Allegro Authority: Jamie LaFreniere
Imagine sinking in to one of those plush, crimson seats at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center. The house lights have just dimmed, the chatter fades to silence and the Fox Valley Symphony Orchestra (FVSO) conductor theatrically lifts his baton.
Be it a solo from one highly skilled performer or a wall of sound from dozens of instruments playing in unison, the experience can be transcending as it evokes a crescendo of emotions from the captivated congregation.
Jamie LaFreniere, the FVSO executive director, knows that feeling intimately. And better yet, she knows the sentiment is mirrored in the musicians as they present their hard work.
“The musicians pour their hearts into giving the best performance they can. I think my favorite part is seeing the musicians’ response to the audience’s response,” LaFreniere said. “Seeing the musicians reap the rewards of all their hard work: It’s overwhelming. Seeing the audience experience
the moment as the music washes over them ... suddenly they’re not worrying about the dishes in the sink and the bills to pay. Watching both sides of that – it’s really magical.”
LaFreniere joined the symphony in 2008 as the director of operations. She was promoted to chief operating officer in 2014 and was
named executive director in 2015. As executive director, LaFreniere is the main go-to person for anything behind the scenes. She doesn’t conduct or perform (though she hesitantly notes that she played trumpet in college at Northern Michigan University while stressing that she is unequivocally not a musician). She functions, basically, as the symphony’s backbone fulfilling roles like operations director, business manager, marketing manager and human resources representative. “I can plan or make lists of what I will work on, but it is almost never correct,” LaFreniere said of her role at the nonprofit. “Every day is completely different: From board meetings to loading a bus full of student musicians for a school tour. I get to work with local businesses, famous musicians, elementary school kids and fireworks companies. I never know
what to expect and I love reacting in the moment to all the crazy things that happen.”
Another one of her responsibilities is the youth orchestra organizer. There are three separate orchestras ranging from new musicians to masterful high school juniors and seniors. LaFreniere oversees all three groups, their separate conductors and the weekly rehearsals and twice yearly concerts. “It’s a lot. It’s a challenge,” she laughed. “But that’s part of being in a nonprofit.”
BEHIND THE BATON
Last year marked the retirement of music director Brian Groner, who had steered the FVSO’s musicians for 23 years.
“He took this orchestra to the next level and I hope we always remember that and always honor that,” LaFreniere said. “I really respect him and learned so much from his integrity and dedication in everything. He had a very Zen way of handling all situations. The next music director has some big shoes to fill.”
That’s actually the biggest project on LaFreniere’s plate now: helping the symphony choose its next music director/conductor. The FVSO narrowed the applicants down to four finalists. This year’s season has featured each of the candidates as guest conductors of one concert. Just one candidate remains, and after the May show, the symphony’s board will choose the next music director.
LaFreniere said the director’s role is certainly not simply conducting concerts.
“That’s the most important thing for us. We want him to be a part of the community. At the schools, at events, he will be a part of our symphony family and our community, not just someone showing up for shows five times a year.”
ART + MUSIC
Prior to her work with the Fox Valley Symphony, LaFreniere worked as a graphic designer. So visual arts factor prominently for her, too. She’s made a major push to find ways for the symphony to merge its music with visual projects: A way to incorporate more senses into the experience.
“That’s been one of my favorite things we’ve done in the last few years – music meets visual,” LaFreniere said. “I really enjoy collaborations with local groups. Putting music together with student art or local bands. It reaches people on a whole new level.”
The symphony commissioned Appleton artist Cristian Andersson for a 50th anniversary painting in 2016 and another for the current season. As part of the “Big Arts in the Little Apple” program, Appleton students listened to composer Mason Bates’ arrangement “Mothership” and created visual art pieces based off the music. Then, they were able to view their artwork displayed in the PAC lobby and attend the FVSO performance of “Mothership” in March.
LaFreniere is excited for another collaboration in April. The symphony will team up with Los Angeles band Peridot for a concert at the Lawrence University Memorial Chapel. Hillary Reynolds, half of the Americana/folk band, grew up in Appleton and played with the FVSO youth orchestra. The live collaboration will be recorded, and all proceeds from sales of the recording will benefit the Trina Fund, which pays for travel expenses for breast cancer patients in Wisconsin. The fund, managed by the Women’s Fund for the Fox Valley Region, was founded in Reynolds’ mother’s memory.
When LaFreniere isn’t at work or spending time with her 14-year-old son Nathaniel, she has a hobby that she’s really sunk her teeth into. She runs the marketing for the Fox Valley Food Truck Rally. With about 30 locally owned and operated food trucks in the association, rally nights are held from May through October throughout the Valley. LaFreniere said about 10 trucks attend each rally, offering attendees a limitless creative menu.
“I love the variety,” LaFreniere said. “You can get something at each truck and have an international meal. That’s what families love about it, too. If you have a picky eater in the family, you can literally go to three different trucks for three different family members and all eat at the
same picnic table.”
Food trucks dish up traditional choices like hot dogs, pizza and subs to more exotic fare like Hawaiian shave ice, Hmong cuisine, eggrolls, Mexican, gyros and even Native American fry bread. Just like LaFreniere’s preference to watch the symphony’s musicians present their hard work to audiences, she has a similar appreciation for the conglomeration of food truck vendors.
“It is so much fun in the summer to go to the rallies and get to know the amazing people who run the food trucks,” she said. “They are families
who live and work in our community, and then run a truck on nights and weekends because it is their passion. It is great to see families come out and enjoy their hard work.” w