This fall, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra will begin its 10th season. Originally chartered as the Cumberland Chamber Musicians, the orchestra began very modestly and had some seven years of steady but unspectacular growth. Then, three years ago, a recording contract prompted the name change and NCO began a two-season growth spurt that paradoxically threatened its health. Now refreshed both physically and fiscally, the orchestra has emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. Last season’s finale, showcasing virtuoso marimba player Christopher Norton, was a dazzling demonstration that both NCO’s musicianship and its innovative programming remain robust. And next season NCO will return to a full slate of programs showcasing more new music than ever before.
“New music is our trademark,” says founder/director Paul Gambill. And indeed, NCO’s new music has earned it national attention as an embodiment of vivifying change.
Gambill admits he more or less backed into the idea of founding a chamber orchestra in Nashville. He’d been in town a couple of years, playing French horn with The Nashville Symphony, but he had ambitions to conduct. In graduate school at Indiana he’d been part of a wind quintet that performed Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” in area schools. He formed a similar program here, directing and narrating as well as playing. The strong and positive response enabled him to get some educational grant money, which in turn piqued the interest of other musicians. Discovering the area’s large pool of classically trained studio musicians who played a wide range of music, Gambill decided to charter a chamber ensemble.
Given the problematic classical music situation a decade ago in Music CityThe Nashville Symphony was trying to recover from troubles that had sent it into bankruptcyGambill decided to charter his orchestra as a regional organization that would market its product in smaller cities around the area. And he decided to give that product a regional character.
The new orchestra would play Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. But it would also play music by local tunesmiths Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters. At first, this interbreeding of musical kinds was (and sometimes still is) essentially what many major orchestrasincluding the London Philharmonicoffer as “pops concerts.” A well-known singer sings what made him or her well known, and the orchestra functions as a backup band, using professionally arranged charts. The orchestra draws a new audience, and the singer gets a new kind of exposureplus a set of orchestral charts.
But the new orchestra also counted among its members a gifted and experienced composer/arranger who had been free-lancing in Nashville since 1980. Conni Ellisor, herself a violinist, has composed and arranged for prestigious symphony orchestras as well as for such stars as Amy Grant, John Berry, and Emmylou Harris. In 1994, Gambill began commissioning new work from her that would incorporate regional sounds into the texture of classical string music. One of the first commissions led to Ellisor’s Blackberry Winter, for string orchestra and mountain dulcimer. This uniquely lovely and expressive work, rooted in Appalachia, has been given a lot of airtime on National Public Radio, and has been choreographed for performance with dancers.
Several of the orchestra’s successful commissions have been Ellisor’s. Gambill has acknowledged her importance to the ensemble by naming her its composer-in-residence, and she continues to show extraordinary versatility. She has written music in the manner of 1930s Parisian jazzmen Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grapelli for a performance featuring The Gypsy Hombres. And for last season’s finale, she composed a very different kind of jalapeño-flavored music to showcase Norton.
But she is not the orchestra’s only source of delightful new music. Marvelous things have come also from John Mock, working with the orchestra’s concertmaster David Davidson; from the impressively talented J. Mark Scearce; and from APSU composer Jeffrey Wood, among others. And this fostering of new music in an environment that attracts people to hear itinstead of scaring them away, as can often be the case with modern classical musicis certainly the orchestra’s most distinctive feature.
Through this commissioning of new works, interest in the orchestra grew during the last half of the ’90s. The ensemble did well enough that, when it was seven years old, it got its first contract to do a CD for Warner Brothers. Through the new CD, Benjamin Rowe of National Public Radio’s Performance Today was able to hear NCO’s music. And what he heard has moved him to send a crew to Nashville three times since to record the orchestra in live performance to be aired nationwide. And while NCO’s newly commissioned works are receiving a lot of airtime, its standard classical repertory is also being recorded: NCO has contracted with the Naxos label, which claims one of the most efficient international marketing operations on the planet, to record a program of Aaron Copland’s music.
Thus, after seven years of slow but steady development, the newly christened NCO experienced a dizzying growth spurt. Gambill, functioning as both executive director and music director, says he found himself with more than he could handle. And bad fortune cracked heads with good fortune. A contracted performance for an ice-skating extravaganza at the Gaylord Entertainment Center gave NCO some desirable national publicity. But a shortfall in ticket sales also gave the orchestra a financial migraine. It was time to step back and take stock.
Accordingly, the recently concluded season was cut back and slimmed down, with fewer performances and a season opener that featured a string quartet instead of the full string orchestra. At the same time, looking to tap into the affluent Williamson County market, NCO booked two successful performances into The Factory at Franklin. Each of those programs was then repeated in Nashville.
Meanwhile, NCO’s board of directors have marshaled their energies on the orchestra’s behalf. Gambill and board chairman Chuck Dunn both affirm that NCO’s debt is rapidly being retired, and that the orchestra is fiscally sound. Both also affirm that a search is under way to find an executive director, to be in place in July 2001, so that Gambill, as music director, can devote his energies to fostering NCO’s special kind of new music.
While what NCO plays is of great importance, how it plays is no less so. Nearly all of NCO’s two dozen string players are working studio professionals who make a living playing whatever is requested of them. The core of the orchestrawhat Gambill calls “the inside stands”are regulars. The other musicians come and go, according to their other professional obligations. Occasionally, a symphony player or two may sign on if they happen to be free. Several musicians regularly commute from other citiesAtlanta, Memphis, even Chicago. And concertmaster Davidson observes that NCO’s “inside stands” make a sacrifice in order to play. What NCO pays is considerably less than studio compensation. But the musicians choose to play NCO music, Davidson says, because they need the musicand not just for the technique the music demands. They need to play fresh and vital music that does not merely iterate the past, but metabolizes it into the here and now.
For the first time in NCO history, each of the five programs in the upcoming season will be done as a “pair”in Franklin on a Friday evening and again in Nashville the following Saturday. The orchestra will use the recently rescued Belcourt Theatre as a new venue: Both the Holiday Festival concert and the Valentine’s concert will happen there.
Appropriately, this season’s concerts all share the theme of music incorporating folk materials. NCO will play selections by standard composers (Bach, Tchaikovsky, Bartók, and Copland) that grew out of folk traditions. And it will feature more new commissions than ever beforefive new compositions by five different composersworking that same mother lode. Conni Ellisor is writing for bluegrass band and string orchestra. Don Hart, from Nashville, is writing for guitar and two mandolins with string orchestra. David Davidson is writing what he calls “Celtic Inspirations.” Nikitas Demos, from Atlanta, is writing for traditional Greek folk ensemble (including the bouzouki, a kind of mandolin with a long neck, and the Middle Eastern drum called a doumbek) and string orchestra. And Charles William Heimermann, of Nashville, is composing for David Davidson a piece for solo violin and string orchestra. One of these new compositions will be featured in each of the season’s five concert pairs.
In speaking of this orchestra’s first decade of existence, Paul Gambill has more than once used the phrase “learning curve.” He has never hadand does not havea master plan. He had no way to foresee how the enterprise that began so humbly would progress. He is a pragmatic man willing to take risks, and to learn from his mistakes. Any commission is a risk, even when it goes to an acknowledged master: A competent craftsman can always build a sturdy table, but not always a beautiful one. Likewise, not all of Gambill’s commissions have succeeded equally well. But all have been noteworthy, and some have been masterful. For some listeners, the risks are a part of the attraction. At every NCO concert, the audience hears music never heard in public before. At some NCO concerts, that music is unforgettable.
The Solomon book hardly surprises me. Writing books that supposedly "out" legendary artists has been…
Next Assembly is Sunday, Dec. 8 at 11am. Location is Tenn. Bar Center, 221 4th…
I have to agree with the original writer...there is enough real-life tragedy in the world...TV…
Now that I know he's living in Edgehill, I think I'm gonna spend more time…