Lessons from Nashville
In the few moments during the ICSOM Conference that did not find me in meetings, I was able to sneak away from the hotel and venture into the streets of Nashville. This was my first visit to this city, and I was eager to hear as much music as I could in the clubs that line Nashville’s Broadway. I had learned and played a lot of this music when I was growing up, especially in Southside Virginia. I knew that Bob Dylan had come here to record three classic albums and to work with Johnny Cash. I knew that I was walking past bars where Willie Nelson had bought drinks for Patsy Cline. These streets veritably drip with music, with a band in every bar. Those who weren’t booked were playing on the street. There were well-groomed boys in suits and toothless blues guitar players who seemed as though they could have been sent by central casting. And all of these people could play! It was exhilarating to see and hear a city so alive with music.
As I made my way back to the downtown Hilton where the Conference was being held, I was stunned for a moment when I looked through an alley-way to see the magnificent Schermerhorn Symphony Center—a gleaming building against the night sky, just weeks from opening. The delegates to the Conference had already received a tour, and many of us were convinced that it is one of the most impressive halls we have ever visited. Beautifully appointed in every way, it has delicate features and just about every amenity imaginable to enhance the performance environment for the musicians.
As I stood there looking through that alley at the grand building, at first it seemed to clash with the music from the bars of Broadway. But then, I realized that the “City of Music” was only further investing in its heritage. These blocks of downtown Nashville have been revitalized with music. Reveling in the history of the Ryman Auditorium (the original Grand Ole Opry) and the street of dreams for songwriters of all styles, it makes perfect sense that Music City USA would build such a beautiful monument to its symphony orchestra. This downtown revitalization is fantastic. The arena where the Nashville Predators play is right next to the Country Music Hall of Fame, which is across from the beautiful downtown Hilton, and now the block is completed by the $120 million home for the Nashville Symphony.
We must remember the history of this organization. Just 18 years ago the Nashville Symphony was in bankruptcy, facing dissolution. Then the citizens of Nashville came to the assistance of this city’s own orchestra. There are too many heroes in this story to mention them all, but among them were the symphony’s great benefactor, Martha Ingram, Local 257’s legendary President Harold Bradley (the newest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame) and other country legends, and, most importantly, the musicians of the Nashville Symphony themselves. These musicians believed in their orchestra and in their community. They worked to bring together a management that could share in the dreams of Nashville, and they have all delivered.
It is perfectly clear, however, that they have not built a museum. They have erected a building in which symphonic music will live, flourish, and be celebrated—just as so many other styles of music are celebrated a block or two away. Imagine what this will mean for their city. The area of downtown that the city leaders had so desired to revitalize is now thriving with restaurants and hotels, all of which will benefit from those attending concerts at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The businesses that surround the Center will profit as a result of the popularity of the orchestra, and the city will benefit from tax revenues of those spending their time, and money, downtown.
Those patrons will not just be spending money; they will be making an investment with the expectation of dividends. And they will be richly rewarded. They will prosper as their city prospers, their spirits will be uplifted by the great music so beautifully performed by the Nashville Symphony, and they will take pride that the name of their great community has been spread worldwide through countless articles about how this great city of music has made such a bold statement. Their statement is clear, that symphonic music can and must succeed alongside every kind of music, every kind of business, and every kind of cultural hyacinth for the soul.
All of this grew from the dark time of bankruptcy, not that long ago. This story should serve as an inspiration to other cities and to musicians in orchestras that might be facing difficulties.
It seemed so appropriate that this ICSOM Conference, a meeting that would be marked by a new enthusiasm for the organization and a new optimism for orchestral music and the arts in America, would be held in this city where its orchestra has experienced such a magnificent rebirth. There is compelling evidence that orchestras are thriving, and there are beautiful new concert halls opening from Los Angeles to Raleigh and everywhere between.
But, there is always concern where orchestras are struggling, and where communities have failed to recognize the cultural, educational, and financial value of their orchestras. We would ask the citizens of such places why they have they missed this opportunity. We would suggest that their mayors go to Nashville to see for themselves this opportunity to bring their cities, their constituents, and the business leaders of their state an unprecedented success. Let them see first-hand what such an investment from the business community of their cities can do for their citizens whom they have pledged to serve.
This Governing Board of ICSOM is inspired by the enthusiasm we observed in Nashville. We are energized by the collective wisdom of the delegates from your orchestras, and we are certain of our mission. ICSOM must re-engage our membership so that we can become the most visible and vocal advocate for symphony orchestras throughout America, and beyond.
As I assume my new position as chair of this historic organization, I am moved by the trust that has been placed in me, and I am acutely aware of what we all can learn from the lessons of the past. I am even more mindful of what the musicians of the future can learn from the message that we will now work to communicate in the most politically astute way possible. The arts and symphonic music in America must continue to grow and thrive. In cities where there are successes, that growth must be sustained. For cities that have failed to recognize this opportunity, we must demonstrate the value of a re-investment in their orchestra.
In my address to the delegates in Nashville, I borrowed a sentence that President Kennedy once used to inspire this nation. He said, “While we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last.”
This Governing Board looks to you all for guidance, assistance, and support as we seek to spread the lessons we learned in Nashville.