The NC Symphony Returns to Campus as Duke Arts Strengthens Its Outreach

John Brown: ‘Our hope is that our students and audiences leave our campus ready to deeply engage in the arts everywhere.’

The NC Symphony peforms with Itzhak Perlman in 2008. Duke arts vice provost John Brown is on the bass in the left back row.
John Brown, right, with mentor Jack Budrow at a NC Symphony rehearsal in 2004.

Duke Today: Tell us about your own experiences with the North Carolina Symphony.

JOHN BROWN: When I was in the 5th grade, the symphony traveled to perform in the main auditorium in my hometown of Fayetteville. It made me want to start playing the bass – a decision that ultimately led to my work today.

I grew up around music – my mother plays the piano, and my grandmother sang – and I had been interested in the bass since seeing it played by the Duke Ellington Orchestra on PBS. But having the chance to see the instrument played by a live orchestra made it feel accessible to me. My school started an orchestra program right after that, and I got to hold the instrument, and that was it for me.

I played my first concert with the symphony in 1992, when I was a junior in college. Back then they had an intern program, which I joined for two years.  I had the opportunity to play alongside both of my teachers and mentors, Jack Budrow and Craig Brown, and then as Jack’s substitute while he was on medical leave.

Touring with the symphony and visiting schools remains a highlight of my career. I continue to do school performances whenever possible with my own bands, and my roadmap for Duke Arts includes more work throughout the state, particularly in public schools. This vision is inspired, in part, by my experiences with the symphony both as a 9-year-old audience member, and as a performer.

Duke Today: How does the symphony visit fit in with Duke Arts’ outreach goals to the local and state community?

BROWN: The commitment the symphony makes to state-wide education and access mirrors Duke Arts’ mission and the mission of the university at large. We are both committed to serving the people of the Carolinas, and one way that Duke Arts achieves that is by presenting world-class artists.

The Duke Arts Presents season includes phenomenal artists from around the globe, and we are fortunate that our local and state community is rich in artists of that caliber, including the North Carolina Symphony. We hope that this concert is just the beginning of a renewed relationship that brings the Symphony to the Duke and Durham communities regularly.

Duke Today: How does this Duke Arts outreach work benefit students in the program?

JOHN BROWN: What better way to inspire students than by bringing artists directly to them? Students in Duke’s music department have had relationships with symphony musicians as professors and visiting artists.

Our hope is that this concert, and our work in general, will also reach students who are not primarily studying the arts. We want to expose students to world-class arts experiences for their own enrichment – for mental wellness, inspiration, or just to inspire joy.

John Brown in Baldwin Auditorium. Photo by Christopher Ferrer.

Duke Today: What do universities uniquely bring to an arts community that also benefits from it?

BROWN: Because university arts programs are part of a wider infrastructure, we are able to access a wide range of resources that aren’t available to independent arts organizations. For example, at Duke Arts, we work closely with faculty members to plan our programming, engage in deep artist conversations, and even present their work.

We benefit from the expertise of Vice President Stelfanie Williams and her team at the Office of Durham and Community Affairs when we plan community outreach. And when artists need specific spaces to present or create new work, we collaborate very closely and regularly with every layer of the Venue and Production Management team to coordinate spaces and places. We all work together to populate venues across campus with easily accessible arts experiences for everyone.

Pairing these resources with the university’s dedication to education and freedom of expression, we are able to create space for audiences to deeply engage with artists, and for artists to expand their own work.

By providing this space, we seek to enrich the arts community as a whole. Our hope is that our students and audiences leave our campus ready to deeply engage in the arts everywhere. And that artists leave us ready to present their work in a new or expanded way.

Duke Today: This is a centennial concert – what comes next in the arts at Duke?

BROWN: The Duke Arts team is excited about how we have reached our neighbors in the Triangle, and we have identified opportunities to spread out into the wider region, particularly the Carolinas. We are currently putting together our 2024-25 Duke Arts Presents season and have some very exciting plans for deeper engagement on campus and in Durham, and expanded engagement to include North and South Carolina.