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How the Nashville Symphony got to Carnegie Hall, and what it meant for the city

Practice, Man, Practice!

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This Saturday, Sept. 25, marks the 10th anniversary of what was seen at the time as one of the city's landmark cultural achievements: the performance of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra at New York's Carnegie Hall, under the direction of the NSO's charismatic conductor at the time, the late Kenneth Schermerhorn. E. Thomas Wood, who was present, wrote this account of the milestone performance for the multi-author book Nashville: An American Self-Portrait. The piece serves as a snapshot of the city's artistic ambitions and power players at the century's turn.

As the last Andante moderato strains of Charles Ives' Second Symphony faded in the still air, hundreds of Nashville's leading citizens burst into rousing applause. Bounding to their feet from the best seats in Carnegie Hall, front and center before the legendary stage and the eyes of the city that never sleeps, the proud visitors hailed a moment of triumph for the maestro and orchestra.

With his back to the audience, conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn appeared, for only a split-second, to wince. Then he raised his baton to begin the second movement of the Ives piece. In her orchestra-level seat, Martha Ingram, the true orchestrator of this event, closed her eyes. We still have miles to go, she must have thought, if the most privileged people in town don't know not to applaud between movements.

The audience faux pas may or may not have registered negatively on the New Yorkers whom the Nashville Symphony — and, by strong implication, Nashville itself — was trying to wow in this self-financed appearance on a cold Monday night in Manhattan. But it wouldn't keep a music critic of the newspaper of record from gushing with an enthusiasm that nearly matched the Nashvillians' fervor.

At intermission, the crowd was abuzz with the mere fact that The New York Times — that great validator — had seen fit to send a reviewer to the Sept. 25 concert. Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell was one of the heralds of the scribe's presence among the milling worthies. And then came the assessment, in black and white, a couple of days later: The show, wrote critic Allan Kozinn, was "mostly a knockout." A qualified rave, to be sure, but one couched in respectful language about musicians who "played with the energy of an ensemble that was out to impress."

All in all, the Carnegie foray was a grand success. The performance was nearly sold out, with a full complement of non-Nashville attendees as well as the 1,336 who purchased tickets in Nashville for the excursion north. Other national press attention brought on by the Carnegie initiative, including a glowing profile on the arts page of the Wall Street Journal, was encouraging too. For the assembled boosters and backers, though, the paramount achievement was that they had made all these things happen by a well-planned and well-executed act of will.

Of all the upward trajectories that had propelled Nashville since the 1980s — up from real estate recession, up from political dysfunction, up in population and affluence and entertainment venues and good restaurants — the Symphony's 13-year journey up from bankruptcy was one of the most dramatic. Without question, it was the most carefully scripted. The power elite in Nashville set out to do this, and they did it.

They re-established the symphony on a financially sound basis, using Carnegie Fever as the touchstone for a two-year, $20 million endowment campaign that netted contributions of over $1 million each from philanthropists Monroe Carell, Tommy Frist and Ben Rechter, from the Bank of America, and, naturally, from the Ingram Charitable Fund. They got religion about the need for cultural amenities in a city competing to attract business talent. And they took a step toward broadening the definition of Nashville music.

The program of works performed at Carnegie Hall reflected a heartland vigor but at the same time a careful distancing from the music played on Music Row. The Ives symphony, with its snippets from "Camptown Races" and "Turkey in the Straw," was closer to "country" than the "Double Violin Concerto" of former Nashville session fiddler Mark O'Connor — which echoed Stephane Grappelli more than any country influence.

It was merely coincidental that the symphony made this musical statement just days after Viacom had erased the "Nashville" from The Nashville Network. Martha Ingram was not weeping over that development. "There are those who say it's better to be known for something rather than nothing," she said, crediting TNN for having boosted the city's visibility over the years. "But for a long time, I and some others have felt we just need to balance it out, and not have it so single file that Nashville's image is just country music, Hee Haw, and the rest of it."

On the floor at Carnegie, an ebullient Purcell struck a similar tone: "I think, for a long time, we have been 'Music City.' We haven't been one kind of music or one kind of city. My sense is that people from New York and other places are learning tonight that we have had, for some time, all of these pieces as part of our mix. The rest of the world will come around to understanding that in the years ahead."

At the Redeye Grill, a ritzy raw bar across Seventh Avenue from the hall, the Nashville contingent threw a party after the show. The crowd, noshing on five varieties of smoked fish as cool jazz lent background, included a who's-who of the New Nashville — Gordon Gee, just installed as Vanderbilt's chancellor; Chase Rynd, recruited from Tacoma to run the Frist Center for the Visual Arts; Rob McCabe, the former First American executive whose start-up Pinnacle Bank was about to go public; and a familiar ex-Nashvillian, NBC anchor John Seigenthaler (son and namesake of the former Tennessean publisher), eyed by many as the heir-apparent to Tom Brokaw.

Cal Turner, CEO of Dollar General Corporation, gazed out over the milling throng and pondered a question: Has this Carnegie expedition taken on a special urgency after the departures of First American and J.C. Bradford from Nashville? "No doubt about it," he replied. "We want people to know us as something other than a subsidiary city."

Ingram and Schermerhorn ascended to a balcony over the restaurant, crowded in with officials of the symphony, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, and other involved organizations. They beamed as Marty Dickens, Tennessee president of BellSouth and chair of the Chamber's Partnership 2000 economic development program, declared, "Tonight, we experienced another Music City Miracle." The assembled city fathers and mothers cheered as though Eddie George had just crossed the goal line.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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