As John Dunson prepares for the second season of his two-year term as president of the Overture Council, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s network for young professionals ages 21-45, he sees unique opportunities for the group amid the landscape of virtual events.
Could you tell me a little about yourself — where you’re from, what you do outside your work with the Overture Council and how you got involved with the OC?
I am originally from northwest Indiana, an hour outside Chicago. I am a graduate of the DePaul University School of Music, with a major in vocal performance and a minor in business. Outside of what I do with the OC, I work in sales and client development for an information services and advisory company. Also, I sang with the Chicago Symphony Chorus for five seasons (2008-09 to 2012-13); that’s how I found out about the OC. I joined the OC in 2011 and was membership chair for three seasons before becoming president.
What’s one highlight from your tenure as OC president that you’re proud of?
This past season, one of the things that we were trying to do was to develop a meaningful collaboration with one of the other auxiliary groups that’s out there. We accomplished that by way of an interesting social event we did with a group called IVY: The Social University, which has chapters all over the country. IVY provides opportunities for people to experience things like musical performances, or anything within the arts and cultural realm or intellectual realm, and to meet other people through these experiences.
Our collaboration with IVY was a winter social in the Grainger Ballroom. It was a great success. It was the day before Valentine’s Day, and we had a chance to feature the Civic Orchestra of Chicago performing numbers throughout the event. Not only was this helpful with building the brand for both the OC and IVY, but we were able to stay on mission with supporting the CSO through the Negaunee Music Institute and creating audience development for the CSO. Out of that event, several new members joined the OC — people who said they had never been inside Symphony Center and were awed by the whole experience.
The OC has stayed active with a variety of virtual events while Symphony Center has remained closed. Could you share a highlight or two?
First, the fact that we were able to soldier on and have our end-of-season celebration virtually was fantastic. I credit that success largely to our most recent activities chair, who is now our incoming president elect, Kathryn Davies. She did a phenomenal job working with her activities committee and others to figure out a way to keep it creative, to keep people interested and to work with technology to make sure that it was smooth and seamless. Everything was very well done.
The second thing I would highlight is the recent virtual talk that the OC did with a group called D-Composed, which I had the pleasure of leading. This was inspiring for several reasons. First, it was an opportunity that was afforded to us through this pandemic — one of the positive things that came out of it. In a normal world, doing events like this would be expensive, whereas right now, with all of us being sheltered at home, we were able to pull this off with minimal cost and offer it to the general public. This not only heightens our brand but also heightens theirs. It’s important right now to support musical artists because the opportunity to perform in person is not there.
The D-Composed event also helped us to engage with a group that is breaking boundaries by bringing classical music outside of the major performance halls — to cafes and other venues throughout Chicago. One of the things we like to do with the OC is to engage, educate and expose our members to opportunities to look at other lenses upon classical music — anything that creates an intersection to draw the non-traditional audience and the young professionals audience. That’s really the goal of the OC: to engage those who otherwise are not going to show up for a Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Brahms or Mahler concert and to bring them by way of these other interesting events. This helps them to develop a greater appetite for classical music by speaking to their experience and to their generation.
As you approach your second season as president during a challenging time, what’s your vision for the OC in 2020-21?
My vision for the OC is, in many respects, similar to what it was when I came into the role as president. Certain things are still top of mind, such as growing the OC. While this may be a difficult feat because of the pandemic, I’m inspired by the fact that our members continue to engage. To continue to innovate and create unique opportunities for our members is also top of mind. I think the pandemic is creating more opportunities for that than we realize.
Promoting diversity is one of my key objectives as president of the OC. When I say diversity, it’s not about checking boxes or a one-time thing. I emphasize diversity so much because it’s something that should be a standard part of not only the CSO, but all our various institutions. I look at diversity in three buckets: in our membership, in the programming that we offer and in the things that we support through the OC. Diversity takes on a wide range. Color or ethnicity is one of the most obvious, of course, but engaging the LGBT community, engaging various people who are not part of the status quo — I’m going to be pushing on that.
Collaborations will continue to be huge. Drawing upon the success of what we did with IVY, it was extremely inspiring to see that this is something we can make a reality. Because of the pandemic, having collaborations with groups outside Chicago is going to be a little easier than it would’ve been before because of our virtual connection.
We’re going into our summer planning retreat soon, and we have some new people for the executive committee. I was concerned at first because we’ve never had new executive committee members come aboard when we are doing everything virtually, but at the same time, it helps people to think creatively. When we had a social with them via Zoom, I was inspired to see that they are very excited, which gives me hope.
For someone who’s interested in joining the OC or wants to learn more about it, what’s the most important thing you’d want them to know?
What’s important to know about the OC is that you don’t have to know classical music. The key is wanting to learn more about classical music, support the CSO, expand your network and be a part of this family of young professionals who not only love classical music but just like being around each other. I think that’s one of the key ingredients that’s kept us together in the midst of all this.
TOP: Overture Council President John Dunson. | Photo courtesy of John Dunson