Bid for the Big Time 

Nashville Symphony Orchestra hosts national gathering in hopes of bolstering its cred

Future music historians may one day call it the “Great Guitar Case Caper.”

Future music historians may one day call it the “Great Guitar Case Caper.”

On a Monday morning several years ago, Henry Fogel, the esteemed president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, walked into his Manhattan office and found a big, black and unidentified guitar case lying on his floor. For Fogel, the legendary former president of the even more legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra, discovering the owner of that case became a matter of great concern.

“I walked into every office here at the league asking people if it was their case, and they all responded, ‘not I,’ ” says Fogel. “I even went so far as to call our cleaning lady to see if it belonged to her teenage son. Then, after about a half-hour, it suddenly dawned on me that we should perhaps open the case.”

Inside, Fogel found not a guitar but GooGoo Clusters, gift bottles of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey and other knickknacks that bespoke Nashville. And in the center of the case was a letter from Alan Valentine, president of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which began, “And now that I have your attention.... ”

Valentine’s publicity stunt finally will pay off next week, when the leadership of North America’s classical music community converges on Nashville for the American Symphony Orchestra League’s 62nd national conference. In all, more than 1,300 top orchestral administrators—the league represents nearly 1,000 symphony, chamber, youth and collegiate orchestras in the United States and Canada—will be in town to attend sessions on the future of the arts in America and to catch the NSO in concert at its newly minted (and much heralded) Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

“This is a real coup for us because the league almost never holds its conferences in a city as small as Nashville,” Valentine says. “But registration for our conference has already topped what they had in Los Angeles last year and in Washington, D.C., the year before that. I know the league was concerned at first about attendance, but I never had any worries because Nashville is such a great tourist town.”

No doubt, many of the league’s highbrow musical tourists are coming because they want to see and hear the city’s new concert hall (and to check out other such notable attractions as Gaylord Opryland, Ryman Auditorium and the Parthenon). But Valentine says it’s equally important that Nashville and its orchestra be seen and heard.

“This is even more important for us than when Kenneth [Schermerhorn] took the orchestra to Carnegie Hall in 2000,” Valentine says. “That event was attended by a few thousand people and a few New York City critics, but this time the entire orchestral industry is coming to hear our symphony. That’s going to help our reputation catch up with the reality that our symphony is better than many people think. And remember, we’re currently in the middle of an unresolved music director search, and some candidates may be on the fence because they’re not sure the job is big enough. But if the industry perceives it as a big job, then it is a big job, because in this business perception is everything.”

One thing that everyone in the industry perceives is that classical music is currently in trouble. Indeed, in an age of iPods, BlackBerries, Xbox 360s and the Internet, the old orchestral tunes of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms can often seem, well, irrelevant. So it comes as no surprise that many American orchestras have spent much of the past decade scrambling to find funds for their budgets and younger audiences for their concert halls.

“Orchestras are definitely like the canaries in the mine shaft for the arts,” says Bill Ivey, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “When orchestras have problems, it’s a good bet other arts groups are going to start having problems as well.”

Now director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, Ivey has just co-edited a book on the current state of the arts in America. That book, called Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Life, will be the focus of a forum at the league’s upcoming conference.

“One of the central and most surprising findings of the book is that we seem to be returning to the sort of participatory culture that we had in the United States in the 19th century,” says Steven Tepper, associate director of the Curb Center and the book’s co-editor.

“The 20th century saw the rise of big record and movie companies that gave the public art to consume passively, but that kind of arts engagement was really an aberration,” he says. “But in the 21st century we’re seeing a change in ethos, since people want to have more of a direct involvement in their art. In fact, it’s clear American Idol has become a huge success because it has built-in participation—the viewers pick the winners. What technology has done is provide people with the means to participate in the creation of their own art. So the future is actually going to be more like the 19th century, when people who wanted art and music made their own.”

In keeping with the theme of arts participation, league members have been encouraged to bring their laptops to the session, which will be the subject of a live blog on the influential artsjournal.com. “As far as I know, there’s never been a live blog of a national arts meeting,” says Douglas McLennan, the editor of artsjournal.com. “It’s symbolic of America’s current dialogue about the arts.”

Of course, the real highlight of the conference will be Leonard Slatkin’s concert with the NSO next Thursday at the Schermerhorn. For a little over two hours, the entire orchestral industry will be focused like a laser on the symphony, and Valentine admits he’s nervous.

“You bet I’m nervous, because there’s a lot at stake,” says Valentine. “But no one ever accused me of not having the guts to take chances.”

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