This weekend, the Nashville Symphony commemorates the 20th anniversary of Kenneth Schermerhorn’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director and conductor. The celebration is to be a gala affair, with a pair of concerts showcasing the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, of whose music Schermerhorn is particularly fond. Before the concerts, there will be ceremonies attended by local dignitaries, and afterward, a champagne reception in the Jackson Hall lobby.
The event is portentous. Certainly today’s orchestra is different from the one Schermerhorn took over in June 1983. It is largertoday comprised of 84 permanent orchestra members and more than 35 staff members. It is completely professional, instead of pro/am. It plays many more concerts per season, as well as a number of special events, including a Beethoven festival, launched last summer. Some 70 percent of its musicians have been members for more than a decade, and the total number includes some of the finest musicians anywhere. All of this can be chalked up, at least in part, to Schermerhorn’s steady guidance.
Much as the conductor deserves commendation for these achievements, it’s also true that the orchestra still plays to lots of empty seats at nearly every performance, and it sounds so-so more often than superb. It’s disappointing to realize that some things haven’t changed that much since Schermerhorn’s arrival in the ’80s, but it’s not surprising, either. Really good musical ensembles, like really good athletic teams, are by definition rare. More than just steady guidance, they require huge investments of resources and time.
What makes our symphony’s case special is that Schermerhorn and his musicians proved, for a brief stretch, they could perform at a very high level. For about a year, the orchestra played far better than listeners had any reason to expect. Several factors contributed to this, a major one being the decision to rent Carnegie Hall and showcase the orchestra there. The decision was made, Schermerhorn said in a 2000 interview, partly to give the musicians “something to play for,” a goal to keep them focused and disciplined.
That focus and discipline were honed in additional rehearsal time, both before the orchestra left for New York, and most importantly on the way there, when the musicians played an East Coast tour that served in effect as a series of dress rehearsals. But perhaps the most important factor was Schermerhorn himself. He is very much a people person, a genuinely nice guy; all his musicians call him simply “Kenneth.” “He’s one of the least egocentric conductors I’ve ever known,” one player says. And his musical knowledge is deep and wide. To witness him at work with a piece of music he cares aboutDer Rosenkavalier, for instanceis to see him meld 80-plus musicians into a single powerful and responsive instrument.
In retrospect, what’s surprising is not that Schermerhorn was able to turn the Nashville Symphony into such an undeniable and exciting ensemble, but that it took so long. He came to Nashville with solid conducting credentials, including stints as conductor with the American Ballet Theatre orchestra and the New Jersey Symphony early on, and most notably, the Milwaukee Symphony from 1968 to 1980. When he joined that orchestra, it was barely known outside the Milwaukee city limits. He left it nationally known and highly regarded, having taken the group on eight American tours, two foreign tours and seven visits to Carnegie Hall. When he took over the Nashville Symphony, he was expected to do the same here.
But a funny thing happened on his way to the podium. In 1983, when he officially signed on, he had just inked a three-year contract with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He spent a lot of time battling jet lag, and he may have misgauged the rancor then simmering between orchestra members and management. When the players’ three-year contract ended in 1984, the feud boiled over into a strike. Negotiations bogged down in mutual mistrust, and management declared bankruptcy. To his credit, Schermerhorn did not cut and run.
His decision to stay provided an able conductor, but no orchestra to conduct. Martha Ingram, instrumental in persuading Schermerhorn to accept the position in the first place, led the orchestra’s board of directors in keeping the orchestra financially afloat. Both before and since the catastrophe, she has striven to find the personal and corporate support the organization would be doomed without. Lately, she has been the driving force behind the effort to build the orchestra’s new home and make it one of the finest music venues in the world.
That new home, to be ready in 2006 and to be named for the conductor, highlights obstacles the orchestra has been fighting all its life to overcome. The Nashville Symphony’s present home in the Tennessee Performing Arts Center is an acoustically inferior multipurpose venue, without suitable rehearsal space or storage space. For percussionists and contrabassists, that is more than an inconvenience. Though all musicians would like to be better paid, none of the symphony players I’ve talked to would rather have the money than the hall. The new home will make their professional lives a lot more comfortable, not to mention fruitful.
The irony here is that the orchestra has demonstrated already that it can play as well in Jackson Hall as in Carnegie Hallall the strings in tune, all the pitches accurate, all the rhythms razor keen. This is no small feat at TPAC, where musicians may have difficulty hearing even their own section, much less the entire ensemble. The hinge good performance always swings on is the music directorhis or her ability to get good sounds from each orchestral section and to make of those an effective whole. When he was looking toward Carnegie Hall, Kenneth Schermerhorn did it.
But he rarely did it before, and has rarely done it since, making this celebration of his 20 years in Nashville something of a bittersweet occasion. I’ve seen just how great, how charismatic he can be, but I’ve also seen Nashville Symphony performances where the musicians weren’t even paying attention to his baton. So once all the fanfare of the occasion has died down, and as the Nashville Symphony organization continues to generate excitement about its stunning new venue, a key question remains: What will it take to get this ensemble back up to the level it reached only three years ago?
To a passionate supporter of live classical performance, the issue is finally quite simple: What matters is the music. Whether it’s often played or rarely played, revered or brand-new, it needs to be played well. Muddy Beethoven is as unsatisfactory as skewed Schoenberg. People who care about classical music will not go out and pay money to hear what they love treated perfunctorily. As he enters his third decade in Music Cityand he shows no interest in retiringKenneth Schermerhorn needs to find a way to make such music the rule and not the exception. A good place to start might be this: Make the preparation and planning that went into the Carnegie Hall performance the standard for every Nashville Symphony concert, whether at TPAC or at the much anticipated Schermerhorn Symphony Hall.
What should happen over the summer...Someone needs to buy Scarlett a pair of cute ballet…
"his soul patch slides off of his face and splashes in his mimosa." made me…
Dark; Deep; Brooding;Brilliant; A Measure of The Sin! A tale of how many decide that…
Never Forget the time Avery walked home from The Gulch to deep East Nashville. Before…
Can there be a spinoff where Juliettes ex-husband makes the Local Football Team really good…