A little more than a decade ago, Alan Valentine, now executive director of the Nashville Symphony, was asked to build a new orchestra in Oklahoma City. To avoid bankruptcy, the city’s previous orchestra had closed its doors and liquidated its assets. During the first year-and-a-half Valentine was there, the local Chamber of Commerce tried to recruit two airlines looking for a place to build a major maintenance facility. Both went somewhere elseAmerican Airlines to Fort Worth, United Airlines to Indianapolis. Some time thereafter, Oklahoma City’s mayor and its Chamber president told Valentine that anytime they met with folks they wanted to recruit, the first question they were asked was, “What about your Symphony?”
The idea of an orchestra as an instrument for economic development is not self-evident, especially to people who don’t care about classical music. But, as the Oklahoma City anecdote implies, for some desirable neighbors, a symphony is an important indicator of the cultural quality of a city. A city’s orchestrahow good it is, how well it is supportedis, in the medical sense of the term, a significant vital sign.
Just a decade ago, that vital sign in Nashville was not strong at all: In 1988, Nashville’s own symphony filed for bankruptcy, the culmination of escalating tensions between players and management. The ensuing 10 years, prior to Valentine’s arrival in 1998, were spent trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again, first under the leadership of Steven Greil (now the CEO at TPAC) and then under Stephen Vann. The orchestra, with generous help from Amy Grant, among others, was able to pay off its debt and begin to reclaim its listeners. Still, it had a ways to go. In 1996, it made its first recording in more than 30 years, and over the next couple years made a couple more. The discs all were deleted almost at oncean indicator both of the discs’ inferior quality and of the Symphony’s total lack of a reputation outside its home province.
The Nashville Symphony did have loyal and generous supporters, however, who kept working to make it better. When he took over after Stephen Vann accepted another position, Valentine found an organization securely in the black and poised for healthy growth. Since then, the orchestra has very clearly moved forward. The Symphony’s sound, augmented by 16 new string players, has matured into authentic excellence. In the past year, the orchestra has recorded the first two CDs to be produced under a multi-disc contract with the internationally known Naxos of America. The label expects to sell 10,000 units of the first CD, featuring the works of American composer Howard Hanson, within the first 18 months of the disc’s releasetwice the usual number for a classical recording. It has high hopes as well for the second CD, featuring the world premiere of a new and definitive edition of Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.
The release of this second CD is to coincide with the latest, and arguably the biggest, news for the Nashville Symphonyits forthcoming performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Significantly, this trip is supported in part by “an unprecedented, strong working relationship with the Chamber of Commerce,” according to a Symphony press releasesuggesting that the city has come to recognize the benefits of supporting and fostering its hometown classical ensemble. The Carnegie Hall program will be recorded for broadcast both regionally and nationally.
In short, for the first time ever, the Nashville Symphony has been prompting the nation to imagine Music City in cosmopolitan rather than provincial terms. The orchestra’s elevated profile comes at a propitious time in our city’s history. For several years now, Music City’s image has been metamorphosing. That nickname, invented by a country music promoter, still has country music as its nuclear meaning. But the meaning of country music itself is changing, as singers like Faith Hill and Shania Twain push the envelope so far that some fans think it’s been shredded. Along with the kind of attention generated by the Tennessee Titans and the Nashville Independent Film Festival, the Nashville Symphony is showing the nation and the world more aspects of our city than the Wildhorse Saloon and the Ryman Auditorium. The Nashville Symphony’s recent luminescence is one more aspect of a city becoming a noteworthy cultural and economic nexus in the nation’s eyes.
All this is good news. But it is important not to see this good news through complacent lenses. In fact, the Symphony’s excellence, the fruit of hard and committed exertion by the orchestra’s leadership and by its musicians, is a fragile achievement. If the orchestra is to become what its current supporters, including right now the Chamber of Commerce, want it to be, that support will have to broaden, and some key decisions will have to be made about what kind of music the Nashville Symphony will be expected to play.
Right now, the Nashville Symphony sounds better than it has in the last six seasonsand almost certainly better than ever before. Last year, the orchestra brought up to standard size the string sectionthe essential core of any orchestra. Now the formerly scrawny strings can, without strain, properly balance the brasses and woodwinds and percussion; they can play with confidence and bite instead of having to hold back. As a result, the Symphony has become an orchestra securely capable of playing Wagner and Mahler and Richard Strauss, producing a sound that, at its best, can hold its own with the very finest. Last spring’s performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, featuring the Nashville Symphony Chorus, and Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto, featuring pianist Terrence Wilson as soloist, drew strong and insightful praise from Barbara Jepson in The Wall Street Journal. And the Symphony’s newly released Naxos CD of Howard Hanson’s music has drawn enthusiastic kudos from Classics Today, a prestigious online review.
Interested Nashvillians who cannot go to Carnegie Hall or to the preview concerts taking place at TPAC this weekend will still have several opportunities to hear the program. The first TPAC preview is to be videotaped by public television station NPT for broadcast on the same evening and at the same time that Maestro Schermerhorn raises his baton in Carnegie HallMonday, Sept. 25, at 7 p.m. local time. The telecast will be available to 2.2 million residents in Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky. Nationally, NPR’s Performance Today is sending a crew to record the program in a pre-Carnegie performance in Troy, N.Y.; this performance will be aired via member stations all over the United States.
The occasion is indeed a milestone. It realizes a dream Kenneth Schermerhorn brought with him when he became the orchestra’s music director 17 years ago. He had been to Carnegie Hall beforeseven times, in fact, with the Milwaukee Symphony. Orchestra watchers credit him with taking over the Milwaukee orchestra when it was feeble and asthmatic and turning it into an impressively robust body. He had done a similar thing earlier in New Jersey. One factor in his decision to come to Nashville was the challenge of doing the same thing again in our city. The challenge turned out to be bigger than he could have imagined. The Symphony has had to clear some major hurdles to become what it is today. To stay as good as it is will not be easy; to get better will be even harder.
When I moved to Nashville and first heard the Symphony some six years ago, two things struck me at once: The orchestra was not very good, and the organization’s self-generated publicity was shameless in its own self-praise. Even if the Symphony’s performances have improved dramatically, the phrase “world-class orchestra” has been used more than once within the last couple weeks. But to their great credit, the orchestra’s musicians and the current management staff understand that you do not get a good orchestramuch less a world-class orchestraby claiming to have one. You have to have players, rehearsal space, and a good performance space. You have to have a music director who knows music and knows how to direct it, and you have to have astute and resourceful management.
In Kenneth Schermerhorn, the Symphony has a superb musician and a gifted and experienced leader. Unpretentious and affablecalled “Kenneth” by his musicians and by the management staffSchermerhorn came to Nashville at age 53 with solid credentials. Having taken the Milwaukee orchestra to Carnegie Hall several times, he knows what that entails.
Right now, in Alan Valentine, the orchestra has an executive director who has firsthand experience at reassembling a collapsed orchestra. Valentine, a quietly amiable man with a keen sense of humor, is respectfully praised by everyone from Symphony union representative Laura Ross to Symphony board members Mike Dye and Shirley Zeitlin and longtime dedicated patron Martha Ingram, as well as by members of the orchestra’s stage-management crew. The consensus is that Valentine can be trusted to act in good faith for the good of the organization as a whole. The players are confident he will deal fairly and generously with them.
This wasn’t always the case. Just before the bankruptcy, direct communication between musicians and management was not allowed, and the musicians had no representatives on the committees that decided these matters. In the musicians’ view, far too much of the organization’s money was going to management, and far too little to the people who actually made the music. Relations worsened, and the orchestra first canceled its upcoming season, then declared bankruptcy. One player still with the Symphony weeps when recalling that period. “After we learned about the cancellation,” the player says, “we had to play a concert at Cheekwood. It was the Fourth of July, and we were playing marches, and all this happy patriotic music, and for me it was all just almost unbearably sad.”
Though exceedingly painful, the crisis brought about changes that players and management alike see as beneficial. One of the most important was that players now hold positions on the Symphony board as well as on management’s working committees. Stephen Greil, who was then charged with rescuing the orchestra from its fiscal morass, puts it succinctly: “We had to shoot ourselves in the foot to open our eyes.”
Greil knows something about management, even if he says he still knows nothing about classical music. In 1988-89, he was managing some rock musicians. Reading about the Symphony’s troubles, and believing the orchestra was important to the city, he contacted Phil Bredesen, then on the Symphony board, and offered to do what he could. After an interval, he was asked to manage the orchestra’s affairs. What he tried to do, he says, was to put the orchestra on a firm businesslike basis through hardheaded realistic decisions. And though some players roll their eyes at recalling some of the things they were asked to do, Greil is credited with bringing the orchestra out of its fiscal coma.
Some of Greil’s realism remains in evidence. He began a policy of doing outdoor concerts all around the city as a marketing instrumentand not only outdoors, but in the unlikely vastness of the Opryland Hotel, where the orchestra played once above the waterfall. Players are not thrilled by such venues, since the sound vanishes into the wide-open spaces, and the audience’s attention is intermittent at best. But Alan Valentine embraces the practice as a way to make the Symphony a familiar and (he hopes) a desirable community presence. He says he wants the orchestra to be “positioned” (a word he uses often) in the community as something essential and enjoyable and accessible, not as elitist and exclusive.
Accordingly, marketing is a major task for the Symphony, but it also raises some very serious questions about what kind of programming the organization can and should be doing. Right now, it still needs a subscription base that includes people who don’t know much about classical music. There are, to be sure, a lot of informed classical devotees in our city, but not enough of them to fill all the seats in TPAC’s Jackson Hall. Many of those seats that are filled when the Symphony plays its subscription concerts hold listeners who applaud between the movements of concertos and symphonies. These are precisely the new listeners the Symphony needs to attract and is trying to make welcome; it just needs more of them.
In this spirit, the orchestra these days offers three series of concerts, but only one of those is what hardcore classical aficionados understand “classical” properly to mean. The other two are quite candidly aimed at making money. “The Tennessean Legends of Music Series” will present this season three superstars expected to draw large houses. The first of these was 14-year-old Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, who performed earlier this week. The young singer is uncommonly talented, but she is no Kathleen Battle or Jessye Norman, and what she sings has more in common with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast than with Der Rosenkavalier. But the demand for tickets, once her appearance was announced, justified scheduling an additional concert. Later this year, the series features Grammy-winning jazz singer/pianist Diana Krall and pop singer/songwriter Don McLean. Given that nearly every classical subscription concert plays to unfilled seats, concerts like these make a lot of sense. Charlotte Church certainly delivered the goods. Maybe Krall and McLean will tooalong with new subscribers for the music the musicians would really prefer to play.
So too with the orchestra’s “pops” concert series. Both Alan Valentine and Ronn Huff, who directs these concerts, say they are not pleased with the “pops” label. They feel it belongs to Boston, and they don’t want to sound like warmed-over Boston. What’s more, for Huff, “pops” is inaccurate in another sense: What the Symphony does has nothing to do with Britney Spears or Ricky Martin. This series is now subtitled “The Symphony Sessions,” and the intention, Huff says, is to suggest music that is in a real sense “classic” if not “classical,” and to do it in arrangements that are themselves as classy as possible. This year’s opening concert will feature Ray Charles; another in the spring will feature “the supercharged trumpet of Arturo Sandoval.” The wish is to make this series as good as it can be musically and still fill the house.
This question of repertory is, arguably, the most important issue facing the Symphony. On the one hand, the orchestra needs listeners, not just to keep it fiscally viable but also to affirm its worth. On the other hand, as Greil puts it, people who have been working since age 5 to master Bach and Mozart want to play the best music they possibly can, whether that music is as “classic” as Beethoven or as challenging as Edgard Varèse. They do not want to be a backup band for a 14-year-old Welsh soprano singing Andrew Lloyd Webber, no matter how talented she is. Many musicians are persuaded that the solution is essentially very simple: Be the best you can possibly be, get people to listen, and the music will do the rest.
Of course, excellence is not simply the inverse of unfilled seats. Right now, on the verge of its debut in Carnegie Hall, the Nashville Symphony is a very good orchestra. But neither Alan Valentine nor the players are deluded about how good it is. In answer to a question from Barbara Jepson of The Wall Street Journal, Valentine said, “We’re not setting out to build the New York Philharmonic of the South.” As places to be emulated, he cites instead Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Seattle. That is still an ambitious goal.
Of course, it cannot be reached without money. And it’s crucial to recognize that the necessary money cannot be earnedit must be given. No fine arts organization, no symphony orchestranot even in Boston, or New York, or Chicago, or Clevelandcan exist unless borne up on the wings of angels. The Nashville Symphony has some generous supporters and is now on firmer fiscal ground than ever before. In fiscal year ’97-98, it had a balanced budget of just over $6 million, its revenues from performance almost exactly balancing its revenues from contributions. In ’99-00 the budget was $7.4 million, and revenue from contributions was nearly twice that from ticket sales. This looks like a lot of money, but the Boston Symphony last year spent more than $60 million.
In addition to its other contributions, our Symphony has nearly reached its goal of $20 million for an endowment fund. This fund will offer unprecedented stability to the orchestra. But even if the endowment were doubled, it would be meager in comparison with other orchestras.
The first orchestral need is to pay players what competing orchestras do. Both Alan Valentine and union rep Laura Ross agree on this matter. Without better pay, the Symphony cannot get and keep good players. Because auditioners have to pay their own expenses, the most desirable players don’t even try out for orchestras that don’t pay well.
The problem especially affects string players, the orchestra’s core. Orchestras need a lot of strings, but only a few winds and brasses. Thus an orchestra like ours becomes a starting point especially for string players, who move on to a better place as soon as they can. This makes developing an experienced string section nearly impossible. Our Symphony right now has three or four unfilled chairs because Kenneth Schermerhorn and concertmaster Mary Kathryn Vanosdale will not hire unqualified players. One bad player disfigures the whole sound.
This turnover in players is an important reason for inconsistency in performance. Even accomplished and experienced musicians need time to meld into a secure ensemble, whether an orchestra, a chorus, or a string quartet. Thus getting and keeping good players is the first order of business.
But even good players need good rehearsal and performance space, ideally in a single, state-of-the-art hall. Right now our Symphony has none of the above. Stephen Greil acknowledges that none of the three halls at TPAC, including Jackson Hall, is a good music space. TPAC, 20 years old now, was conceived as a multipurpose facility, and necessary compromises were built in. Jackson Hall was much improved for classical performances a year ago when an acoustic shell was built around the inside of the stageincluding a ceiling that kept the sound from vanishing into the emptiness overhead. Before the modification, neither players nor singers could hear one another onstage. The problem has not gone away, but it is less troublesome now.
In some ways more troublesome, the players say, is the lack of good rehearsal space. Even when rehearsals happen at TPAC, they are not in the performance hall, so that what musicians hear in rehearsal cannot carry over to public performance. Moreover, because the orchestra plays so many and such varied concerts, and because TPAC can book more acts than it has weeks in the year for, the orchestra is obliged to use a number of rehearsal venues, commonly local churches. Moving from one to another, sometimes on the same day, is a nuisance even for violinists and woodwinds. But for contrabass players, cellists, players of big brass, and especially percussionists, it is a major difficulty. Not only the players are aware of the need; supporters including Stephen Greil, Mike Dye, Phil Bredesen, and Martha Ingram are aware of it too. Talks are ongoing. But nobody sees a performance hall on a near horizon.
Seen in this context, the Symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut is indeed a cause for rejoicing, but that joy is suffused with irony. What the Nashville Symphony is undertaking on this trip isn’t entirely representative of the ensemble that listeners may have heard on disc or in local performance. The genuinely fine sound preserved on the Naxos CDs was mixed and adjusted by some very fine Naxos engineers from takes done in several recording sessions; it doesn’t present the Nashville Symphony as it sounds onstage. What’s more, the Carnegie Hall program is not typical of offerings for local consumption; the selections, according to Schermerhorn, were chosen to show off the orchestra’s strengthsand are directed at New York ears, not local ones.
The program’s centerpiece is Mark O’Connor’s Double Concerto for Two Violins, featuring the composer and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg as soloists. O’Connor has composed some uniquely engaging works, transmuting Appalachian materials into lovely and expressive classical formsan apotheosis of bluegrass that has identified O’Connor’s name with Music City. This concerto is quintessentially appropriate for Nashville-in-New YorkKenneth Schermerhorn calls it “a rousing crowd pleaser.” The program also includes Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, a good, solid, safe standard, as well as the wittily lyrical Symphony No. 2 of 20th-century Yankee maverick Charles Ives, commonly known for his later gleefully raucous dissonance. And it finishes with Richard Strauss’ luscious Der Rosenkavalier Suite. If the Symphony plays well in Manhattan, it will open some eyes and ears about what “Music City” should properly mean.
Schermerhorn says he recently told his orchestra, “What we do before New York and after New York is more important than what we do in New York.” In his view, the trip to Carnegie Hall has a number of benefits, but two especially important ones. First, it enhances the players’ pride in themselves and motivates them to play as well as they can; it helps them to envision themselves as a really fine orchestra. Second, it burnishes the orchestra’s image both in the local and in the national community. This is true for the more than 1,000 Tennesseans (mostly from the Nashville area) who are traveling to New York for the performance. It is true for listeners who may hear the concert locally via NPT’s telecast. And it is true for listeners all over the nation who may hear the concert via NPR’s Performance Today.
But nobody working for the orchestra expects the performance to make a big critical splash in Manhattan. Schermerhorn observes that Bernard Holland and the other critics for The New York Times (“the only newspaper left,” the conductor says) hear the best orchestras in the world on a day-to-day basis. “We do not imagine,” he says, “that they will give us a lot of intense attention.” Rather, the trip’s real value inheres in what it says to our orchestraand to our cityabout what a good orchestra is and why it’s important to have one.
This year’s Nashville Symphony is the best orchestra our city has ever had. Measured against the best in the world, this orchestra, at its own best, is a very fine orchestra indeed. Maybe the people of Music City will want to keep it and help to make it betterbecause it has had to be built, and it will have to be kept. Ironically, the Carnegie Hall experience may make it easier for our best players to go somewhere else.
One good reason for doing what it takes to build and keep a good orchestra can be learned from Oklahoma City’s experience with two major airlines: If we don’t build it, they will not come. An even better reason, some would say, is the uniquely vivifying delight a good orchestra in live performance delivers. Come to think of it, maybe those two reasons are one and the same.
Well said Steve.
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