In this issue of the Symphony’s newsletter, we spoke with award-winning vocalist Bernard Holcomb about his excitement to bring the legendary hits of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to the Jacoby Symphony Hall stage. You’ll also learn exciting news about Principal Tubist James Jenkins going on tour with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Japan, Violist Susan Pardue and her serendipitous experience at the Symphony and Violist Romona Merritt who shares her involvement in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives.

Behind the Bows

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Q&A With Operatic Star Bernard Holcomb

What are some fun facts about you that many people may not know?
"I am an inner-city kid who grew up on the Westside of Detroit. I’m a proud product of inner-city public school music programs, and it brings me joy to be able to say that. I count myself lucky to have this career, and I love all aspects of it. I’m also a huge Trader Joe’s fan!"

How do you feel knowing this is your Jacksonville Symphony debut? Is this your first time visiting Jacksonville?
"I am super excited about it! I was in Jacksonville recently to visit a dear friend but was in town for less than 24 hours, so it doesn’t really count. I always welcome new artistic collaborations, and I cannot wait to share the stage with the Jacksonville Symphony!"

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Outside Jacoby Symphony Hall

Principal Tubist James Jenkins Joins BSO for International Tour in Japan

In November, Principal Tubist James Jenkins joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), under the direction of Music Director Andris Nelsons, for a six-concert tour through Japan in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Kyoto. As the 29th international tour in BSO’s history, this was the orchestra’s first international engagement since the COVID-19 pandemic and its first visit back to Yokohama and Kyoto since the late 1980s. Jenkins has participated in several of BSO’s tours having traveled through the Northeastern United States and European countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom and others. However, this was Jenkins’ first time visiting Japan.
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Pictured left to right: Mike Roylance, principal tubist of the BSO, Yoshihiko Matsukuma, head tuba designer and maker for all Yamaha tubas, James Jenkins, principal tubist of the Jacksonville Symphony and Peter Link, principal tubist of the Sendai Philharmonic

Beyond the Barriers

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The Jacksonville Symphony Furthers DEI Efforts and Welcomes Violist Romona Merritt

Violist Romona Merritt was invited to substitute with the Jacksonville Symphony last season beginning in December 2021 and has since performed many concerts throughout the 2022/23 season. She is also a fellow of Sphinx, an organization that supports the Jacksonville Symphony’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy of making symphonic music accessible to all by diversifying audiences who attend the Symphony’s concerts and recruiting musicians from a variety of backgrounds. Read on to learn more about her inspiring story and how she strives to make a difference in her work.
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Under the Spotlight

Serendipity at the Symphony: Reconnecting Through Music

Susan Pardue is a violist of the Jacksonville Symphony and is originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Being so far from home, Pardue never quite expected to see a familiar face from her hometown at the Jacksonville Symphony, let alone the face of a close friend she grew up with. Sloane Wood Long, a member of the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus, sang in Pardue’s father’s chorus and was a piano student of Pardue’s mother in her early childhood. Though the two intermittently stayed in touch since graduating from high school, it had been several decades before they had seen each other. Read more to learn how their love for music brought them both to the Jacksonville Symphony.
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Pictured left to right:
Sloane Wood Long, Susan Pardue

Behind the Bows

Q&A With Operatic Star Bernard Holcomb

What are some fun facts about you that many people may not know?
"I am an inner-city kid who grew up on the Westside of Detroit. I’m a proud product of inner-city public school music programs, and it brings me joy to be able to say that. I count myself lucky to have this career, and I love all aspects of it. I’m also a huge Trader Joe’s fan!"

How do you feel knowing this is your Jacksonville Symphony debut? Is this your first time visiting Jacksonville?

"I am super excited about it! I was in Jacksonville recently to visit a dear friend but was in town for less than 24 hours, so it doesn’t really count. I always welcome new artistic collaborations, and I cannot wait to share the stage with the Jacksonville Symphony!"

What is it like performing the iconic hits of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with a live orchestra?

“There almost aren’t words to describe how it feels. If I just had to choose a word, it would be exhilarating. To hear these tunes fully fleshed out with an orchestra fills me up and prepares me to soar while singing.”

What is your personal/artistic process when bringing these iconic jazz legends to life through vocal performance? Do you have any personal connections to this music?
“I like to listen a lot to the greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Mahalia Jackson. I listen to every aspect of what they did and let the music really speak to me that way. Then, I make it my own. I dig into the text and figure out how it speaks to me and how I will then convey that to the audience.

I remember being particularly spellbound by a recording of Mahalia’s performance of ‘Come Sunday’ while studying opera as an undergrad at the Eastman School of Music. Having the chance to sing this music is a dream come true.”

How would you describe the power and emotion of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s music, and what are some of your favorite pieces that you will perform at the concerts? 
“The power of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s music is that it is masterfully relatable. ‘Lush Life’ is one of my all-time favorites. I mean, who hasn’t experienced the heartache of a bad breakup and had to pick up the pieces again? I know I have. ‘Come Sunday’ is also one of my favorites. I get to bring a pinch of my operatic training to it, and that’s always fun to do.”

What kind of experience do you think people will have at the concert, and what experience do you hope they have?
“I think people will walk away energized with a skip in their step. This is feel-good music! I sincerely hope that the audience is able to relax and enjoy the show. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and I hope it offers them a moment to escape.”

With a busy schedule of performances and projects, what is something coming up that you are particularly excited about?
“I signed my first contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and will be understudying a major role in Terence Blanchard’s Champion this spring!”

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Outside Jacoby Symphony Hall

Principal Tubist James Jenkins Joins BSO for International Tour in Japan

In November, Principal Tubist James Jenkins joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), under the direction of Music Director Andris Nelsons, for a six-concert tour through Japan in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Kyoto. As the 29th international tour in BSO’s history, this was the orchestra’s first international engagement since the COVID-19 pandemic and its first visit back to Yokohama and Kyoto since the late 1980s.

Jenkins has participated in several of BSO’s tours having traveled through the Northeastern United States and European countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom and others. However, this was Jenkins’ first time visiting Japan.

“It was such an incredible experience getting to perform and travel with an orchestra of that caliber,” said Jenkins. “Sharing this experience and getting to be a part of the growth that comes with going abroad really confirmed that interpersonal relationships deepen with opportunities like these. It was invaluable getting to see the enthusiasm from new audiences and musicians and witness everyone coming together through music.”

Before being canceled due to COVID-19, Jenkins was initially scheduled to tour with BSO last season in Vienna, Leipzig, Hamburg and Paris.
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Pictured left to right: Mike Roylance, principal tubist of the BSO, Yoshihiko Matsukuma, head tuba designer and maker for all Yamaha tubas, James Jenkins, principal tubist of the Jacksonville Symphony and Peter Link, principal tubist of the Sendai Philharmonic
“There was a lot of celebration when we were all at the airport knowing that this tour was happening,” said Jenkins. “It was also exciting to know that I was part of their first international trip after five years and see other musicians experiencing the same feeling of hope, anticipation and excitement for this experience that I was.”

To kick off their first international tour since 2018, Jenkins and BSO performed at Yokohama’s prestigious Minato Mirai Hall on November 9 and then traveled to Kyoto’s Concert Hall on November 10, Osaka’s Festival Hall on November 11 and lastly, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on November 13, 14 and 15.

The tour repertoire featured Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 6, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and Caroline Shaw’s Punctum. The musicians were also joined by Mitsuko Uchida, an award-winning pianist and conductor, for performances of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, Emperor in Osaka and Tokyo.

“Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, the primary piece I got to perform, is my favorite of his tone poems and is a wonderful piece from a variety of standpoints,” said Jenkins. “It is not only very programmatic, but it was emotional getting to perform it in such breathtaking venues. Though many of us did not speak the same language, it was clear that music supersedes verbal communication. All of us were able to connect through melodies without words, which is always awe-inspiring.”

In addition to these performances, Jenkins was invited by the Yahama corporation of Japan, a major producer of high-quality instruments, to their company concert hall to play test four prototype BBb and CC Tubas. Jenkins, Mike Roylance, principal tuba of the BSO, Yoshihiko Matsukuma, head tuba designer and maker for all Yamaha tubas, and Peter Link, principal tuba of the Sendai Philharmonic, played for nearly three hours while scientists and engineers listened, took measurements, asked questions and made final adjustments to the instruments.

Jenkins is one of few professional tuba players in the country who plays a Bb tuba as his primary instrument. Most tubists in symphonies play the CC instrument, which is pitched a whole step higher.

“Since I was the only tubist present who could play this particular instrument, the technicians were especially interested in how my playing would shape that specific line,” said Jenkins. “It was gratifying to know that others will get to play these instruments, which will be a core part of their journeys as musicians and that my feedback played a role in that.”

Overall, Jenkins describes his tour in Japan as a collection of firsts and one that remains a highlight of his professional career as a musician.

“Words cannot describe how much I was able to soak in and the sheer amazement of this experience,” said Jenkins. “Though I was sad to see it end, of course, I was reminded of how fortunate I am to go back home to Jacoby Symphony Hall and its warm, inviting sound like no other that always welcomes me back.”

Beyond the Barriers

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Beyond the Barriers: The Jacksonville Symphony Furthers DEI Efforts and Welcomes Violist Romona Merritt


Violist Romona Merritt was invited to substitute with the Jacksonville Symphony last season beginning in December 2021 and has since performed many concerts throughout the 2022/23 season. She is also a fellow of Sphinx, an organization that supports the Jacksonville Symphony’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) strategy of making symphonic music accessible to all by diversifying audiences who attend the Symphony’s concerts and recruiting musicians from a variety of backgrounds.

Merritt’s musical journey began at Pine Forest Elementary School (currently known as Pine Forest School of the Arts) in Jacksonville, Florida. Her first private teacher was Ruth Paugh, a long-time violinist with the Jacksonville Symphony. “My strings class was also taught by an inspiring and enthusiastic string teacher, Liz Papenbrock, and she allowed us to select our instrument of choice,” said Merritt. “The viola was an unfamiliar instrument to me, and I immediately loved the warm, mellow tone of it. I knew, without a doubt, this was the instrument I wanted to play.”

As a high school senior, she was a Jacksonville Symphony Concerto Competition winner and performed as a guest soloist for area high school educational concerts. She received her Bachelor of Music and Master of Music in Performance from the North Carolina School of the Arts and the University of Minnesota. Following her education, she was a full-time member of the Alabama Symphony viola section for 17 seasons and has been a substitute violist with the Detroit Symphony since 2011.

“To learn at an early age that you could express your innermost thoughts and feelings through notes on a page changed my life. I was always a dedicated academic student, but the discipline that was needed to continue my progress throughout my career instilled in me the desire to strive in all areas of my life. I strongly believe that music is medicine for the soul, and I am convinced that there is music written for every moment in life,” said Merritt.

For over 20 years, she has also been a member of Sphinx whose mission is to “transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts.” Sphinx supports musicians who are just beginning their musical journeys, seasoned professionals, administrators and entrepreneurs through a variety of services that highlight musicians’ achievements and foster their artistic growth. These include year-round tuition-free education, performances, sector-wide partnerships with 300+ organizations, new commissions by Black and Latinx composers and many other initiatives.

Merritt enjoys performing with her colleagues in the Sphinx Symphony and teaching violin for the Sphinx Overture program. She has mentored many young musicians over the years and hopes to continue helping more students achieve their goals.

“I am very passionate about providing a solid musical foundation for young string players,” said Merritt. “Continuous teacher training provides me with the tools to become a better teacher and mentor. As a 2019 and 2021 Sphinx MPower Grant recipient, I was able to attend ‘Suzuki in the Schools,’ a specialized program for student instruction, and group class training with well-known educators.”

As a musician of color, Merritt states that she is encouraged to see honest conversations continually emerging that pave the way for diverse, equitable and inclusive symphony environments.

“I bring my heritage, talent and heart to the stage to share with all of my colleagues. When we make music, the common thread is our love of music with one another and most especially, the audience,” said Merritt. “It is inspiring to see orchestras like the Jacksonville Symphony embrace the collective thought that diversity brings a plethora of inspiring and engaging discoveries and motivating challenges that binds us together to bring this art to our community.”

She explains that her favorite moment performing with the Jacksonville Symphony so far has been knowing that the experience that has come full circle. Now as a professional musician and instructor, she hopes to provide future musicians with the same uplifting support that has helped her become who she is today.

“I was that excited young girl sitting in the audience listening to the Jacksonville Symphony. That young girl is now a professional musician who is truly honored and blessed to return home and share the stage with immensely talented musicians,” said Merritt. “I am always striving to remain positive about life’s journey and to always remember that many individuals have paved the way for me to succeed in life. Now, I have been granted that honor to pass the torch of hope and encouragement to others.”

Under the Spotlight

Serendipity at the Symphony: Reconnecting Through Music

Susan Pardue is a violist of the Jacksonville Symphony and is originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Being so far from home, Pardue never quite expected to see a familiar face from her hometown at the Jacksonville Symphony, let alone the face of a close friend she grew up with.

Sloane Wood Long, a member of the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus, sang in Pardue’s father’s chorus and was a piano student of Pardue’s mother in her early childhood. Though the two intermittently stayed in touch since graduating from high school, it had been several decades before they had seen each other. One day, Pardue received a message from Long saying that she was auditioning in the Jacksonville Symphony Chorus, and soon thereafter, Pardue and Long shared the Jacoby Symphony Hall stage to perform Brahms’ German Requiem this past November. Since then, the two have also performed Handel’s Messiah and Holiday Pops and look forward to performing together in even more concerts to come this season.
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Pictured left to right:
Sloane Wood Long, Susan Pardue
“Susan also used to babysit me when I was young, so I got to hear about all of the important milestones in her career like when she was accepted into the North Carolina School of the Arts and her time in Italy as a Fulbright Scholar. I also got to see her perform at Julliard during her master’s program when on a music trip with her father,” said Long. “When I eventually became an elementary school music teacher, I would always share the story of how my babysitter now plays in an incredible Symphony to show my students just how far their love for music can take them. I’m so amazed to sing along beside her after all of these years and be a part of such a great organization.”

“Getting to reconvene and perform with a close childhood friend was truly a full-circle experience for me,” said Pardue. “It is incredible to think how music has the power to connect people over the span of time and in this case, even distance and that our passions for music led us both to the exact same place. It is moments like these that bring me immense joy as a musician.”
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