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Nashville Symphony celebrates 75 years of music

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 12/9/2021 Melonee Hurt
This photo taken in 1963 shows Nashville Symphony violinist Booker Rowe teaching a student about the violin. In the early ‘60s, the Nashville Symphony became the first integrated orchestra in the South and included a number of African American musicians, including Rowe. © Photo courtesy of the Nashville Symphony This photo taken in 1963 shows Nashville Symphony violinist Booker Rowe teaching a student about the violin. In the early ‘60s, the Nashville Symphony became the first integrated orchestra in the South and included a number of African American musicians, including Rowe.

Before the Nashville Symphony was formed in 1946, there was a predecessor orchestra that began here around 1921 and survived only a few seasons before it succumbed to the Great Depression.

The Nashville Symphony we know today is celebrating 75 years of continuously making, performing and recording music. It has not, however, been without some major events that could have forced it to have the same fate as its short-lived predecessor.

But neither a record-setting flood that would fill Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center with standing water, nor a global pandemic could silence this Nashville institution. Just days after the catastrophic flood in May 2010, the symphony’s musicians played on the steps of the courthouse, proving it would take more than a flood to stop the music.

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“We had been through a lot, but what was so challenging about the pandemic was it stopped us from doing what we do, which is playing live music in front of a live audience,” said the symphony’s CEO of 24 years, Alan Valentine. But Sept. 16, the sounds of the symphony again filled the halls of the Schermerhorn, and now plans for anniversary year celebrations and concerts are in full swing.

Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn leads the orchestra during the annual Symphony Ball at the Vanderbilt Plaza on Dec. 10, 1994. © Nina Long / The Tennessean Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn leads the orchestra during the annual Symphony Ball at the Vanderbilt Plaza on Dec. 10, 1994.

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The beginning

Nashvillian Walter Sharp returned home from World War II impressed with the culture he saw across Europe and decided that for Nashville to have a similar level of sophistication, it needed a symphony orchestra. On Dec. 10, 1946, the newly formed orchestra played its first show to much black-tie fanfare at War Memorial Auditorium under the direction of conductor William Strickland.

The symphony would be led by four more conductors over the years before a pivotal moment in the symphony’s history, when Kenneth Schermerhorn would assume the role of music director in 1983 and stay in the job until his death in 2005. Yes, he’s the same Schermerhorn of the symphony center that bears his name - one of only two symphony centers in the United States named after a conductor.

“The orchestra was always good, but under Schermerhorn, things really started to happen,” Valentine said. “He was an incredibly gifted musician.”

He was also a visionary who, along with Valentine, spearheaded the Nashville Symphony being recorded. Thanks to a relationship with classical record label Naxos, which had recently moved its headquarters to Nashville, the symphony began its recorded legacy, which today has produced 39 recordings generating 14 Grammy Awards and 27 nominations including this year’s nomination for the symphony and Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero for Best Orchestral Performance, conducting the symphony for "Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives; Harmonielehre."

“The value of recording is interesting because they bring great credit to the symphony and ultimately to Nashville,” Valentine said. “Music City really is Music City. That ultimately turns back to pride in the institution by the people who live here. It also has a profound impact on how an orchestra plays. You have to be at the top of your game in a different way than when you are playing live, so it dramatically improved the artistic quality of the orchestra in a significant way.”

Focus on contemporary

Another creative decision that fueled the symphony’s staying power was a decision by Schermerhorn and Valentine to begin to focus on contemporary composers, which Valentine says was important not only because nobody else was doing it, but it carved out a niche for the orchestra that would get it noticed.

“We also knew that Nashville is a place where uniquely American music is created, performed, recorded and promoted to the world,” he said. “What better way for the Nashville Symphony to contribute to the brand that is Music City than to do the exact same thing? We are doing in our genre of music what everyone else in Nashville is doing.”

After Schermerhorn died, a search was conducted for a new music director, and in 2007, the symphony announced the appointment of Giancarlo Guererro as its seventh music director, effective with the 2009-10 season.

“In Giancarlo’s 12 years as music director, he has had a tremendous impact on the growth and reputation of the symphony, taking the orchestra to the next level artistically," Valentine said. "With his dedication to showcasing the music of contemporary American composers, he built upon Kenneth Schermerhorn's legacy, and his recordings with the orchestra have garnered 11 of the 14 Grammy Awards awarded to Nashville Symphony projects, indicative of the orchestra's artistic achievement and the growth of its artistic reputation.” 

Guererro reiterated his excitement about being able to celebrate this milestone anniversary with the symphony. 

"This great orchestra has been an integral part of Middle Tennessee, bringing great musical experiences with every single performance," he said. "We have been able to become a world-class orchestra not only through the virtuosity of several generations of great orchestral musicians, but also with the unwavering support of our generous community. I salute this incredible institution, which has become an important part of my life, and look forward to many more years of celebrating great music in Nashville."

a group of people in front of a building: The Schermerhorn Symphony Center is home to the Nashville Symphony. © Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean The Schermerhorn Symphony Center is home to the Nashville Symphony.

The new home

While the symphony’s leaders have made several key creative decisions throughout the organization’s 75 years, arguably the most important milestone in the symphony’s history was the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, which opened Sept. 9, 2006. Although Kenneth Schermerhorn died before the venue officially opened, Valentine said he did know that it would bear his name.

“That building ultimately did more for the orchestra’s artistic development than anything else we could have done,” Valentine said. “An orchestra’s primary instrument is the space in which it makes music. TPAC’s Jackson Hall, where we performed before Schermerhorn opened, is an outstanding venue, but it was not designed to be an orchestral performance space. The opening of the Schermerhorn changed everything.”

The symphony had a recording session planned for the summer of 2006, before the Schermerhorn was complete. They recorded in the symphony hall anyway with legendary conductor Leonard Slatkin, and that album, Joan Tower’s “Made in America,” swept the classical categories at the Grammy Awards in 2007, winning Best Orchestral Performance and Best Classical Album and Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

“I’m convinced it was the hall,” Valentine said. “It was the first recording we had made there, and it really had a profound impact on the orchestra.”

The impact of the Schermerhorn is evident in the symphony’s bottom line. The last year the symphony played at TPAC, total ticket sales for that 2005-2006 season were $2.6 million. The first year in the Schermerhorn, ticket sales were $7.5 million.

Alan Valentine, president and CEO of the Nashville Symphony © Photo by Kurt Heinecke Alan Valentine, president and CEO of the Nashville Symphony

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Future 

While the symphony has had a long history, the organization is working toward the future with some strategic planning, which Valentine says is what has helped the symphony already see so many successes. throughout its history.

He said major initiatives include equity, diversity and inclusion.

“The Nashville Symphony’s future has to be inextricably linked to how well it can transform itself into an institution that is much more reflective of the community it serves,” Valentine said. “I don’t just mean on stage and in the boardroom, but how are we serving this community? How are we showing up in conversations? How are we as a partner to other arts institutions?”

He says this initiative has been in the works for some time and is the beginning of a long journey that is critical in so any ways.

“Ultimately, it’s going to make the arts more interesting, our programming much better and mean that the orchestra will be here for a very long time because it will be embraced by the community in ways it maybe hasn’t before.”

In the meantime, the symphony is preparing to celebrate its 75th year with a fundraising concert featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman that will take place at the Schermerhorn on Saturday, December 11.

“None of what we’ve been able to accomplish the last 75 years would have been possible without the extraordinary support of this incredible community we live in,” Valentine said. “The orchestra has certainly been the significant beneficiary of that generosity and spirit, and for that we are grateful to this community.”

If you go

What: Nashville Symphony's 75th anniversary concert, Enrico Lopez-Yañez, conductor

When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11

Where: Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Info: Ticket prices range from $150 to $350 and include a tax-deductible donation to the Nashville Symphony. For more information and to purchase tickets visit: www.NashvilleSymphony.org/SymphonyBall.

75 years of music

Dec. 10, 1946: Nashville Symphony performs first concert.

The concert was at War Memorial Auditorium, which would be the symphony’s home until 1980 when it moved to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Founders were Walter Sharp and William Strickland, who was also its first music director.

Jan. 15, 1949: National radio broadcast.

The symphony is first heard nationally on WSM Radio during its “Orchestras of the Nation” broadcast. The symphony first appears on national television in 1997 as part of “Liberty!  The American Revolution,” a PBS miniseries and American history teaching video.

1951: New music director.

Guy Taylor (1951-1959), Willis Page (1959-1967), Thor Johnson (1967-1975), and Michael Charry (1976-1982) followed Strickland as music director. From 1983 until his death in 2005, the Nashville Symphony flourished under the dynamic leadership of Music Director and Principal Conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, a noted conductor, composer and music educator. Giancarlo Guerrero became music director in 2009.

1985: First Symphony Ball.

The annual ball, one of the few white-tie galas in the country, began in 1985 to help fund the symphony’s artistic and educational missions. This year’s ball is a fundraising concert Dec. 11 featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman.

1993: Partnership with Amy Grant.

After several years of financial struggle for the symphony, singer Amy Grant began holding benefit concerts for it. In 1997, she launched a 19-city U.S. tour with the symphony, and the proceeds paid off the organization’s bankruptcy debt.

June 15, 1998: Alan D. Valentine.

The symphony’s current president and CEO, Alan D. Valentine, joins the Nashville Symphony. Under his leadership, the symphony has grown and accomplished many things, including the opening of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and overcome challenges, including the 2010 flooding of Nashville.

August 1998: Naxos relationship begins.

The Nashville Symphony began recording with Naxos during the 1998-‘99 season and remains one of the most prolific recording orchestras in the U.S., with more than 30 releases. In 2008, the symphony won its first three Grammy Awards, for the group’s work on Joan Tower’s 2007 album, “Made in America.” The symphony now has won 14 awards total and 27 nominations.

Sept. 25, 2000: Carnegie Hall debut.

The Nashville Symphony hit New York City with a program that included Beethoven's Prometheus Overture and Mark O'Connor's Concerto for Two Violins.

Dec. 3, 2003: Groundbreaking for Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

The center opened in 2006. Nashville’s massive flood in 2010 caused nearly $40 million in damages to the Schermerhorn. It was closed for repairs for many months, while the symphony played at other locations.

2015: Accelerando begins.

The Accelerando program offers talented students the chance to connect with musicians and mentors, helping them on their path to becoming professional musicians. The symphony has worked with 40 students, and eight alumni now are studying music performance in college.

2018: Violins of Hope.

An established leader in Nashville’s arts and cultural community, the symphony has facilitated several community collaborations and initiatives, most notably Violins of Hope Nashville, which spotlighted a historic collection of instruments played by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust. As part of the project, the Nashville Symphony commissioned Jonathan Leshnoff’s Symphony No. 4 “Heichalos.”

Sept. 16, 2021: Reopening after COVID-19 pandemic.

After 18 months of being closed, the symphony reopened Schermerhorn Symphony Center with Fanfare for Music City, a performance honoring essential workers.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Nashville Symphony celebrates 75 years of music

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