San Juan Symphony leader reflects on challenges, successes after 15 years at helm

Kathy Myrick retiring as executive director at end of season

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The symphony board has named Chandra Stubbs as Myrick's replacement.
  • Music director Thomas Heuser said Myrick impressed him with the determination and leadership she exhibited during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Myrick will become the director of the artist-in-residency program at Willowtail Springs in Mancos, Colorado.

FARMINGTON — Unlike many of its counterparts in the performing arts field, the San Juan Symphony is poised to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic in the best financial condition in its history.

Thanks to a series of grants it has received from federal, state and local government sources and foundations, and the creative way in which it managed to continue operating during the pandemic, the orchestra has established a significant monetary cushion for the first time, general manager Kathy Myrick said.

"That has put us way ahead of where we ever imagined the symphony would be," she said.

But that achievement has come at a price for the organization. Acknowledging that she is feeling burned out after the challenges of the last two years, Myrick is stepping down as general manager at the end of the symphony's season in April, ending a 15-year tenure.

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Kathy Myrick

"The last couple of years have been very difficult," Myrick said, explaining her decision to retire after a two-year period in which the orchestra largely had to abandon its normal operating model and create a new one on the fly that included a full season of recorded, virtual concerts.

Myrick said she is proud of how her organization was able to meet the challenges of the pandemic and continue offering classical music to its audience without interruption. But she acknowledged the work that was required to make that happen took a toll on her, leaving her mentally drained.

Chandra Stubbs

"I think it's a really good time for somebody else to take the reins," she said, referring to the fact that the symphony's board already has named her successor, Chandra Stubbs.

"Chandra has the energy and enthusiasm I had 15 years ago, and she's the perfect person for the job," Myrick said.

'We were paralyzed'

When the pandemic struck in March of 2020, the San Juan Symphony was on the verge of completing its season, with only one concert left. The organization — which operates in Farmington and Durango, Colorado — responded immediately by cancelling that last weekend of performances.

The steps that would need to be taken next were less certain, as no one had any idea how long the shutdown associated with the pandemic would last and how severe it would be. Myrick and music director Thomas Heuser huddled and tried to figure out a plan for keeping the organization afloat in the face of so many unknowns.

"We were paralyzed," Myrick recalled of that period. "We had no idea what we were going to do. Thomas and I brainstormed about recording our performances outdoors in safe spaces."

Ultimately, that was the approach the symphony took, delivering several recorded concerts with a downsized orchestra in a virtual format for the 2020-2021 season. Myrick said it was extremely challenging to organize, perform and record those concerts for an organization that never had taken on a project of that nature.

"It hasn't been smooth sailing … but we have made it work in a way we felt was safest for all of the people involved," she said.

Just as challenging was the prospect of building a digital apparatus on the symphony's website that would permit patrons to subscribe to and view those performances, allowing the orchestra to generate income while continuing to serve its mission of bringing high-quality classical music to the Four Corners.

"It required learning a whole set of new skills I had absolutely no experience with," she said, comparing the experience to having to pivot on a dime.

Myrick may have been feeling almost overwhelmed by the experience, but Heuser, who has worked closely with her over the last five years since joining the symphony, said he was impressed by the determination and leadership she demonstrated in the face of those trials.

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Thomas Heuser

"That was a turning point for us," he said. "When we were all dealing with the disappointment and sorrow in the organization over the cancellations, Kathy was so quick to pivot. I never felt like there was any doubt in her mind we were making the right pivot. I think that's indicative of the kind of leader she is."

Ultimately, the switch to virtual concerts proved to be a great success. The number of subscribers who signed up soon outpaced projections, and the atmosphere around the organization took on a new air of normalcy even as the pandemic continued to rage.

Even better news was the number of grants Myrick secured for the symphony to see it through those troubled times. By the end of the 2020-21 season, it was clear the San Juan Symphony had met the challenges of the preceding year in a way that few performing arts organizations could match.

"We made it through. We kept it going," Myrick said. "And the symphony was in better shape than it's ever been."

The way things were

By the time the 2021-2022 season was ready to start last September, things were largely back to normal for the organization. The symphony was planning a full season of in-person concerts, though many pandemic-related restrictions remained in place.

That's when Myrick knew the time was right to inform the board of her decision to step aside at the end of the season. As rewarding as the previous season had been, Myrick also sensed there was a permanent shift in how the symphony operated, and she knew many of the things she enjoyed most about her job — especially interacting with the musicians on a personal level — might never go back to the way they had been before the pandemic.

"The musicians were my favorite part of the job," she said, explaining how much she has missed maintaining those relationships over the last two years.

Myrick also felt like she had become distanced from the orchestra's patrons in both Farmington and Durango. During a typical concert weekend, she said, it wasn't unusual for her to come into contact with more than 1,000 people as she worked to build a bridge between herself and the audience. That was the part of the job from which she derived the most satisfaction, Myrick said, and its absence affected her considerably.

"That all went away in 2021," she said.

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Myrick said she greatly misses the preconcert buffet dinners the organization used to hold for members of the orchestra and the champagne toasts with the audience that were a part of the performance weekends. Those elements have not been resumed because of the pandemic restrictions, and Myrick doubts they ever will be.

As she enters the final few months of her tenure, Myrick said she is most pleased with how the orchestra has increased in size and especially its performance footprint. Over the years, the orchestra and its associated performing groups have delivered concerts in Telluride, Cortez and Bayfield in Colorado in addition to Durango and Farmington, bringing classical music and music education to a widening, more diverse audience — something that became a point of emphasis with Heuser's arrival and an element she hopes to see continue even after she's gone.

Heuser said the symphony has benefited from Myrick's vision and noted she has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to figuring out the organization's next move.

"It's been an honor to have her as a partner at the symphony," he said.

Even as she prepares to leave, Myrick is still thinking of the future. She will begin a new job as director of the artist-in-residency program at Willowtail Springs, a nature preserve and nature center in Mancos, Colorado. And, of course, she continues to envision a brighter future for the San Juan Symphony, explaining that she has recommended to the board that it take some of the cash it has accumulated over the last two years and establish an endowment for the organization that will help ensure its financial stability for years to come.

Such a step may have little to do with the symphony's artistic side, Myrick said, but it very much serves the organization's primary mission.

"We can always improve the quantity and quality of the music," she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.