In just four years of performing, the Nashville Chamber Orchestra has not only attracted large local audiences, it has also earned an enviable regional reputation. The only independent professional chamber orchestra in the southeastern U.S., this group of studio string players has become known for performing new and accessible compositions, in addition to some unusual offerings from the more standard repertoire. The NCO enjoys both local and national support for its ENCORE educational program, which brings chamber music to disadvantaged neighborhoods, and it has worked with local arts groups such as VAAN to develop common programming and support.
With all the growing activity, the NCO’s last concert season should have been an unqualified success, and in many ways it was. The group premiered two new pieces, Conni Ellisor’s dulcimer concerto Blackberry Winter and John Mock’s Celtic-flavored piece The Stone. There was a sellout concert at Caffé Milanothe first time the venue had ever experienced so large a house on a Sunday nightand the inauguration of a regular concert series at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. The season saw a 700-percent increase in individual contributions to the ensemble, a 23-percent growth in corporate support, a tripling of overall support, and a sixfold increase in ticket revenues; the number of concerts doubled. Adding excitement to an already booming season, the NCO announced that Warner Bros. agreed to release a compact disc featuring many of the works that the group had commissioned and premiered.
Then reality hit. The costs of the compact disc, including a third concert series last March in preparation for the recording, left the ensemble with $20,000 in short-term debta debt that equaled one-fifth of the season’s $100,000 operating budget. The ensemble’s musicians agreed to defer payment from concerts for two months, and members of the organization’s board secured a line of credit from NationsBank. The NCO held a successful fundraiser in July, and as of now, “Everyone has been paid!” NCO director Paul Gambill exclaims with relief. “From the beginning we looked on the recording as a great opportunity for growth. In for-profit [organizations], growth is associated with assuming short-term debt, and debt was something we expected when we looked at doing the CD at this time.”
The compact disc isn’t slated for release until Sept. 23, but the growth fueled by the recording and by the NCO’s highly regarded commissioning program is already generating short-term payoffs. The ensemble has been accepted as a showcase artist at the Southern Arts Federation Annual Conference, taking place the end of this month at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Southern Arts Federation, which covers 11 states in the Southeast, supports performing groups that want to tour outside their home states.
“This is important,” says Gambill, “because most state arts organizations will only fund in-state programs.” In addition to the possibility of grant money, the conference also offers participants the chance to be heard by booking agents and arts managers who are looking for new talent to present. “We will be one of only 30 groups of all types performing at TPAC that weekend,” Gambill says.
Along with the group’s participation in the Southern Arts Federation conference, the prospect of a new recording has been a boost to the NCO as it applies for funds to commission more new works. Among the organizations taking a look at the Nashville Chamber Orchestra are the Aaron Copland Fund, Meet the Composer, and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. Such income will be needed in the future if the group continues the pace of performing new works that it has set for itself in the coming season.
Among these new works will be a single-movement piece for viola and orchestra by Conni Ellisor that will be premiered at an April concert by NCO principal violist Jim Grosjean. In addition, arranger/composer/violist Kris Wilkinson, guitarist Phil Keaggy, and the concertmaster David Davidson are cowriting a new overture for guitar and strings that will anchor a November concert at Caffé Milano. Finally, Gambill is promising a major new work for vocalist and chamber orchestra in March. “There’s so much talent here in Nashville,” the director notes. “Look for a southern song cycle which pairs songwriters with orchestrators. Our idea is to blend Nashville’s pop with traditional orchestra.”
Once again, the NCO’s concert offerings in the coming season will almost double. Seven concerts are scheduled for 1997-98. Continuing the group’s association with the Blair School of Music, three concerts will be given there. And building on the great popularity of last season’s Caffé Milano presentation, all the other concerts will be given at the downtown club. The season starts with an Oct. 24 concert at Blair featuring the Serenade for Strings by Joseph Suk, son-in-law of Antonin Dvorak and grandfather of the contemporary Czech violinist of the same name. On the same program will be a performance of Paul Creston’s jazzy Concertino for Marimba and Orchestra; Chris Norton will be featured marimba soloist.
Having established its short-term plans for growth, the NCO is already looking even further into the future. After performing the Creston Concertino at Blair, the group will go back into the recording studio to serve as assisting artists on a recording of works for marimba by Norton. Gambill is also planning to collaborate with Michael Velting, head of the Christ Church Schola Cantorum, in a sacred work for chamber choir and strings.
With all this activity comes the question of organizing for growth. For many years, Paul Gambill has served both as a music director and as general manager of the NCO. To give him more time to pursue the artistic side of the ensemble’s growth, the NCO board has approved the hiring of Austin Belmer as general manager. Belmer has already worked with the NCO on various projects and served as art director for the group’s compact disc. In addition, the organization will be looking to strengthen its operations and marketing.
To keep unpleasant monetary surprises from reoccurring, the NCO has turned to the McPherson Group, with which it worked last year, to handle development and fund-raising matters. They have their work cut out for them: The board of the NCO has approved a budget of $180,000 for the 1997-98 season.
With its new organization in place, with the new works in development, and with the NCO ready to launch its debut CD, the future looks very good. Although the ensemble isn’t yet able to expand due to financial considerations, Gambill is seeking out projects that will allow the NCO to add winds and brass as assisting artists. At the very least, Nashville will be seeing more of its chamber orchestra this year, and people everywhere will likely start paying attention to these talented studio musicians, equally adept at playing both Mozart and Monroe.
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