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Spotlight on Women

Martha Gilmer, Chief Executive Officer, San Diego Symphony


Photos by Lauren Radack

Where did you grow up?

In a small town in the Midwest. My family owned a small corner dime store, and I worked at the candy counter to earn money for my college education. The small town has never left me. I was a geek in high school because I was a baton twirler.

What was your introduction to music?

I was a pianist. I figured out how to make enough money for my college education by teaching 15 students while in high school. My parents could not afford me the privilege of college, so I also worked part-time as an intern at the Chicago Symphony to help with tuition.

Did you have a mentor?

Yes, my junior high band director was my mentor. I was curious, and he encouraged me to find the answer, which led me to books for answers. I find that if you are curious, you are never bored. My mother was a strong woman. She raised three children alone and ran the store. She had to be decisive and profitable.

Did you begin your career with the Chicago Symphony?

No, I was with the Milwaukee Symphony for a short time, and then a position opened at the Chicago Symphony, where I stayed for 35 years. Over the years, the organization changed and grew, and I changed with it. It wasn’t that I was doing the same thing for 35 years.

"I am obsessive about what I do. I am competitive, and I had to mature into collaborating with others."

Tell us about your family.

We have three grown sons, and my husband is a music educator and also plays the bassoon. He is very supportive of my career, and in addition to cooking our meals, he is always there for me, which made the transition to San Diego seamless.

What do you do to mentor others?

I hope to mentor young musicians. I feel I have been privileged and want to share my experiences with others, administrative as well as musical. I like teaching and mentoring, and I hope I am able to give some of that back.

What is a day in your life like?

Well, some days I start at 6 a.m. and get home at 1 a.m. It’s all about money and programs, and business and art. I have to keep it in balance, which can be difficult. I am obsessive about what I do. I am competitive, and I had to mature into collaborating with others.

What are your goals with the San Diego Symphony?

I plan to continue the momentum the orchestra has now. I hope to engage even more audiences in community venues. Culture makes us human. Promoting what we do is not only important but it is significant to all of us. The Summer Pops is a wonderful venue for our orchestra and the Jacobs Music Center is a magical place. It is an inspiring place to listen to music. There is something here for everyone. Music moves you and goes to the heart. This is a real emotional place and we have fun.

And your personal goals?

So far I have been so busy in meetings with staff and community leaders, but eventually I hope to have time for kayaking, hiking, and walking on the beach. I am looking forward to the time when I can get to that.


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