On Thursday, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra (WSO) announced its new executive leadership team. After a lengthy search, the WSO has hired Sonja Thoms as the new Executive Director. In addition, the WSO announced that they have renewed Music Director John Devlin’s contract for an additional four years.
Since joining the WSO in 2019, Devlin has achieved much as the WSO’s artistic leader. He steered the WSO through the COVID-19 pandemic, creating unconventional concert formats that allowed for live music despite COVID-19 precautions. These concerts include televised holiday performances, as well as the popular Soundbites concert series, which paired fine cuisine with thematic music. As a result, the WSO was awarded the Governor’s Arts Award for Resiliency in the Arts in 2022.
Devlin continues to experiment with concert format even after returning to the WSO’s home at the Capitol Theatre. Devlin frequently collaborates with local dance group Turn It Out, pairing orchestral selections with unique dance performances. During the Opening Night Concert in fall of 2022, Devlin arranged orchestra members throughout the Capitol Theatre concert hall to perform Caroline Shaw’s “Entr’acte,” creating an immersive musical experience for audience members. In the spring of 2022, Devlin led the WSO to host the “Festival of Ideas,” a week-long festival exploring the intersection of politics and music through the lens of the music and lives of several prolific composers, culminating in the WSO’s final performance of the 2021-2022 season.
As music director, Devlin has consistently brought a high caliber of guest artists to the WSO stage. From Broadway stars such as Sierra Boggess to classical music superstar Yo‑Yo Ma, Devlin’s guidance as Music Director has brought top-tier artists to the Wheeling community. In addition, Devlin’s commitment to promoting living American composers has resulted in several new commissioned compositions on behalf of the WSO, including the groundbreaking Migrations in Rhythm: A Concerto for Beatbox and Rhyme by Evan Meier, featuring beatboxer and hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon as soloist.
Devlin’s achievements as WSO Music Director recently earned him the prestigious Solti Foundation Career Assistance Award, an award given to young conductors with exemplary skill and leadership. With his programming, the WSO has also earned several competitive grants from revered organizations such as the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Devlin is committed to involvement with the community, and has worked hard to raise the profile of the WSO. The WSO is thrilled to retain his innovative and thoughtful creative leadership for the next four years, particularly as the orchestra approaches its 95th anniversary in 2024.
Joining Devlin in leading the WSO will be Sonja Thoms as the new Executive Director.
A search for the Executive Director began in May of 2022. For the search, the WSO engaged the services of the Catherine French Group, an organization that works with symphony orchestras and other not-for-profit music organizations as they recruit executive leadership and senior management. Thoms was officially hired in June of 2023.
A Pittsburgh native, Thoms is a lifelong musician from a very musical family. Her love for orchestras began as a young oboist in the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. She went on to study at Eastman School of Music for a Bachelor’s degree and Rice University for a Masters degree in Oboe Performance. As an oboist, Thoms has performed with the Lucerne Academy Orchestra, National Repertory Orchestra, New World Symphony, Alarm Will Sound new music ensemble, and soloed with Ossia new music ensemble performing the Oboe Concerto by Ellen Taafe Zwillich. Thoms also performed in Carnegie Hall’s workshop with David Robertson: Music of Messiaen and Varèse. Her teachers included Joann Rehkopf, Ray Still, Allan Vogel, Richard Killmer and Robert Atherholt.
Subscribe to Weelunk
After graduate school, Thoms found the world of orchestra operations through an internship with the National Symphony Orchestra at the John F. Kennedy Center. In 2006, she started working in operations for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Over her nine-year tenure at the PSO, Thoms’ work included concert production, long-term season planning, managing recording projects, leading multiple international tours, and supporting the musicians of the orchestra.
In 2015, Thoms moved to Nashville Symphony to lead the operations department. Thoms prioritized creating the framework and culture necessary to execute complex projects and produce remarkable outcomes. Some of her proudest projects include the annual Summer Community Concert Series, the Violins of Hope Project (2018), hosting the League of American Orchestras’ annual conference (2019), supporting the return to the stage in September 2021 after 18 months of pandemic shutdown, and producing world premiere performances of Hannibal Lokumbe’s fully staged opera The Jonah People: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph (2023). Thoms is grateful for how her colleagues at the Nashville Symphony taught her the importance of compassionate leadership in crisis, creative collaboration and, most importantly, authentic community engagement.
In addition to her work in orchestra management, Thoms is very committed to mentoring those interested in orchestra careers. In 2019, Thoms created a mentoring community called OrchestraCareers.com. Orchestra Careers provides a bridge from college to career for young leaders through free online events and resources, access to professionals in the orchestral industry and one-on-one coaching to realize their own potential for a career in orchestral music. She has also been instrumental in creating the first-ever student member content for the League of American Orchestras annual conferences.
Thoms believes that orchestral music has the power to connect and transform us when we experience it together. That belief drives Thoms’ passion to sustainably steward the gift of orchestral music for generations to come.
“The Wheeling Symphony Orchestra looks forward to seeing the progress the partnership between these two skilled leaders will produce,” says Mary Hanley, President of the WSO Board of Directors. “We have full confidence that the guidance of John Devlin and Sonja Thoms will allow the orchestra to continue to grow, succeed, and provide outstanding musical experiences to our community.”
For more information on the Wheeling Symphony, visit www.wheelingsymphony.com or search for the Wheeling Symphony on Facebook and Instagram
Wheeling Symphony Orchestra Your Community in Concert
Celebrating over 90 years of serving the Ohio Valley with great live orchestral music. From subscription concerts and holiday spectacular events to chamber series and educational concerts, the Wheeling Symphony provides world-class musical entertainment throughout the Ohio Valley. Led by Music Director John Devlin, the WSO continues to be the smallest city in the US to support a symphony of this size and caliber.