Jessie Ahuama-Jonas remembers that she used to hate classical music. “I didn’t like it at all,” she recalls. “You’d have to pay me just to listen to it.” That all changed when she was accepted into the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s prestigious Talent Development Program (TDP) as a 13-year-old and developed a lasting appreciation for the likes of Beethoven and Bach.
A free 20th anniversary Alumni Legacy concert is the highlight of a number of events celebrating TDP this season. Hosted by former WSB-TV anchor Monica Pearson, the concert — uniting current TDP students and past members — takes place Saturday at 7 p.m. at Symphony Hall. Ahuama-Jonas is doing double duty: she’s the event’s coordinator, pulling it all together and working to bring in alumni, and one of the performers.
Back in 1993, 10 students were chosen for the inaugural class of what was then called the Black Talent Development Program. The goal was to identify gifted African American students from across the state and prepare them to be professional musicians, in light of the lack of representation of African Americans in orchestras nationwide. In 2003, the program changed names to become the TDP and incorporated Latino applicants, another under-represented orchestra presence.
Hundreds of Georgia students apply each year, but the program is only able to accommodate 25 or so each season. “Any more,” says ASO spokeswoman Kim Nogi, “and the program begins to lose some of its uniqueness. We want to give personalized instruction.” Alumni have gone on to prestigious schools across the country, such as the Julliard School and the New England Conservatory of Music. Seven TDP graduates are currently teaching orchestra or band in Atlanta metro area schools, and one former TDP student — Khari Joyner, a cellist — performed for President Barack Obama in the Oval Office early last year.
At the age of nine, Ahuama-Jonas began to play the viola. A cousin she looked up to played the violin and Ahuama-Jonas wanted to emulate her. But she couldn’t get the hang of it. The cello proved to be too big for her; ultimately she found the viola to be her instrument of choice.
She was in middle school in 1998 when her orchestra teacher told her about the TDP program and suggested she audition. To do so, she had to prepare a solo piece. “That was pretty intimidating for a 13-year-old to have to do that and perform at Symphony Hall,” she says. Being on a stage wasn’t new, but performing on a stage of that caliber was. About a week later, however, she was accepted into the program.
She stayed with TDP through 2002 and found it to be life-changing. One of the perks was being surrounded by others her age with the same goal. “We were all serious; we all wanted to learn to play classical music and enjoy it,” she says. She was mentored by musicians from the ASO and got to attend master classes along the way. One memorable moment was seeing cellist Yo-Yo Ma in action and attending his master class. “I would never have had these opportunities were it not for the program,” she admits.
After graduating from Riverwood High School, she attended the University of Miami on two scholarships and received a degree in music education. She credits her time with TDP with preparing her to do so. Now Ahuama-Jonas is back in the area, acting as the orchestra director at Bear Creek Middle School in Fairburn.
More than a dozen other TDP alumni will be participating in the Legacy concert, and one student from the inaugural 1993 program — violinist Kamisha Boykin — will perform. A special Lifetime Achievement Award will be given to Ann Hobson Pilot, principal harpist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the first African American woman to hold a principal position in a symphony orchestra.
Teaching takes up a considerable amount of Ahuama-Jonas’ time these days, but she still enjoys playing here and there, such as churches and small community orchestras. Many of her current students — some of whom she hopes will be future TDP candidates — have asked if she still performs. “They will be coming to the concert this weekend and will get to see me play for the first time,” she says. “That will be special.”