, a rarity among performance venues. Not, however, at the Holland. The facility boasts state-of-the-art acoustics, and whether front-row-center or in the uppermost tier, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Making sure there aren’t any bad seats is the job of Omaha Performing Arts, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The nonprofit organization manages both the Holland Center, which opened in 2005 and is home to the Omaha Symphony, and the Orpheum Theater, built in 1927 as a premier venue for vaudeville acts. Together the two dominate the city’s performing arts scene and feature an eclectic array of talent ranging from classical ballet legends to Broadway blockbusters to jazz giants to even political pundits.

That kind of variety was unimaginable 10 years ago when the Orpheum served as Omaha’s primary performing arts venue. It hosted Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, and limited-run Broadway productions as well as community events such as high school graduations, dance recitals, and fashion shows. “The Orpheum’s schedule didn’t allow for the majority of artists and performers we have today,” explains Joan Squires, Omaha Performing Arts’ president since its founding. “It was a very confining schedule.”

Omaha also lacked a venue with the sound quality necessary to showcase singers and musicians to full effect. “One of the problems we had in the performing arts was that the music hall at the Civic Auditorium had fairly poor acoustics,” explains John Gottschalk, the organization’s chairman of the board. “You can’t have performers if you don’t have a place where what they do on stage isn’t getting out to the audience.”

HollandGraphicDick Holland, who, along with his late wife Mary, provided the main bequest for the $102 million performing arts facility that today bears their name, elaborates, “We had no good place for the symphony orchestra. The symphony is an expensive damn thing to have. And it needs full support to have first class musicians.”

The Holland Center provided that support and opened up the Orpheum’s schedule, making it possible for Omaha Performing Arts to offer a wider selection of performances. “We bring in the kinds of performances that would not appear here otherwise,” Squires notes. “We really seek to bring in top artists and have brought in a wonderful array. That’s a large factor in our success.”

Deborah Ward, director of marketing and communications for the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau, loves that success. “Omaha Performing Arts has really enhanced not only downtown’s cultural landscape but also the entire city’s,” she comments. “It’s provided unique performance venues and equally unique performances and has been really clever in the acts it’s brought in. We recently did research for the Kansas City, Des Moines, and Sioux Falls markets. We specifically wanted to know why those people come to Omaha. We found that 11 percent come for arts and culture.”

Less quantifiable are the educational benefits to the community, which are just as important and exist as one of Omaha Performing Arts’ primary missions. “We look for community opportunities that don’t always exist,” explains Squires. “We use performances to partner with the community and find ways to connect and build community engagement.” This includes master classes taught by performers, student matinees, discounted tickets for underserved communities, and a host of other offerings. In 2011 the Broadway show Wicked, for example, provided an opportunity for an anti-bullying summit involving cast members, school students, and the Anti-Defamation League. This year, the organization is introducing Carnegie Hall Musical Explorers, a program that builds basic music skills for students in kindergarten through second grade.

“The experience for our community is wonderfully enriching, and people understand that,” notes Gottschalk. “We have these professionals in town and the great gifts they give to people in terms of their time and talent. When a young person walks into a great hall, they’re inspired.”

As Omaha Performing Arts celebrates its first decade, Squires can’t help but be enthusiastic about its future. “As we get into the 10th anniversary, our real focus is to engage the community,” she says. “There’s still so much we can do.”

Holland agrees. “We’re damned proud of what we’ve done. We’re going into the coming 10 years terribly enthusiastic about everything and about growing more.”

HollandGraphicWide

Being Ryleigh Welsh

October 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ryleigh Welsh, 15, didn’t have too many plans for the summer. She’d entered one of her songs in the Omaha Performing Arts songwriting competition. She worked on her International Baccalaureate curriculum. She returned to Omaha Girls Rock and hit up some open mic nights. She took ukulele lessons every day. All that after performing in a spring play with SNAP! Productions at Shelterbelt Theatre.

The Omaha Central sophomore has already accomplished more, artistically, than many folks twice her age. At 12, she released her first album, Being a Unicorn, and at 14 starred as Lottie Adams in the SNAP! Productions dramedy Harbor. She’s even headlined her own “Ryleigh Welsh and Friends” night at Barley Street Tavern, with her name on the marquee and everything—though she had to play first because she’s a minor.

Her life sounds like a juggling act, but she seems to handle everything with uncanny ease—particularly her music, which is catchy as hell.

“I was never really a crying, screaming child, so all I did was write songs,” she quips.

“I’ll come up with a couple lyrics, write that down, and then mostly it’s just playing chords over and over, filling in words with the chords. Eventually it comes together.”

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When that happens, she says it takes about five minutes to finish a song, a pace that rivals that of a young Bob Dylan when he first hit Greenwich Village.

The young artist also has the best resource a beginning songwriter can have: a seasoned musician/mentor to help edit her material, who also happens to be her mother.

Molly Welsh is a staple of Omaha’s art scene. She’s acted in, and directed, several performances; played guitar and sung backup for multiple high-profile Omaha bands, including All Young Girls Are Machine Guns; and has worked for the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts, Nebraska Shakespeare Festival, and Film Streams. Ryleigh is the beneficiary of a household suffused with creative energy.

Take, for instance, the song “Reality Avenue,” (search her name and Boombox Productions to have a listen) which Ryleigh wrote in 2011. She says she “kinda had it all jumbled because I was so young…it was like ‘What are you saying?’”

Molly knew. “I could tell what she was trying to say, but none of the words were in the right order that would make sense to a person listening to it.” So Molly helped Ryleigh clarify the song. The result is a catchy, ukulele-driven tune with such lyrical gems as “You planted a yellow seed for me / to grow a bubblegum tree, and I don’t live in a house on Reality Avenue.”

When asked if she’s internalized any mantra to keep her going, Ryleigh pauses, then rattles off the title of an obscure book from the ‘60s which she recently read: How You Live Is How You Lose Your Mind. But she doesn’t look quite satisfied with that answer. Though fun-loving, she wants to do her best at everything. So she substitutes something better.

“My mantra is: I do what I want. I’m punk rock.”

Ballet Nebraska

September 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of B2B.

How is it that Midlands Choice has come to make an investment in, of all things, a ballerina?

Sure, the bottom line of any insurance entity is driven by risk management—the investing of premium revenues to hedge against claims.

But taking stock in Claire Goodwillie, a company dancer with Ballet Nebraska?

BalletNebraska2

Erika Overturff

The Midlands Choice example is repeated all across the metro as area businesses support a broad array of arts nonprofits, ones that dwell in everything from tutus to tempura.

And the table is set for a new era of collaboration between business and the arts  because philanthropic giving in America has finally returned to pre-recession levels.

Contributions, which totaled $358 billion in 2014, surpassed 2007’s pre-recession level of $355 billion. Additionally, giving was up from all major sources—individuals, corporations, foundations and bequests—according to Giving USA, an annual report compiled by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Giving USA Foundation of Chicago.

“Eight out of nine types of charitable organizations we measure saw increased contributions, and that’s good news for the philanthropic sector as a whole,” W. Keith Curtis told Omaha Magazine in an email. Curtis is chair of Giving USA Foundation and president of the nonprofit consulting firm The Curtis Group. “The 60-year high for charitable giving in 2014 is a great story about resilience and perseverance.”

Themes of resilience and perseverance define the Ballet Nebraska story.

Erika Overturff was 27 years old when the ballet company of which she was a dancer and resident choreographer appeared doomed. She had no money. She had no business acumen.

That was 2009. Flash forward to 2015 and Overturff, now 33, founder and artistic director of Ballet Nebraska, is leading the region’s only professional dance company into its sixth season.

In a city known for its “can-do” spirit, this story could be about almost any local arts nonprofit, but the unlikely saga of Ballet Nebraska is told here because it is perhaps the most improbable of tales, one that best reveals what a business community and the arts can do when they share a common vision.

Like settling into your seat with a program before the lights dim at any performing arts venue, it’s probably best to start by reviewing the cast of characters:

The Connector

Hal Daub knows people. Especially in a city of six degrees of separation that is, in reality, much more like two or three degrees, the former Omaha mayor (1995-2001) and U.S. Congressman (1981-1989) who has served on countless nonprofit boards and is now a partner at Husch Blackwell…knows people.

“When I was first introduced to Hal and he offered to help,” Overturff says, “I assumed that meant he was going to maybe make a few calls and do a little name-dropping.” Daub, it turned out, would become a key player in the often delicate pas de deux that is the coupling of business and the arts. “He not only made those calls, but he set up the appointments…and then he came along to personally introduce me and stand by my side in front of those who would become some of the most generous funders of Ballet Nebraska.”

“The reason I am so fascinated by what Erika has done,” says Daub, “is that Omaha is a city that has clearly evolved to become a place that is not just metropolitan, but truly cosmopolitan.” And investing in the arts, Daub believes, makes good business sense. “The social environment of a city—its arts and entertainment—is critical in attracting and retaining the best workforce. Ballet Nebraska, Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts…those and so many others are the organizations that help keep the best talent in Omaha.”

The Advocate

Michelle Clark is Union Pacific’s general director of information technologies, which means she probably knows more than a little about computer viruses. As a three-year board member of Ballet Nebraska, she’s also seen how supporting the arts can go viral.

“Employee generosity is furthered by the use of the company’s matching gifts program,” Clark explains. “This creates a sense of pride for employees, and Union Pacific is supportive of the communities in which we live and work. The employees of Union Pacific are very generous and have supported fundraising drives not only for Ballet Nebraska, but a number of organizations such as the Women’s Center for Advancement and JDRF.”

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Employees should never underestimate their power to play a key role in advocating for nonprofits within their organizations.

“I am passionate about the art of dance, especially ballet and Ballet Nebraska,” Clark says. “Dance inspires my creativity and provides insights to see beyond the obvious. My hope is that by providing individuals with the awareness of opportunities to experience and support the art of dance they will find their own inspiration to apply to their own life.”

And just as stubborn computer viruses are often cloyingly messy to eradicate once discovered, Union Pacific’s relationship with Ballet Nebraska has a “stickiness” of its own. Clark was preceded on the Ballet Nebraska board by Gayla Thal, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel.

The Bulldog

Don’t let the gentle demeanor of Midlands Choice vice president Greta Vaught fool you. Supporting the arts is often a visceral experience, and Vaught’s passion for dance exerted itself on multiple levels in the early stages of growth at Ballet Nebraska.

“Midlands Choice has always been supportive of my work in the community,” says the board chair of Ballet Nebraska.

“We like to listen to our people when making such decisions,” says Midlands Choice President and CEO Thomas E. Press. ”It is important for us to know that our giving has real meaning for them, their families, and their communities.”

“I looked at what Erika was trying to do,” Vaught continues, “and I thought it was brave, but impossible. But all along the way I just kept going back to the thought that if one of my daughters [Mia, now 15, and Hannah, now 19] wanted to try something so bold one day that”…insert long pause…“I’m sorry, this is making me cry. I would just hope that people with experience and connections and dollars would shepherd my daughters along like so many people have done with Erika and Ballet Nebraska.”

Okay, so maybe “The Bulldog” wasn’t such a great character name for this role after all.

The Artist

“I had to do a lot of on-the-job learning when I decided to try to launch a dance company,” Overturff says. “We were lucky in that we got our nonprofit status right away, but I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, and really nothing about raising funds. I was moved by every $5 check that came in, but it took a lot of mentoring, advice, and counsel to get us to where we are today as a fully funded, professional performance company.”

Ballet Nebraska now has a paid staff of 22, including nine salaries paid to company dancers. Today, Overturff’s once-nonexistent business connections run deep. Personal contributions from the likes of philanthropists Richard Holland, and Fred and Eve Simon, further fuel the growth of ballet in Omaha. Foundations also play a major role in funding. A recent gift of $124,000 from the Iowa West Foundation is the largest in Ballet Nebraska history.

“Talented professionals from all over the world that have trained their whole lives to pursue a career in dance now come to Omaha in the hopes of performing with Ballet Nebraska as we serve the state and western Iowa in performances, education, outreach, and more” she says. “A ballet company—any performing arts company, any arts organization—is about its people…the artists, the staff, and hardworking, selfless volunteers. But it is the people of Omaha, from the smallest donations to the relationships we have with such great businesses, that makes it all happen.”

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Anne Thorne Weaver

February 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

National Society of Colonial Dames diva Anne Thorne Weaver is at an age when she says and does what she wants. Fortunately for Omaha, this patron puts her money where her mouth is in supporting the arts.

When the new Blue Barn Theater opens this spring, the box office will be named in her honor for a major gift she made to the company. She admires the Blue Barn’s edgy work.

“I’m just very impressed with what they do,” says weaver. “There’s something about the intimacy of the smaller theater. I think they’ve done some wonderful productions. I think their new facility will be wonderful, and there won’t be any bats,” she adds in referring to a past production when an winged intruder darted overhead.

“I thought, that’s an interesting prop,” she quips, “and then realized it was a bat. Suddenly there was this thundering of shoes coming down in a mass exodus.”

Weaver likes that the theater’s new site on South 10th Street will be more visible than its Old Market digs. “I think it’s an exciting move and one of the things that’s really going to add to the Omaha scene.”

Her gift to Omaha Performing Arts made possible the Orpheum Theater’s Anne Thorne Weaver Lounge. The dedicated private space is a chic oasis for post-show receptions.

“I think it really puts a little wow into Omaha,” says its namesake, “and really adds a lot to any attraction you’re doing in the Orpheum.”

Outside the metro, her generosity’s recognized in the gift shop named after her at the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney and the lobby gallery named for her at the Lake Art Center in Okoboji, Iowa. She also donated the center’s stained glass ceiling created by Bogenrief Studios.

She not only gives money but time to venues she believes in, serving on boards for Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, the Omaha Community Playhouse, and MONA. She served on the Western Heritage Museum (now Durham Museum) board and was active in the Joslyn Women’s Association.

Weaver, whose civic volunteering includes the Nebraska Humane Society and the Junior League of Omaha, only gives to things she enjoys. “Life is too short, so why fuss around with something I don’t enjoy or work with people I don’t like. When you give, everything is given back.”

She traces her aesthetic appreciation to her late artist grandmother, Narcissa Niblack Thorne, renowned for her miniature rooms, dioramas, and shadow boxes. Some of her grandmother’s handiwork is displayed in framed cases hanging on the walls of Weaver’s exquisitely designed home, whose expansive sun room features two Bogenrief windows.

Surrounding herself with beauty comes naturally to Weaver, who grew up in the historic Terrace Hill home in Des Moines. The restored structure is now the Iowa governor’s mansion.

The well-traveled Weaver considers the vibrant arts scene here a cultural and economic asset that makes the city a more attractive place to live and visit. She takes pleasure helping the arts thrive and sampling all the region’s offerings.

“We all need music and art in our lives,” Weaver says.

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Joan Squires

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Joan Squires was living a cozy life in Arizona where she was president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony. But when Omaha Performing Arts leaders called 10 years ago, she couldn‘t resist the challenge.

OPA wanted her help in operating two theaters in Omaha—the venerable Orpheum and the yet-to-be-built Holland Performing Arts Center. Who could pass up the chance to operate a theater built in 1927 that was undergoing a $10 million renovation? And who wouldn’t want to participate in the building of a $102 million performing arts center in Downtown Omaha?

Squires saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “There was a committed board and key leadership. Also at that time, no one in Omaha was bringing in shows.”

OPA’s new president arrived in 2002 to find a staff of one and a lone computer housed in the offices of Heritage Services; the philanthropic foundation was OPA’s fundraiser. The Holland Performing Arts Center was only a sketch on an architect‘s drawing board. The Orpheum Theater was still owned by the City of Omaha. And few people knew much about OPA. “One of our greatest challenges was branding the institution,” Squires says. “We had to go from not in existence to fully operational in three years.”

Her first action was to help set goals: 1) Assume management of the Orpheum from the city, 2) Prepare a strategic plan for the development of the organizational and administrative structure for OPA, and 3) Participate in construction of the Holland.

“In 2004, we opened Ticket Omaha [a local ticketing service for the arts]. Tickets were on sale six months before the Holland’s first performance in 2005,” Squires says.20130102_bs_8722 copy

A Decade Later

Today, the OPA president has a staff of 90 full- and part-time employees and 500 volunteers. She oversees the 175,000-square-foot Holland Performing Arts Center and the renovated 2,600-seat Orpheum Theater that reopened in 2002. And Omaha Performing Arts now is the largest nonprofit arts organization in Nebraska.

Seventy-five percent of funding is now from earned revenue and 25 percent is from contributions.

Rankings in two industry publications in 2011 gave Omaha bragging rights. The Orpheum was ranked No.1 in Midwest ticket sales by Venues Today and No. 16 worldwide by Pollstar. The Holland was ranked in the top 10 nationally by Venues Today, an impressive ranking for a performing arts center that didn’t exist six years earlier.

“There were those that said Omaha could not support the facility,” remembers John Gottschalk, OPA chairman since its formation in 2000. Squires has oversight of a $18 million operation. “And in six years she has never missed her budget. Never.”

Squires’ success in luring top talent has brought a financial benefit to the area, attracting visitors, creating jobs, and increasing tax revenue. A 2011 survey by University of Nebraska economists concluded that the two theaters had a cumulative economic impact on Douglas County of $128.49 million over five years and a $98.31 million impact on Nebraska.

The widely praised acoustics of the Holland bring out the best of the Omaha Symphony. Broadway shows now seek out the Orpheum. Performances have included Wicked, Jersey Boys and Disney’s® Lion King, which returns in March.

Check Squires’ iPhone and you’ll find an eclectic collection of music. But Broadway tunes rule. “From childhood on, I’ve loved Broadway musicals,” she says.

OPA’s mission includes presenting educational programs for all ages, from student matinees to master classes to workshops taught by professionals.

“An addition at the Holland designed for teaching dance classes was added about three years ago,” says OPA Vice Chairman Richard Holland. The performing arts center was named for him and his late wife, Mary.

10 January 2013- Joan Squires office is photographed for B2B Magazine.

Photo in Squires’ office of her with Debbie Reynolds (left) and Warren Buffett.

Squires has her finger on the pulse on Broadway theatre life and currently serves as a voting member for Broadway’s Tony Awards®. Active in Broadway League committees, she is a member of the Performing Arts Center Consortium and of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. She is an advisor for the Broadway Dreams Foundation.

The Life of Joan Squires

Joan was born and raised in Shippensburg, Pa., where her father ran a family business. Her twin brother, John, is the fourth generation in the business. Joan received her undergraduate degree in music education from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., and became a music teacher for three years. She loved her students, but teaching wasn’t her life’s mission.

She moved into arts management, earning a master’s degree in both business and music arts administration from the University of Michigan. She served as an intern for the National Endowment for the Arts and participated in a yearlong fellowship under the sponsorship of the League of American Orchestras.

Squires has worked in arts management for more than 25 years. Previous positions were with the Milwaukee, Utah, and Houston symphonies. She has received many honors including the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor and the YWCA’s Woman of Vision. In 2012, she received a Governor’s Arts Award from the Nebraska Arts Council.

Squires has a short commute to work. She lives in a downtown condo about halfway between the two theaters that she oversees. Her husband, Tom Fay, was a vice president of the Arizona State University Foundation before they moved to Omaha. A native New Yorker, he played the oboe for 17 years with the Pittsburgh Symphony and held a second career in arts management and academic fundraising.

Fay and Squires have been married 22 years. She has three stepchildren and three grandchildren. Her husband has been supportive of her demanding career, says Squires. “He said he had his career, and it was now my turn.”

Squires said despite all the long hours she logs at work, it’s all worth it. “At the end of the day, standing in the back of the theater and watching the audience react, I think I have the best job in town.”