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Madison Symphony exec Rick Mackie to retire July 1
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Madison Symphony exec Rick Mackie to retire July 1

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After 22 years with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, executive director Richard (Rick) Mackie has announced that he will retire July 1.

Mackie, 71, had been mulling retirement for awhile. When COVID-19 shut down live performances last year, Mackie knew he’d need to wait.

“It would have been awful for me to make a sooner move and leave the company in the lurch,” Mackie said.

Now, inspired by hopeful vaccine news, Mackie and MSO artistic director John DeMain are hoping to announce a 2021-22 season starting in September (“We will wait for guidance and permission,” Mackie said). They’re working on finishing plans for 2022-23.

“In this way I’ll have put a lot of pieces together and left the organization in great shape for my successor,” Mackie said. “I’m focused on having everything in tip-top order. The team I’m working with, they know what to do.”

Valuable to the soul

Mackie grew up and went to school in New Orleans. His childhood home, he said, was walking distance from classes, from the time he was in elementary school to college at Tulane University. Mackie first came to Madison for as a graduate student, studying business while playing music professionally. In 1974, he co-founded the Original Hyperion Oriental Fox Trot Orchestra, a “hot dance” revival orchestra that played jazz, ragtime and more through 1997.

“I was attached to Madison,” Mackie said. “If you had an idea, someone would give you a chance to try it out. It’s such a tolerant community, and the intellectual community is invigorating.”

Mackie led the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1985 and served as executive director at the Memphis Orchestral Society from 1986 to 1990. He worked a stint in public television (WHA-TV), and was a production administrator for the Bolshoi Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet and the Stuttgart Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera in 1975.

He returned to Madison when Jim Ebben, the late president of Madison College, hired him as Edgewood’s director of development. In 1999, Mackie succeeded Sandra Madden as head of the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“We had a great rapport immediately,” DeMain told Cap Times reporter Kevin Lynch at the time. Mackie called himself a “facilitator” and “a producer, more than just a manager.”

“This music really is timeless, and it always will be valuable to the soul,” Lynch quoted Mackie. “We are the protectors of the flame of this great repertoire. But it’s challenging to make it reach as far as we want.”

Three concert weekends

Mackie oversaw the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s move from the Civic Center to Overture Hall. He increased two-concert weekends to “triples” in the 2005-06 season. But Mackie is particularly proud of the HeartStrings program, which sends MSO musicians into hospitals and assisted living facilities.

HeartStrings is the “ultimate expression,” Mackie said, of an idea that was brought to him by a teacher at the Louisiana School for the Deaf in Baton Rouge. The teacher pleaded with him to send Baton Rouge musicians to their school — “please, everyone thinks our kids can’t hear anything, but they can hear the symphony. Please help us.”

“It was an epiphany,” Mackie said. “I started a program down there called the Human Development Program, very prosaic. But it was the first of its kind. In Memphis I did the same thing — I had 39 full-time musicians who didn’t have enough to do, so we were all over town doing community services.

“Here, we’ve taken it to another level altogether, with the planning and evaluation component,” Mackie added. The program, launched with the help of the Madison Community Foundation and funded by the Society for Arts in Healthcare, has been “a huge success, provided without cost to institutions.”

Mackie is proud of how “in alignment” the many moving parts of the MSO are — the governing board, 100 “very gifted, creative individuals” among the players, the volunteer Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Symphony Orchestra League and the Friends of the Overture Concert Organ.

It’s a testament to the “symphony family” that the organization is doing as well as it is, Mackie said. “Our audience came through to sustain the orchestra.”

Held close

The MSO has been paying its musicians for all of its canceled rehearsals and performances for the past year, helped by a musicians’ fund and patrons who donated the value of their tickets back.

“When the Great Recession came, I thought, ‘If I can get through this, I can get through anything,’” Mackie said. “And we did, we were in great shape. And then here comes the pandemic.”

The symphony’s board of directors has begun to organize the search for Mackie’s replacement. Mackie has a house in Cooksville, about 30 minutes south of the city, and plans to explore his interests in horticulture and landscaping.

“I can hear the garlic mustard growing,” he joked.

He leaves visions for the orchestra’s future to his successor.

“‘Great music is for everyone’ is a fervent belief of ours,” Mackie said. “From my experience with this orchestra, we’re all so motivated to do the right things, yes for the orchestra, but for the community. Because if we don’t have a special niche in the community, if we aren’t deeply loved and held close, when things like a pandemic come along, we’ll be swept away.”

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