I was recently invited to travel to New Orleans to join the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) in one of their two concerts celebrating living composers. Since my return I have had the hardest time gathering my thoughts to write this article, and it finally struck me that it’s because they are really two stories, though one is intrinsically tied to the success of the first.
As I arrived in town for the first time since 1984 when I took an audition for the New Orleans Symphony, a billboard caught my attention: “Free Demolition with the Purchase of Flood Insurance.” Beyond the sign was the Superdome, recently reopened for New Orleans Saints football games. Another facility that had housed the thousands trapped in the city was the Convention Center, venue for this LPO concert. What I found was a city that is still in the process of rebuilding, with many areas still as abandoned as they were when the city evacuated fourteen months ago.
New Orleans is a study in resilience. Although so many who left have not come back, those who returned do for themselves, because it doesn’t appear anyone else is going to help. As one example, our “official guide,” Sharon, told us one afternoon that her house had been beneath 1 1⁄2 feet of water. To fix it up, she hired workers and purchased all necessary supplies except sheet rock, and brought them all down from Chicago.
The French Quarter seems mostly undisturbed as it sits about fourteen feet above sea level; it sustained solely hurricane damage. Repairs there, many quite substantial, were undoubtedly covered by insurance. For these folks it was about finding workers and supplies to rebuild. (Knowing the difficulties Nashville faced following the tornadoes that ripped through downtown and East Nashville a few years ago, it had to be a monumental task with so much damage throughout the city.)
Many attribute the failure of the levees to the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Until you experience fully the magnitude of the devastation—miles and miles of abandoned and gutted homes—you might not understand how angry the residents were.
When you visit the 9th Ward you notice that the streets have been cleaned up, that the sand and dirt has been hauled away, but that the gutted houses remain. In this area it’s very rare to see a trailer in front of a house, meaning the tenants expect to rebuild. The houses are covered with giant spray-painted X’s that tell whether pets and people were found. This area is one of several that lie two feet below sea level.
Lakeview is a more affluent neighborhood, memorable for the photos taken there after the storm of the cleanup of thirty-foot piles of garbage, homes, cars, trees—you name it—stretching as far as the eye could see. Some brave souls there have actually rebuilt their houses. They did this despite their proximity to the 17th Street levee that also failed. Word has it that the levee is not yet fixed.
There is bitterness, but there is also incredible hope. In the 9th Ward we found two ladies selling candy bars to raise money. They were living in one of those tiny trailers and spoke about others in the neighborhood who had plans to return. The musicians performing at K Paul’s Restaurant were extraordinarily grateful to the tourists that came to New Orleans, publicly thanking the restaurant’s patrons after each set.
On our way to rehearsals at Loyola, we traveled on St. Charles Avenue where, a year ago, trolleys ran up and down the boulevard. Those tracks lie buried in mud, but we saw workmen just beginning to dig around the tracks. Meanwhile, the cables and trees all along the boulevard are strewn with beads, undoubtedly left over from a previous Mardi Gras celebration.
In so many ways, the orchestra reflects the spirit of the city. It is resilient. Its members are doing it themselves, and they are persevering. Once, years ago, the orchestra had to start from scratch. It’s sad to realize now that they are all too familiar with starting over again. They rehearse and perform in at least six different venues, and it’s not likely this will change anytime soon. They have been forced to break the rules to make things work.
On the surface, a shutdown could happen to any orchestra. This one added a terrible twist—the dislocation of an entire population. I was pleased to hear that many LPO supporters, recently returned to New Orleans, were clamoring for their orchestra even before the LPO members were back and had a chance to put together a brief season from February to May. I’m thrilled to hear they have such support. The evening of the concert, the audience was extremely appreciative.
LPO piccolo player and newly elected president of the orchestra Patti Adams stood before a sizable audience at that concert last October 28 and spoke about angels. She described how small the musical world is and the remarkable support their orchestra received over the last year from musicians around the world, from tiny youth groups to the very largest professional symphony orchestras. Patti went on to speak of two special angels, the Nashville Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, who twice in October 2005 allowed the musicians of the LPO to come together from all over the country and perform when it was not possible in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Patti introduced me to the audience as a representative of the Nashville Symphony. She also introduced New York Philharmonic violinist Kenneth Gordon as well as the evening’ s soloist, New York Philharmonic Principal Clarinet Stanley Drucker. Stanley performed a piece written for him thirty years earlier, John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto. Patti explained that October 28 was a special date for the LPO, because it had been exactly one year ago that LPO musicians had traveled to New York City to perform an incredibly successful concert/fundraiser with the New York Philharmonic and a slew of big name artists.
Kenneth, Stanley, and I all received generous expressions of gratitude from orchestra members, staff, and audience members during our few days in New Orleans. I also found a remnant of the Nashville LPO concert is still present—the full orchestra photo in this season’s LPO brochure was taken on the stage of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC).
I was thankful to be given the opportunity to renew acquaintances and friendships that had begun last October in Nashville. I was also able to spend time getting to know my New York Philharmonic colleagues Kenneth and Stanley, and Stanley’s lovely wife Naomi. I was able to meet new faces in the LPO and to catch up with those musicians who had so kindly contributed their thoughts about the Nashville LPO concert last year for ICSOM’s Senza Sordino and Local 257’s Nashville Musician. Scott Slapin and his wife Tonya Solomon, and Burt Callahan lost all their belongings and have relocated to another area of town. Elizabeth Overweg, Patti Adams, and Annie Cohen appear to have landed on their feet. Treesa and Matt Gold lost all their possessions (they drove me by the site of their former home in Lakeview). Matt had just been offered a one-year position as librarian with the Richmond Symphony, so they were preparing to move. Treesa’s health was somewhat better, but the cancer treatment she had begun just prior to her visit to Nashville last year didn’t appear to be working, so treatments have stopped.
I still have concerns about these new friends of mine. The population of New Orleans has dropped precipitously since Katrina struck, from about 500,000 to 150,000. Much of the orchestra’s salary this year comes from grants and contributions due to the hurricane. Orchestra members cannot survive on their salary alone; they must have second jobs, and only some have successfully rebuilt their teaching studios. For many, a second income is required, and the infrastructure is not back in place yet. At least seven musicians have taken a leave of absence this year, reducing the orchestra even further to about sixty members. I still worry, but I am also awed by the strength and courage of the musicians of the Louisiana Philharmonic and the people of New Orleans. I will continue to hope they will not only survive but will thrive.
Now, one year later, I still believe Annie Cohen expressed it most accurately:
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.
Her final sentence can now be stated emphatically: “And classical music
will return has returned to New Orleans!”
Laura Ross is a violinist in the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and serves as ICSOM Secretary.