Yes of course… the Memphis Symphony
Last week I had the great good fortune to be invited to Memphis to see the work of the Memphis Symphony. The city was in a state of extreme agitation. Snow had fallen. A rare occurrence and treated a little like visiting aliens. But it was a temporary crisis with a quick recovery, unlike the chronic emergency in which the MSO has found itself in recent years. Together with so many orchestras around the country, the MSO has suffered enormously both financially and in terms of attendance. In fact, the orchestra found itself in a situation where existence itself was threatened. Management very responsibly took a look at restructuring. Expenditures were slashed. Concerts were cancelled. And the musicians discovered themselves staying at home practicing rather than on-stage giving concerts. There was a very real concern that the critical mass of activity that creates and sustains the need for an orchestra was being totally undermined.
And then a unique and great thing happened. The orchestra started to re-examine itself, its place in the community, and its relevance. A shocking survey revealed that only 3% of the population would give a damn if the orchestra went out of business. Now how sobering can that be?! The orchestra was seen not as a community asset but as a diversion for a very small elite group.
The orchestra’s re-evaluation was inspired not just by the Board or the Management initially, but by the musicians, most notably their Concertmaster, Susanna Perry Gilmore, who I am proud to say, is an NEC alum. She started to think creatively about the orchestra’s relationship with its own community, how it could grow, how it could be re-invented, how the orchestra could become relevant to the widest community and make a difference. Lots of discussion within the orchestra happened. Many musicians got it. There was a consensus about the need for change and from this came a brand new concert series called Opus One, designed and produced by the musicians.
The series takes the orchestra out into the wider Memphis area to all sorts of non-traditional concert settings including community centres, a nightclub, a gymnasium, a bank. The programs blend and juxtapose classical music with all types of genres—jazz, bluegrass, blues. There is no conductor. The players present in new and innovative ways, establishing strong and close connections directly with their audience. Not wanting to burden the very small administration of the orchestra, the musicians put the entire project together themselves. In the first year, over half the core orchestra roster was actively involved with the planning, production and implementation. The players do everything from concert production to P.R., from receptions to marketing, poster design, and programming.
Management, of course, has been a great resource to the players. And what was so evident during my visit was how proud the staff is and how energized by the musicians and the great success they are having. And guess what… audiences love this series, families attend, people are hearing and experiencing their orchestra for the first time. The performances are creating relationships and relevance that never existed before.
The orchestra has been shifting its focus and its identity. This has meant reinvention and dealing with the inevitable difficulties that change creates within any orchestra. What I saw within the orchestra was a willingness to adapt, to think totally outside the box, and to embrace flexibility as the norm.
The new initiatives are being supported in a major way by funders. The Mellon Foundation gave the orchestra an initial planning grant of $40,000 in September 2009. Then, just last week, the orchestra announced grants by three charitable organizations totaling more than $1 million to the symphony to boost community engagement and professional support for musicians. This included $550,000 more from the Mellon Foundation, $400,000 from the Plough Foundation, and $75,000 from the Thomas W. Briggs Foundation. As a result, the orchestra is poised to expand its outreach projects on several fronts.
Now that’s what I call an achievement.
Susanna Perry Gilmore is obviously the leader of this type of new thinking, balancing her role as Concertmaster, with her needs as an artist and her relationship with her colleagues, and of course the Board and Management. I believe she is doing amazing work, showing great leadership, courage, and the finesse of an intuitive diplomat.
Since September, the orchestra has had a new Music Director, Mei-Ann Chen, also an NEC alum (she succeeded David Loebel who is now part of NEC’s distinguished conducting faculty…This is not really incestuous…it’s just the way it turned out!!) Mei-Ann has brought to the orchestra a wonderful energy and dynamism which was clearly apparent from the concert I attended. The musicians are thoroughly enjoying everything she is doing. And she is going beyond the conductor’s traditional role by supporting the musicians with their new projects, even incorporating ideas from Opus One into the classical series. In my opinion, the dynamism and potency of the new projects will inevitably lead to changes and new ideas in all the orchestra’s series from Pops through Chamber Music. This will undoubtedly have a very positive effect on its audience, and community.
The orchestra is also continuing with its community education programs, sending out ensembles and individual players to very different community settings throughout the city.
I so admire the spirit of this orchestra and I will applaud them until my hands hurt. Could it be that this ensemble is beginning to define and implement a new model for symphony orchestras in the 21st century? They deserve as much investment as the community and national foundations can provide.
I was so disappointed, then, to learn that this new model and the inspired involvement of the musicians have been roundly criticized by their colleagues and the musicians’ union. In particular, criticism has come from players in Detroit who see Memphis as in some way letting the side down. In contrast, I believe what the Memphis players are taking seriously is a major wake-up call about their future survival, and one based not on orthodox thinking and the status quo but on strong problem solving. There is so much to be learnt from this way forward. It is not a threat to the integrity of musicians but a way of creating relevance, and connection through innovation.