The Tucson Symphony Orchestra gained a conductor this season and is losing a CEO.

After three seasons, Mark Blakeman will leave the orchestra in late May for a job in his native Oklahoma.

Blakeman, who served as TSO chief executive officer and president since August 2014, has been named the Marilynn and Carl Thoma Executive Director of the new McKnight Center for the Performing Arts at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. The 93,000-square-foot center, including a recital hall, 1,100-seat performance hall and an outdoor amphitheater, is expected to open in 2019 with the weeklong residency of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

“I’m filled with mixed emotion. I’m excited and sad at the same time,” Blakeman said Thursday. “I’ve just had such a great opportunity to connect with many, many lovely folks in Tucson and that, for me, is heartbreaking. I was just getting going.”

The TSO Board of Trustees already has begun a search for Blakeman’s replacement.

Blakeman came to the TSO five months after the sudden departure in March 2014 of his predecessor, Andrew Birgensmith, who also served in the job less than three years and left in the middle of the search to replace George Hanson. The orchestra named José Luis Gomez music director in early 2016.

The cornerstone of Blakeman’s tenure has been his initiatives to bring young audiences to the Music Hall. Soon after he arrived, Blakeman, with the Board of Trustees’ support, launched the TSO Family Seriesthat builds on the audiences of the TSO’s popular Just For Kids series. Blakeman said the family-friendly series, now in its second season, has helped bridge the gap between Just For Kids, which is geared toward really young children from toddler to elementary school, and kids 6 and older. He also and initiated TSO TEAMtix, with funding from the Marshall Foundation. That program provides free tickets to middle and high school band, orchestra and choir students, offers free tickets for students and a companion to TSO classics and MasterWorks concerts. The TSO distributed 1,262 TEAMtix in this year’s inaugural season.

“My idea was that we wanted to encourage these young people who are pursuing music in some way,” Blakeman said. “For all of these kids, we wanted to inspire them and create a barrier-free opportunity for them to hear what I think is the best classical music in Southern Arizona.”

The Oklahoma job was a chance for Blakeman to return home for the first time in 20 years.

“I feel very much that this opportunity is the right fit for me and the right direction to go,” he said. “I have grown considerably over the three years that I have been here, professionally and personally. I firmly believe, 100 percent, that if I had not come to Tucson I would not have been offered this opportunity.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642.

I cover music for the Arizona Daily Star.