Recently I heard retired New York Times correspondent John Burns speak about his Pulitzer award-winning profile, written more than 20 years ago, of cellist Vedran Smailović during the Bosnian war. Dressed in formal evening attire, Smailović sat in the same spot every afternoon in the middle of the same Sarajevo street—which was more bomb crater than street—and played Albinoni’s Adagio in honor of Sarajevo’s dead, and in particular for the 22 people killed on that spot while waiting in a bread line. The cellist’s explanation about why he played was simple and from the heart, “I am nothing special, I am a musician, I am part of the town. Like everyone else, I do what I can.”
This was a significant story for NSO musicians and my former colleague, Joe Rasmussen, who spearheaded a Nashville Symphony players’ concert to raise funds to purchase and mail emergency supply packages to every member of the Sarajevo Symphony. Just as Smailović performed in the street every day, his orchestra colleagues were dodging bombs and artillery to go to work every day. They knew how important music was to a citizenry in desperate need of solace and healing. With assistance from our management the musician-initiated concert successfully raised enough money to meet its goal.
On September 11, 2001, the world was brought to a standstill by the senseless destruction of the World Trade Center, the carnage at the Pentagon, and the mass murder of more than 3,000 individuals. Within days, orchestras around the country were scheduling and performing free concerts to offer comfort and reassurance to its citizens. Our orchestras were performing for a world turned upside down, and demonstrating their resolve to continue providing communities with music to heal and inspire.
Just days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on August 29, 2005, our musicians, management and corporate sponsors banded together in an effort to bring the Louisiana Philharmonic musicians to Nashville. We shared our homes and hospitality and offered them the opportunity to perform together for the first time since their city had been ravaged and their concert hall drowned in flood waters. It was a sight to behold, as musicians reunited and rehearsed with their colleagues who had been spread across the country. Gratitude was expressed by many as they shared information about playing opportunities offered to them by other orchestras, and I heard determination that they would find a way to rebuild their season and continue to perform for the people of New Orleans.
Assisting these musicians, and having the opportunity to perform with them twice—first in Nashville, and a year later in New Orleans—was one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. It seems unbelievable at times that the simplest gestures could make such a difference, but they really do have an impact. We did what we could, and the sincere gratitude and thanks that I and my Nashville Symphony colleagues received were overwhelming.
In great crises personal differences are set aside, as people work together to move forward. When Nashville and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center flooded in May 2010, the city banded together; volunteers were offering assistance to those in desperate need. Everywhere signs read “We are Nashville.” The homeless Nashville Symphony’s response was to join with Christopher Cross, who had been engaged to headline that weekend’s pops series, to perform a free concert for more than 5,000 grateful Nashvillians just four days after the flood.
We must remember the acts of kindness and generosity done for or by our orchestras, rather than spending our time caught up in the negativity of various injustices and slights. It’s important to remember these acts, and to remember the feelings they engender. Recently ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge wrote in Senza Sordino, “I have no delusions that we can eradicate violence from the world, and when I rise each morning I am aware that new accounts of human suffering will greet me should I turn on the television or read the paper. But I do believe that every concert we perform is an act of defiance in the face of destruction. Every note we play advocates peace. Every lesson we teach advocates knowledge. Every piece of music we learn and share advocates understanding.”
We do what we can, and what we do as musicians does make a difference. In the May 2015 Senza Sordino, my friend Michael Lisicky wrote this about the Baltimore Symphony concert he organized during Baltimore’s recent unrest: “The efforts of the Baltimore Symphony musicians did not go unnoticed. It was a very special and personal moment in the orchestra’s, and the city’s, history. It demonstrated the power and the purpose that a symphony orchestra can provide during times of struggle and soul-searching.”
Over the past few years, many orchestra musicians have found their job descriptions changing. We must still perform concerts at an exceedingly high level, but the types of concerts have expanded. Now we back up rock bands and play live underscoring during movie exhibitions, we perform educational and outreach concerts—and we continue to perform classical concerts. More and more we are called upon to be advocates for our institutions and for symphonic music.
Editor Peter de Boor reinforced this in his timely and powerful column about the importance of participating in activities that put our orchestras forward in a positive light. He said “we can act to exemplify our values. Our art form requires participation, and we can lead by example, whether that means attending neighborhood association meetings or serving on the orchestra’s social media committee. We can attend rallies to support causes we believe in, or write (polite) letters to the editor…We can establish ‘Ask a Musician’ programs in our orchestras and then volunteer to interact with the audience. We can play concerts to raise money for earthquake victims or cancer research. We can participate.”
Our lives are jam-packed and seem to get busier every day, which means there is less time to offer assistance or volunteer our services for worthy causes. So when an opportunity presents itself, we should participate and lead by example.
Let’s Do What We Can
The ICSOM Governing Board has had ongoing discussions to find ways to give back to the communities that host our conferences. But these discussions had not come to fruition since 2000 (my first ICSOM conference), when delegates and guests participated in, and provided a brass ensemble for, a nurses’ rally in Louisville, Kentucky.
At this summer’s conference in Philadelphia, delegates will, as usual, participate in various presentations, workshops and small discussion groups, ask questions and bring back information and ideas to their orchestras. In addition, on Tuesday afternoon, August 25, from 3-6PM, ICSOM participants will have the opportunity to become advocates and helpers, and live up to the name ‘City of Brotherly Love’. The Governing Board and Philadelphia Orchestra cellist Gloria de Pasquale have organized an opportunity to volunteer at Broad Street Ministries, which not only provides meals to hundreds of members of the Philadelphia community but also supports the arts and creativity by offering a performance space. Delegates will be asked to help serve meals or perform for the guests, and if volunteers are unable to travel with their instrument, Gloria has offered to find instruments for those willing to perform.
With a little luck, this opportunity will be the first step to paying it forward in other host cities in the future. We hope you will join us.
Note: Conference packets should be received by this time. All attendees must register by filling out the conference registration form on the ICSOM website by August 3rd. If interested in this project, please indicate how you’d like to participate when filling out the conference registration form. Information will also be included in the conference mailing. Service event participants should plan to arrive in Philadelphia by early afternoon on August 25.