The Music Division wishes the best of luck to Senior Concert Producer Tomas Hernandez, who retired last week after ten years in the Concert Office. In the Muse chatted with Tomas on his penultimate day in government service.
What’s your favorite memory of your time at the library?
There have been so many wonderful concerts! One of the neat things about the job is to meet these young artists and to show them the Strads and have them play them. You can just see the glow in their faces. And you know, doing the programming I’ve tried to keep the concert series in tune with what the Library is about. There are three things that are really unique about the Library’s Concert Series. One, we have the instruments; two, we have the venue, and three we of course have the collection of manuscripts and first editions. The combination of all of these makes our concert series different
When Mrs. Coolidge started this in 1925 that was the only game in town. She has been credited with promoting chamber music in this country, especially through the radio broadcasts, which continue to this day. But now of course we have the Kennedy Center, the Washington Performing Arts Society, and other presenters in the Washington area, and the challenge is to make our concert series different from the others.
The Sybarite5 was a good example of programming something different.
I booked that concert – I thought it would be interesting to have a string quintet. Unfortunately we don’t have a historical double bass. Several people said they liked the program, the combination of the standard repertoire with Radiohead. It was gratifying to see new faces in the audience. One advantage we have is that we have manuscripts of both commissioned works and standard works. We are in a position to program music that the other presenters are not going to program because they won’t sell at the box office. We’re able to present unusual work – not the same old same old. But we try to keep a balance – we don’t want to have a program that’s so different that no one will recognize the composers and the works. I’ve always felt that it’s one of the things the Library’s concert series ought to be doing. This means you have to have a really substantial involvement in the programming. Next season we’re having the Mozart Piano Quartet playing the Piano Quartet movement by Mahler, which is hardly ever performed because it’s not part of the regular rep. It’s a beautiful work.
Would you say that the fact that we’re not a commercial venue is an advantage?
In many ways it is, in other ways it isn’t. We rely almost entirely on Gift Funds, and with the stock market being down … but then again we don’t have to worry about box office because our concerts are free. I’m less concerned about filling the auditorium – we don’t lose anything at the box office. Of course it’s not good to have empty seats all the time. But … there have been concerts that have less well-attended because the material isn’t as popular or familiar. Because we don’t rely on box office we can program works that we think are important in the larger picture such as rarely performed music by well-known composers. I think that’s what makes us different. It’s not always easy to achieve – and of course the other producers and I don’t always agree. We have different tastes and we all strive for quality. I like certain things that the other producers may not like, so we have to negotiate a balance. We make sure the series has an interesting variety.
Would you say there are concerts that aren’t popular in Washington that would be more popular elsewhere – like in New York?
Well certainly New York has a different audience than we have in Washington. That’s the way it is. New York is New York. That’s not to say we’re any less of anything – it’s just different.
Have there been any controversial programs in your time here?
(Laughs) Not controversial per se. Some people will not like some things we program. Some people like vanilla, some people like strawberry. As they say, De gustibus non est disputandem. That comes into play. I like to believe that the reason we are in the job we are in is that we have the ability to recognize artistic quality and to make sound judgements. Not everybody will agree with that our choices. The Library also has the opportunity to present the wide variety of music in this country. I know some people don’ like the fact that we present jazz, rock, hip-hop –
We’ve presented hip-hop?
Yes, a number of seasons ago we presented hip-hop [Full Circle Souljahs appeared on the Coolidge stage in 2004 - ed.] . The Library of Congress being The Nation’s Library, I think we ought to present aspects of the diversity of music that exists in this country. We can’t do everything, obviously, because of the limitations of the space – we can’t do symphony or orchestral works because we don’t have the space or the acoustics for it. But I think over time there has been diversity in programming. Sometimes we have been criticized for not having any focus!
I think diversity is a strength! So is there anything you’d like to see happen after you leave the concert office? How do you see this changing with you and Norman [Senior Concert Producer Norman Middleton, who will retire after this season] leaving?
Well there are a lot of qualified and talented people out there. I’m sure the right people will make the decisions. They will be different. We all have different experiences and different tastes. I’m sure they will be much younger than Norman and I! I think it’s good to have new blood, you know.
Do you have any musical interests you plan to pursue in your retirement?
I will be doing more theater. I say more because I haven’t done anything in the last 20-25 years once I started in Arts Administration. My background is theater. I’ve acted, I’ve produced, I’ve directed. I started out acting and then moved to directing and then branched out into opera directing, which got me more involved in music, and then I got into Arts Administration for several years at the Arizona Commission on the Arts, as the first Performing Arts Director there, then the National Endowment for the Artsin grants management. And then I ended up here as a presenter. And I’m looking forward to going back to theater! Maybe acting a little bit. I already have an invitation to direct in a community theater in Chattanooga — there’s a vibrant arts community there. So I expect to get involved in some fashion. And you know, if the opportunity arises and the situation warrants it, I may start a small chamber music series. We’ll see how it goes!
Do you have any favorite treasures in the collection?
There are so many of them. There really is something special about the Strad instruments. Every artist who has played them has said so. There is also something about actually touching an autograph manuscript—some kind of special energy. That’s why I can’t imagine reading a book from an e-reader. I like holding a book. But I suppose I’ll eventually get an e-reader.
It has been a productive ten years. There have been good times and not so good times. There are always things in a job that one would rather not have to do for all sorts of reasons. Every job has them! But I have enjoyed dealing with the artists, programming, discussing programming with my colleagues, and just being able to go into the stacks and pull out books and get the information I need. It has been a privilege working here.