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Curtain Call: Symphony executive director is ‘passionate about arts education’

RVS Executive Director Joelle Graves. Photo Facebook.com/JoelleGraves.
RVS Executive Director Joelle Graves, right, and RVS Music Director Martin Majkut enjoy a break at an Oregon Symphony opening night in Portland. Courtesy photo.

Joelle Graves’ life journey to her job as executive director of the Rogue Valley Symphony might remind you of those zig-zag dotted-line paths taken by characters in “The Family Circus” Sunday comic strip: if not random, at least unpredictable.

This is a woman who sang in a folk duo in the 1960s, performed in light opera and musical theater, and worked as a professional actress.

Oh, and she worked as a medical clinic receptionist, a box office manager, ran tech for a repertory company, helped build arts programs for incarcerated youths, and spent seven years as education director at the Britt Festivals.

Graves, 69, has long been an arts champion.

“I know first-hand how the arts can change — and save — a person’s life,” she said. “I am passionate about arts education. I have seen what can happen when kids discover their talent and feel their self-esteem blossom.”

She was born in Redwood City, Calif., and raised in nearby Sunnyvale, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

“I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family,” she said. “Surrounded by alcoholism, I looked to people outside of my family to guide me, especially teachers.”

Her best friend’s mother, Marion, was a professional singer and teacher who began taking Graves to performances and paying for her voice lessons. She was just one of many women who mentored her during her formative years.

“Marion took me to her church choir, starting when I was 12,” Graves said. “That experience helped me develop my sight-reading ability. Once I got to high school, I was singing non-stop.”

Her family wasn’t particularly musical. Her step-father, retired from the Coast Guard, worked in the semi-conductor industry.

“What I didn’t know at the time was that my (birth) father was very musical. He had studied to be a concert pianist. Maybe I inherited his musical talent.”

When she was 14, Marion took her to San Francisco to see Yul Brynner in “The King and I,” with Constance Towers as Anna.

“I was totally in awe,” she said. “I have a vivid memory of deciding to ‘do that’ while I watched her sing ‘Shall We Dance.’”

Fast forward 28 years to find Graves cast as Anna in “The King and I” with film, TV and Broadway actor Jonathan Farwell, who was Brynner’s understudy in the San Francisco performance she attended.

“The dresses I wore in the show were rented,” Graves said. “And guess whose name was inside each dress? Constance Towers! I was wearing her tour dresses. Unbelievable!”

She attended college at San Jose State to pursue a degree in fine arts.

After college, she worked as a receptionist for the Palo Alto Medical Clinic by day while performing at Bay Area venues at night. Later, she became the box office manager for the Los Altos Conservatory Theatre while also working as a company member of the theater.

“That is where my real education began,” she said. “The artistic director, Doyne Mraz, took me under his wing and taught me everything I know about arts management. Plus, my husband and I performed in or ran tech for seven out of the 10 shows in repertory. It was great training.”

(Coincidentally, Mraz also eventually moved to the Rogue Valley, teaching at both Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University.)

It was quality of life that brought Graves to the Rogue Valley.

“We moved here to raise our two daughters,” she said. “My husband, Roger, had been here on summer vacations with his parents and had fallen in love with the valley. He brought me here in 1980 and we looked at each other and decided, this is where we want to live.”

They resided in Ashland for 25 years and now live in Medford.

Graves spent five years as arts coordinator for the Oregon Youth Authority, working in arts programs for incarcerated youths. Then she worked as education director of the Britt Festivals for seven years. “In those jobs I learned about devotion and dedication to the art you are promoting.”

She says time spent as a vice president on the board of the Oregon Alliance for Arts Education was a “powerful experience,” learning from the top arts educators in the state.

And her work with Jane Scheidecker at the Oregon Bach Festival taught her the value of relationships with patrons and how to raise money.

So, when the opportunity to join the team at RVS presented itself, she was ready. They were looking for an interim executive director.

“I was invited to a lunch and discovered I had been recommended to them,” Graves said. “Next thing I knew, I had an offer. And I was lucky enough to be asked to remove the ‘interim’ from my title at the end of that season.”

She credits RVS’s success to an effective board of directors, a “small but mighty” staff, an excellent orchestra, and music director Martin Majkut.

“What gives me the most satisfaction is working with Martin and my team to prepare a concert and then sitting backstage, usually with tears of gratitude, marveling in what we have and in the sharing of it.”

When the pandemic shut down the arts, RVS scrambled to make itself relevant. The staff of five split up the list of 985 season subscribers, calling them to get their input. Graves and Majkut became experts at shifting gears and spent many hours brainstorming ideas on how to proceed.

The theme for the pandemic-interrupted season was “Discover a World of Exciting Music.”

“Part of that discovery,” she said, “was taking patrons on a journey with us as we traveled across the world, experiencing music and artists new to the RVS.”

Once they knew that had to go digital, the word “detour” popped into their heads.

“We decided we needed to hit the road in all ways,” she said, “figuratively and literally.”

Therein was born the idea for the Digital Detour concert series. Digital Detour 1 featured soloists performing in people’s homes. DD 2 was filmed while RVS performed at fire stations, schools, retirement facilities and rescue sites in honor of COVID-19 and Almeda fire victims. DD 3 was filmed at the Holly Theatre in its yet-to-be restored performance hall. And DD 4 was filmed on the Craterian Theater stage.

Digital Detour 2 was critically acclaimed and honored by the Ashland Independent Film Festival.

Graves is grateful that the symphony is now back performing live, albeit with required pandemic safety measures in place.

“My hope right now is that COVID will become just another flu and we can have full houses again,” Graves said. “Martin has programmed a beautiful season and we have world class soloists joining us.”

Graves does have a life outside the symphony.

“Gardening is my therapy,” she said. “I love to dig. And I love to entertain and do top chef dinners. Being with my two daughters is my fun. Both are amazing young women and it is now my turn to learn from them.”

Is there anything people might be surprised to learn about Joelle Graves?

“A letter I wrote to President Obama was chosen as his number one letter during his presidency and will be on display in his presidential library,” she said.

The letter recounted the story of how her mother-in-law, a long-time Republican, shared during the last days of her life that one of her proudest moments was in voting for America’s first Black president.

“And once I auditioned to be Norma Zimmer’s replacement on Lawrence Welk.”

That didn’t work out. But those in the know might say Welk’s loss is Rogue Valley Symphony’s gain.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.