Mark Hanson

Houston Symphony's top gun reveals secrets to staying relevant and what makes him cry

Symphony's top gun opens up on staying relevant & what makes him cry

The Influentials Mark Hanson September 2013
Photo by © Michelle Watson/

Houston Symphony executive director and CEO Mark Hanson has been a busy man since arriving in the Bayou City three years ago.

As the symphony celebrates its 100th anniversary, Hanson has orchestrated an emotional farewell to outgoing music director Hans Graf and generated excitement with the announcement that Andrés Orozco-Estrada will succeed Graf as the symphony's first Hispanic music director. 

Luring the Colombian-born conductor to Houston is part of Hanson's grand plan to make the symphony more accessible to an increasingly diverse city. With the symphony on firmer financial footing — a recent fundraising campaign brought in a record $10 million from nearly 5,000 donors  — Hanson is expanding the number of free performances at Jones Hall as well as outings to churches, schools and community centers in outlying areas as part of a grand strategy to entice more people to check out the orchestra.

 "We realize we have this unique moment to catapult the organization forward," says Hanson, who turns 40 next month. "We're the envy of a lot of symphony orchestras in a lot of other cities because we're growing in a responsible but really exciting manner while other orchestras in other cities are clinging on to life."

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I guess it depends on the night or the day. On concert nights, it's holding my wife's hand, listening to one of our favorite symphonies. On non-concert nights, a quiet evening at home with our boys.

What is your idea of misery?

Not having access to news. I cherish those brief moments of the day when I can glance at the headlines on my iPhone or iPad. I would be miserable without access to news and information.

How do you chill out?

Anything physical, whether it's a bike ride with the family or my latest form of entertainment, discovering new dirt paths on my mountain bike that are throughout Hermann Park. And I do it late at night so that I don't run over anybody.

What's the best advice you have ever received?

Follow your dreams. Even when those dreams lead you down an uncommon path.

What is something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

Maybe that I caught the non-profit management bug while co-directing a student-run homeless shelter in college. As idealistic teenagers we thought we could make a difference in a couple of people's lives and instead learned a tremendous amount about ourselves.

What talent would you like to have that you don't?

I would love to be able to sit down and play the piano and I can't. I never stuck with my piano lessons.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

I don't know if he's a hero, but he's certainly a fictional character. Huckleberry Finn, because he went on this adventure, followed his dreams and was curious about the world. When I was a kid, I was always dreaming of doing something Huck Finn had done, just hopping on a raft.

What would you do if you won the lottery?

I would keep my job but look for places to travel with all five members of the Hanson family. It would be fun to balance new opportunities for world travel with a job that i love and would be thrilled to have for the rest of my career. Retiring early is not really attractive.

To the displeasure of (wife) Christina, I'd probably want to keep my Prius, because I just love scooting around town and feeling like I'm contributing a tiny little bit to this world's struggles with the environment.

What characteristic do you most admire?


What characteristic most annoys you?


What do you consider the most overated virtue?

Hard work in the absence of intelligent work.

What is your favorite journey?

Marriage. It's certainly the most interesting.

What is the biggest challenge facing the symphony?

The biggest challenge is to become indispensable to more people. Because I am a little bit more of an optimist, it's more of an opportunity than an challenge. It certainly speaks to the idea of maintaining and growing our relevancy in a complex, competitive, noisy world. And the challenge is figuring out how to plant this seed, which is curiosity about what a symphony orchestra sounds like, what it's like to experience a live performance with 87 musicians performing as one ensemble. We have to figure out more and more ways to convince people of all ages and all backgrounds to take a curiosity in this art form.

How do you attract younger audiences to the symphony?

By continuing to pursue artistic projects of a variety of genres and incorporating multi-media in as many ways as possible. One of the symphony's competitive advantages, I think, when we're thinking of how to become more competitive and more relevant in this crowded marketplace, is the diversity of performances that we present each and every year. You don't have to love Beethoven, Mahler, Stravinsky to become a big fan of the Houston Symphony. It's enough to love the music of the Beatles or the music of Hollywood or rock groups who are now performing with symphony orchestras or allowing orchestras to bring their greatest hits to the symphony hall stage through this incredible orchestrations of these pop tunes.

You turn 40 in November. What do you plan to do?