The Nashville Symphony’s season was about to begin when news of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation spread across the country. Of course, we all began asking, “What can we do?” Orchestra musicians from across the nation were e-mailing and calling to get the latest updates about our colleagues in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO).
AFM SSD negotiator Nathan Kahn and I were in close contact those first few days once the full after-effects of Katrina were apparent. We were able to contact a few members of the LPO who had found refuge in various parts of the country. Violist Scott Slapin and his wife Tonya Solomon also an LPO violist were staying with friends in Knoxville, Tennessee while they observed their neighborhood submerged under more than nine feet of water on TV. (Scott recently sent me photos from his website. They are heartbreaking.) Timpanist Jim Atwood and his wife, LPO piccolo player Patti Adams, were on vacation in Estes Park, Colorado, sans instruments. Annie Cohen, a co-founder of the reformed Louisiana Philharmonic that rose from the ashes of the New Orleans Symphony, had packed up her cello and one set of concert clothes and had followed her husband to Chicago to get away from the hurricane. Scott, Jim, and Annie joined Nathan, Jan Gippo, Bruce Ridge, Larry Gardner (ROPA Vice-President), AFM Special Assistant to the President Linda Patterson, and me on a conference call to find out what we could do to assist our LPO colleagues and to discuss the initial stages of what is now the AFM Gulf Coast Relief Fund. (See www.afm.org for further information.)
As our ICSOM orchestras began to return to work, many musicians considered what they could do to help those displaced by the hurricane. Some orchestras, like North Carolina, Atlanta, and Houston, raised thousands of dollars for the Red Cross, the United Way, and other not-for-profit organizations. Other orchestras, like Chicago and the San Francisco Opera, passed the hat and made contributions to the AFM Gulf Coast Relief Fund. The San Antonio and Houston symphonies, whose cities housed a great many “refugees,” began discussing various performance opportunities they could provide to those staying at Kelly USA a closed Air Force base in San Antonio or at the Astrodome. The Dallas Symphony worked in conjunction with other arts constituencies to raise funds for the Red Cross and to collect truckloads of items for the Salvation Army. The Dallas Symphony also held a benefit concert on September 29. Other orchestras, including Charlotte and North Carolina, are having discussions along those same lines. Additionally, a number of orchestras offered substitute and extra work to many LPO musicians two LPO bass players have been employed by the Minnesota Orchestra and the Kansas City Symphony, and more playing opportunities crop up every day.
The Nashville Symphony went one step further.
Alan Valentine, President and CEO of the Nashville Symphony, began floating the idea that the Nashville Symphony should bring the members of the Louisiana Philharmonic together in Music City, USA to perform their series opener. Everyone Alan spoke to leapt at the chance to help. The Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) agreed to waive all fees for the rehearsals and the performance. American Airlines, which serves as the Nashville Symphony’s official airline, agreed to provide transportation for 30 musicians scattered across the country who were unable to drive to Nashville. The Renaissance Hotel provided housing for the entire orchestra from Sunday through Tuesday, allowing the musicians the time to bond outside of rehearsals. NSO board members, staffers and musicians opened their homes to musicians who arrived before the hotel was available. Food and meals were donated, clothing and instruments were gathered for those who had none, and welcome bags filled with all sorts of goodies, including samples of Jack Daniels, were distributed to the LPO musicians. At the reception following the concert, Mark O’Connor, who had already donated his services as soloist for the evening’s performance, brought his Hot Swing Trio over to the Hermitage Hotel to entertain the troops. Local 257 waived all work dues for the wages paid to the LPO musicians. Each LPO musician received $750. The Nashville Symphony musicians performed gratis. Even the bartenders and food service people at TPAC got involved they donated all their tips from lobby service during the concert. Alan Valentine also secured payment for a delayed broadcast of the performance National Public Radio’s Performance Today.
All but a handful of the 68 LPO musicians traveled to Nashville for five rehearsals and the performance on October 4. Music Director Designate Carlos Miguel Prieto and Principal Guest Conductor Klauspeter Seibel (LPO’s former music director) met for the first time on the stage of Andrew Jackson Hall in TPAC. It was a special moment for both conductors and they were thrilled to be involved in this project.
More than 30 Nashville Symphony musicians (strings mostly, plus percussion and horn) joined the LPO musicians those three days as schedules allowed. We all know how small our musical community is, so, as was inevitable, there were many reunions with colleagues from youth orchestras, schools, festivals, other professional orchestra jobs, even friend-of-a-friend connections. In fact, two Nashville Symphony members are former members of the New Orleans Symphony and were able to catch up with old friends. I myself was stunned to find that two former colleagues, one from the 1982 Colorado Philharmonic and one from a 1988–89 tour of the Mantovani Orchestra (long story), were members of the LPO.
About half the LPO musicians arrived in town a day early and stayed with various NSO board, staff and symphony members. The next morning many LPO musicians saw each other for the first time in weeks and months during a brunch at Phil and Pam Pfeffer’s home. There were tears, hugs, and smiles as LPO musicians, staff, and families began to share stories. Burt Callahan, an LPO violinist who witnessed “first hand the devastation and conditions . . . for 8 days after the storm before he eventually evacuated” had been a topic of conversation amongst his colleagues since the storm and was thrilled to catch up with his “embattled colleagues” and asked “to thank them publicly for concern of his well being.” LPO violinist Elizabeth Overweg (who was my guest on Saturday) wrote, “I was happy and relieved to see everyone who made it here safe and sound, yet upset when I heard about their material losses. Many still didn’t know if they would be able to salvage anything. . . .[B]eing here has reassured me that I work with a very resilient and resourceful group of people, with an unbeatable spirit to play music.”
The musicians had many opportunities to talk Sunday through Tuesday at the hotel and at TPAC, where the rehearsal hall had been turned into a dining living room for breaks and meals. “Dinner at the hall,” wrote Patti Adams, “was sponsored by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra League. These heroic volunteers made sure all we food lovers in my New Orleans orchestra were well fed before and after our rehearsals, creating the perfect environment where we could talk, share our experiences and hopes fears for the future.” While down time was devoted to catching up, the musicians welcomed the opportunity to get back to work—it felt normal. Scott Slapin wrote that he couldn’t “put into words what a break it was from a month of sleeping on couches, glued to CNN. For the first time since the hurricane, we got to see all of our old friends, and at times, it was almost as if the LPO was just on tour, and we could briefly take our minds off of what actually happened…. The NSO has given us memories that will last a lifetime.”
One of the most poignant communications I received was from LPO violinist Treesa Gold, who had just begun cancer treatment 10 or 12 days prior to coming to Nashville and had not been feeling well. She wrote, “I really was not sure how much I wanted to be a part of the LPO Nashville concert before I arrived. I did not know if I wanted to see everyone again and have to ‘put on a happy face’ when I was feeling anything but happy.” Treesa went on to write about her cancer treatment, her chances the cancer would not return, her house that was under 10.6 feet of water, along with everything she owned besides instruments and dogs, and the fact that there was a question whether insurance would cover the damage since it was caused by a flood, not the storm. She and her husband, Matt, a bassist with the LPO, had little discretionary income due to her increasing medical expenses, so they never did “nice” things for themselves anymore. Treesa wrote, “That all changed in Nashville. None of you gave us any choice in the matter! We ate well; we went to an art show; we stayed in an amazing hotel with a great view; we got super-cool gift baskets and free CDs. . . . Matt and I also took full advantage of the free counseling offered from Vanderbilt University. . . .I left Nashville a different person than I came. I felt pampered and I felt hope that I could feel good again.” Since she left Nashville, her pain due to treatment has increased, but her mental health has continued to improve. “I really don’t know what I would have done without this opportunity,” Treesa concluded. “You have changed everything for me, and I will never be able to thank you enough. You have all made this incredibly difficult time in my life so much more manageable.”
It was inspiring to watch these musicians, who hadn’t been face to face for a while, come together, share their stories of heartache and grief, and then put it all aside and get to the serious business of making music with their colleagues. For all those who have supported, and continue to support, the Louisiana Philharmonic, know that they are extremely grateful. “It has been said many times that a symphony orchestra is like a family,” wrote Patti Adams. “This very special week showed us that the community of orchestra players across the country is like an extended family. And like family, this orchestra took us in, showered us with care and compassion and allowed us to make music together again.”
Thankfully, the LPO is looking forward to their next concert, a side-by-side performance with the New York Philharmonic on October 28.
I am very lucky that I got to participate in and see, first-hand, the results of what our orchestral community can and will do for our friends and colleagues. I’d also like to express my gratitude to the musicians who agreed to share their thoughts with me Burton Callahan, Elizabeth Overweg, Scott Slapin, Patti Adams, Treesa Gold and Annie Cohen. It was a pleasure meeting these musicians and, hopefully, beginning some new friendships.
I think Annie Cohen said it best: “Our job as musicians is to keep playing and reminding our respective communities how very important music is, how it helps us all to be more complete human beings, and how necessary it is to both maintain and grow our culture. We have seen in New Orleans how thin the veneer of civilization can be, and how quickly cities can fall in the apocalyptic events of early September. I am struck again at what we can bring to our cities, to each other, and how we can work together to be sure that live music remains in the city that defined and brought American music to this country. . . . [The NSO] allowed the LPO musicians to find four days of normalcy in a month of incredible difficulties. It allowed us time to come together to begin to address long range possibilities and opportunities. And it showed us all that despite individual differences, we are all a family, and that we can and will work to remain a family. And classical music will return to New Orleans.”