Normally, the summer months are not a time of great activity for symphony orchestras. Players might be involved in a few summer concerts, or they might work the festival circuit. Marketing staffers, meanwhile, try to generate ticket sales for the upcoming season. It’s during this time that management, unfrazzled by the need to concentrate on next weekend’s concert pair, takes the opportunity to look at long-range goals.
At least that’s how it should have gone for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, but things have been more hectic than usual this summer. The marketing department went into high gear to get the word out on a 52nd season featuring premieres of works by local composers, an Easter program of choral works, and a list of impressive soloists. Conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn and an audition committee were hard at work seeking replacements for vacant positions in the ensemble. Everyone was involved with the release of the NSO’s new Romance CD, which pairs Dvorak’s ninth symphony with the recorded premiere of David Amram’s Kokopelli; and they all participated in the taping of Richard Einhorn’s score for Liberty, the upcoming Ken Burns series on the American Revolution. As if that weren’t enough, midway through the summer, the symphony announced that some of its members would be accompanying Amy Grant on a tour of her “Tennessee Christmas” show.
In the midst of all this activity, symphony management and players continued to negotiate a new contract. The discussions got heavy when some players suggested that management was stonewalling the process by not providing an accurate picture of the NSO’s fiscal health. There was even a fear among some players that a strike was imminent. Then, on July 31, the date on which the old contract expired, it was announced that a tentative agreement had been reached. As of two weeks ago, however, the symphony musicians had not been given details of the pact, and as of last week, the Symphony Association board had yet to vote on an offer to the players.
In spite of these behind-the-scenes troubles, nobody seems to think that a strike is still probable. In fact, it is hoped that the salary package that comes from the negotiations will be generous enough to help the symphony attract top-flight new players. Not that the symphony hasn’t already done so: Catherine Lord from the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently arrived to fill the position left vacant by English horn player Dewayne Pigg. The symphony also recently added two more violinists, John Maple and Marianna Harvin. One of the most exciting new additions, Eric Grattan, holder of the Anne Potter Wilson chair as principal flute, came from the highly regarded Montreal Symphony. Some members of the auditioning committee were so impressed by him that they wanted to engage him on the spot.
These new players, and the rest of the body they join, will have to get up to speed quickly. Next Tuesday’s Opry House performance with Van Cliburn, the first special program of the fall, is expected to draw sellout crowds. Then the regular series gets under way with a September pair featuring pianist John Browning and with two October offerings. After a holiday hiatus to accommodate the Amy Grant tour, a dozen Nutcrackers, a half-dozen Messiahs, and the NSO’s own Christmas pops offering, the season continues in ’98 with two concerts every month except for Marchwhen Jackson Hall will be taken over by a production of Phantom of the Opera. In between, symphony musicians will play five pops concerts as well as a special Valentine’s concert with Gladys Knight; they’ll also back up ballets, provide the pit band for opera performances, and play for some 70,000 schoolchildren throughout the area.
So what’s the high point of the new season? “Boy, that’s an unbelievable Sophie’s Choice,” remarks NSO executive director Stephen Vann. After some consideration, he and Maestro Schermerhorn agree that they’re particularly looking forward to the Oct. 31-Nov. 1 concert pair that will feature violinist Isaac Stern in two works, Dvorak’s Romance for Violin and Orchestra and the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. “No matter how old he is,” Schermerhorn says, “Isaac Stern plays the violin with about as much authority as you can play the violin.” The conductor notes that this will be something like the 15th time he has worked with Stern, an association that goes back to his days under Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic.
The same bill will feature a new piece by Nashvillian Michael Rose and the seldom-heard second symphony of Edward Elgar. Schermerhorn is just as excited about conducting the Elgar. “It’s something that I think most audiences will find stunning and exciting,” he says. “It’s one of those kaleidoscopic piecesevery way you look at it, it comes out differently.”
Schermerhorn mentions two other concerts with interest: The Sept. 26-27 offering of works by Beethoven and Ravel, and the Jan. 16-17 pairing of Gustav Holst’s The Planets with Also Sprach Zarathustra. Both of these dates hold possibilities for future recordings: Magnatone, the company for which the NSO records, would especially like to get Beethoven’s fifth symphony on tape. “They’ve done very well selling our Beethoven seventh symphony through TV,” the conductor notes, “and they want a fifth to go with it.”
Recordings are only one aspect of the NSO’s continued growth. The upcoming Amy Grant tour, which will include some symphony members, has been in the works for years. “It will be the first time to take the NSO’s great music-making around the country,” Vann says. He also speaks of future plans for unspecified special projectscould it be that the soundtrack for the Ken Burns series is in the offing? “I am not at liberty to discuss that project,” the symphony director says.
For his part, Maestro Schermerhorn is looking for greater concert opportunities in the future. “We must expand our season,” he says. “We may not be able to expand to 20 pairs like the biggest orchestras, but we can get two or three more. We don’t need lapses of six weeks or more without playing demanding repertoire, because then our ensemble suffers.” The question of ensemble is very much in Schermerhorn’s mind. “The music of Haydn and Mozart builds the prowess and skill of the string playersthe core of the orchestrabut if you schedule these smaller-scale works in the current concert series, you waste so many musicians.”
Schermerhorn’s comments arise from the fact that the NSO will indeed have some stretches of inactivity in the spring of 1998. For six weeks, the symphony’s Jackson Hall home will be taken over by a production of Phantom of the Opera. There is talk of finding alternative venues for the NSO during such periods, and the hall most frequently mentioned is the symphony’s longtime home, War Memorial Auditorium. Schermerhorn cautions, however, that such a move would happen only if the onstage and backstage areas could be expanded without destroying the hall’s acoustics.
With a new contract in the offing, new players on board, and a new season about to start, the NSO’s long, hot summer is making way for a fruitful fall. While the present holds the promise of some extraordinary music-making, in the future expect to see the symphony develop into a group of national importance. The recordings will continue, the touring will expand, and more television projects will bring the NSO into living rooms across the country. As Steven Vann notes, the time is ripe to “export the city’s crown jewels.” Summers for the Nashville Symphony will never be the same again.
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