To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy musicians are all the same. For the Taylor Swifts of this world, life is one big frosted cupcake. Wretched artists, however, are godforsaken each in their own way.
Right now, the vastly gifted virtuosos who make up the Nashville Symphony Orchestra are in full-blown misery. They arrived in this sorry state following as tortuous a path as possible.
Last month, the executive committee of the orchestra's board of directors took the dramatic (make that desperate) step of refusing to renew a letter of credit on about $100 million in outstanding bond obligations. The orchestra incurred the debt for a worthy project — construction of the acoustically wondrous Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
In crossing this fiscal Rubicon, symphony managers were hoping to force the banks to renegotiate the amount the NSO owes. That gamble may have backfired. On Monday, The City Paper reported that the financial institutions involved have given the NSO a deadline of this week for payment of outstanding debt — a practical impossibility — or else foreclosure proceedings could begin (a seemingly existential certainty).
Exactly what is going to happen next is unclear. As of press time Tuesday, NSO spokeswoman Laurie Davis said no such deadline had been given to the symphony, and on the NSO website, board chairman Ed Goodrich and president/CEO Alan Valentine posted a vigorous denial.
"As we have stated previously, our objective is to achieve a comprehensive financial restructuring that significantly reduces or even eliminates the Symphony's long-term debt, while we continue to take action to manage our costs prudently," their joint statement reads. "By doing so, we will position this great institution to operate on a sustainable basis going forward."
The City Paper, nevertheless, confirmed that noted bankruptcy attorney Robert Mendes of Frost Brown Todd had been retained by the symphony. That was probably just in case.
Naturally, there is a lot of finger-pointing going on right now, and much of it is directed at the symphony. Both the Scene and The City Paper have received numerous comments from readers who believe the symphony has been mismanaged, has been making too many excuses about floods, or — the worst sin of all — has been playing too much off-putting contemporary music.
We've also started to hear the familiar question that always pops up, like a serpent in summer grass, whenever a fine regional orchestra hits hard times. Namely: Does our humble town really need a world-class orchestra? (Of course, the people who ask this question already know the answer, which is that a second-rate orchestra is surely "good enough" for our humble town.)
We may well end up with a glorified pops orchestra, and that may be all we can afford and deserve. But if so, it will be a huge blow to the prestige of this city. Last year, the concert editor of American Record Guide, an esteemed national publication, asked me to write about the Nashville Symphony's programming. The editor, Gil French, was familiar with every orchestra in North America — and he concluded that the Nashville Symphony was the most interesting and adventurous ensemble on the continent. Put another way, the NSO plays like the $40 million Philadelphia Orchestra, but it does so at half the cost.
Magazine editors aren't the only people who've take note. Since the opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in 2006, the NSO has won seven Grammy Awards. All of those prizes, by the way, recognized the symphony's recordings of contemporary American music. So in addition to increasing the renown of the orchestra and its city, these discs have done much to enrich the worldwide musical culture.
It's worth noting that the orchestra under the direction of Giancarlo Guerrero has reached a level of artistic polish and precision that has become the envy of many orchestras around the country. The NSO didn't achieve that level of virtuosity accompanying Dennis DeYoung and the Music of Styx — and be forewarned, that is a popular program with many of the country's dumbed-down orchestras right now. The NSO did it playing Mahler.
Guerrero is currently leading the NSO in a survey of all of Mahler's music — the nine complete symphonies, the unfinished 10th and the symphonic song cycles. In fact, the NSO opened the current season with Mahler's Symphony No. 8 "Symphony of a Thousand" and is concluding it with the Symphony No. 1 "Titan." That's exactly the kind of programming that an orchestra should be playing in the City of Music.
All that said, the Nashville Symphony is going to have to get real, meaning it will have to adapt to a world that may be more interested in the music of DeYoung than Debussy. The symphony is already doing a lot of things right.
For at least a year, the NSO has been transforming the Schermerhorn from being primarily an orchestra hall to being a major regional entertainment venue. Big-name entertainers like Bill Cosby and Huey Lewis can help fill that expensive concert hall and bring in much needed revenue.
Orchestras are also going to have to rethink the way they present their core product — classical music. The traditional subscription series seems to be approaching its expiration date. People crave lasting memories, not tickets to classical concerts nos. 4, 7, 9 and 12. That suggests a greater emphasis in the future on festivals, competitions and collaborations. The NSO's joint venture with the Nashville Ballet next season to present a new dance set to the music of Ben Folds is exactly what's needed.
The future could be infinitely creative. Or it could be filled with the sounds of silence.
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