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In Memoriam

Kenneth DeWitt Schermerhorn (1929-2005)



As far as music is concerned, Nashville has traditionally prided itself on "popular" rather than "fine" art. But that was before Kenneth Schermerhorn.

During a 22-year tenure as conductor and music director, Schermerhorn guided the Nashville Symphony from bankruptcy to Carnegie Hall, from a performance space shared with touring Broadway musicals and theater groups to the construction of a $120 million home of its own. With his death Monday of cancer, he leaves behind a legacy of devotion to the city's artistic culture—and the people who practice it—for us all to live up to.

Schermerhorn's signature contribution to this artistic culture was that he made Nashville believe in its symphony. He convinced the movers and shakers that no city—even one with pro sports teams—was major league without first-rate classical music, and that he was the man who could deliver it. And he persuaded the less affluent among us that a symphony orchestra could be as much a source of civic pride as the Grand Ole Opry.

Schermerhorn did this through a savvy combination of manner and method. His handsome profile and tossing white mane, put to the service of a bravura conducting style modeled after mentor Leonard Bernstein's, made a symphony performance visual as well as audio theater. He grew the size of the symphony by approximately 50 full-time musicians to its current 84 players by "inspiring the community to contribute the money to pay them," according to symphony vice president Michael Buckland. "That's very important. When he arrived here, the core orchestra had about 36 musicians, supplemented by a couple of dozen incidental players. A 50-some-member orchestra can play Mozart and Bach—who composed music for what were essentially salons—but it's too lightweight to play the big pieces by Beethoven and Mahler. So Kenneth really expanded the repertoire."

Schermerhorn's close collaboration with successive executive directors Steven Greil, Stephen Vann and Alan Valentine—and, most importantly, with symphony patron Martha Ingram—brought the orchestra back from the grave to what Buckland calls "very sound financial footing—one of the soundest in the country" with a current budget of $11.4 million. In doing so, Schermerhorn and his team bucked a national trend that has seen classical musical ensembles across the country hemorrhaging money, raiding endowments and cutting player salaries. This financial stability is the result of "increased ticket sales—we have a growing attendance for classical concerts, not just pops—and Kenneth's charisma with donors," Buckland says.

Another bucked trend is the shrinking market for classical recordings. The Nashville Symphony's performances for the Naxos American Classics series have far exceeded the 5,000 average for classical CD sales and garnered four Grammy nominations. "And our most recent Grammy nominations put us in competition with the major orchestras of London, New York, Boston and Atlanta," Buckland says. "We're really moving to be a first-tier symphony, and by the time we get to the new concert hall, we will be."

It is the new symphony center that will be Schermerhorn's most visible legacy, and not merely because it will be named for him. The building in the Neoclassical style on Fourth Avenue South at Demonbreun Street will provide 1,900 seats in an auditorium whose acoustics are designed solely for a symphony orchestra. "Shared spaces are always compromises—the proscenium format diminishes the unplugged symphony sound," Buckland explains. "A purpose-built hall with a stage that is, as they say, in the same room with the audience will make one hell of a difference."

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center also positions Nashville to hire a new first-class conductor and music director, partly because its construction demonstrates the city's commitment to the orchestra, and in part because, according to symphony president Alan Valentine, "it will be an extraordinary place to work, to perform."

"Anytime anyone anywhere can raise the money and enthusiasm needed to build a new home for a symphony orchestra, it's worth ringing the bells," Tim Smith wrote in the Baltimore Sun at the time Nashville's new concert hall was announced. Schermerhorn was the chief bell ringer. "His was the leading ambition," Buckland says. "He was the star we were following."

At the 2003 groundbreaking for the new building, there were the usual congratulatory remarks by men in suits, the roll call of the names that got us to this point and the obligatory applause. Then Schermerhorn leaped onto the makeshift stage in a bright red windbreaker like a tennis pro after a winning match, and for the first time the crowd was clearly paying attention. This casual attire on one for whom white tie and tails was second skin suggested that symphony building requires the same kind of energy as the most physical of sports, and he had it to give, in spades. That is what Kenneth Schermerhorn did for classical music in Nashville—he brought it to center stage.

After the ceremonies, as the crowd trickled away, a woman approached me and asked: "Doesn't it seem strange to name a building after a living person? I thought it was usually a posthumous thing." Now, unfortunately for all of us, it is.

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