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  • Writer's picturePress Release


Words and Images Courtesy of Virginia Symphony

HAMPTON ROADS, VA Karen M. Philion, who has served as the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s President and CEO since 2014, has announced she will step down in the fall after more than a decade with the organization.

During her tenure, Philion is credited with leading a historic financial turnaround, retiring all debt, and successfully operating the orchestra in the black every year since assuming the role of CEO. She also led the recent transition of artistic leadership, recruiting acclaimed young American conductor Eric Jacobsen to the VSO as Music Director and Thomas Wilkins as the VSO’s first-ever Principal Guest Conductor, while at the same time navigating the disruption of the orchestra’s work through the pandemic.

In making the announcement, VSO Board Chair Mike McClellan said, “On behalf of the Board, we are all grateful for Karen’s extensive service to the VSO. In addition to more than doubling our endowment assets, Karen expanded our vision to create new inclusive programming to diversify our sources of revenue. Karen’s clear, strategic thinking and fearless leadership served us extraordinarily well in overcoming the challenges of the pandemic. She has elevated the VSO’s stature in the region, guided us through a smooth and successful transition in artistic leaders and set us on a sustainable path.”

Philion added, “To have been one of the caretakers of this 100-year-old institution will always be a highlight of my career. I’m incredibly proud of what our team has done to strengthen the foundation of the organization. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to lead the VSO through a time of challenge and change and to have set it on a path to greater achievement and success. Music Director Eric Jacobsen and our musicians have the opportunity now to seize this moment to become everything a 21st century arts organization can be to its community.”

As part of a longer-term vision, in 2019 Philion began advocating for the symphony to prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion as central to its mission to serve the region. Among her notable accomplishments is the establishment of a post-graduate fellowship program for African American string players who are seeking careers as orchestral musicians. Beginning next season, four full-time Fellows will play in the orchestra while teaching and mentoring in local public schools.

There have been many other firsts during Philion’s tenure:

  • The most successful fundraising campaign in the organization’s history, raising nearly $16 million in outright and planned gifts

  • Retired $4 million in debt, while achieving balanced budgets seven consecutive years

  • Developed a strategic plan that expanded community partnerships and identified new opportunities to serve much more widely across Hampton Roads

  • Reimagined programming to be more creative in content and presentation, including shorter concerts and more flexible ticket-buying options and improved customer service

  • Steered the organization’s successfully through the pandemic with transparency, integrity and flexibility through the pandemic

  • Brought a focus on EDI to areas of the organization and hired the organization’s first full-time Director of Diversity and Engagement to advance EDI goals and deepen community relationships

  • Despite the pandemic, successfully conducted a critically important Music Director search that looks ahead to the Orchestra’s next chapter

“We all owe Karen our sincere thanks for her dedication and strategic vision,” said VSO Chair Emeritus Patrick McDermott. “Karen will be deeply missed by the Board, staff, community supporters and patrons alike. She is leaving us, however, with an organization that is financially sound, with the discipline to make data driven decisions that support our musicians in developing and sharing their talent at the highest level with our audiences and the entire Hampton Roads community.”

The VSO Board will launch a search for Philion’s successor in the coming weeks.


The VSO has received national attention for its unique mission serving a home area of 1.7 million across the diverse communities of southeastern Virginia. Through appearances at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall and commitment to adventurous programming, the VSO and its musicians have been highlighted in the media including The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio and BBC Worldwide News.

As the largest performing arts organization in southeastern Virginia, the VSO and VSO Chorus present more than 150 concerts and events annually for more than 100,000 residents and visitors. Recent innovations include health and wellness programs, including interactive therapeutic experiences for people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and adopting welcoming concert environments for those who are neurodiverse. Since 2019, the VSO has been recognized nationally for striving to reflect the region’s ethnic and racial diversity in its members, its programming, and its leadership.

The selection of the young and dynamic conductor Eric Jacobsen as music director in 2021 and was another bold step forward for the VSO, further expanding its vision to attract wider and larger audiences with engaging concert experiences and creative and relevant programming. Rounding out the artistic leadership team is Norfolk native Thomas Wilkins in the role of Principal Guest Conductor, reflecting the VSO’s commitment to tell its community’s stories and advance the important conversations that will promote understanding and belonging among all residents.

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