- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Years ago, conductors with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra would get hot under the collar when they would arrive for rehearsal and find their best string players missing, holed up in one of Chet Atkins’ RCA recording sessions on Music Row.

Today, there are enough string players to go around, but that link between the city’s orchestra and its country-music heritage persists, as is evident in a new $123.5 million symphony hall opening tonight..

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center is across the street from the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and a block south of the honky-tonk district where Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson once swapped songs and cold beer.

The elegant neoclassical hall underscores the intersection of country and classical in this recording capital, known as Music City. Curb Records President Mike Curb donated $3 million; other recording-industry executives and artists pitched in lesser amounts. Tonight’s concert features banjo master Bela Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer. Gospel and pop star Amy Grant performs tomorrow.

“Music lovers are music lovers,” says Rusty Jones, a Music Row attorney who also serves on the symphony’s board of directors. “I think we all recognize that it’s only natural that Nashville should also be one of the world capitals for classical music.”

Trimmed in African makore wood and Spanish and Italian marble, the 1,862-seat center is named in honor of Kenneth Schermerhorn, who led the Nashville Symphony from 1983 until his death last year.

Mr. Schermerhorn was part of the bridge from the early days of Music Row, when producers such as Mr. Atkins and Owen Bradley softened country music’s rough edges with string sections, giving rise to the popular “Nashville sound” of the 1950s and ‘60s.

In those days, playing in the symphony was a part-time job, and the chance to earn a second paycheck in the studios was enticing.

“In time, a lot of those musicians would say, ‘You know, I’m making so much money playing session, I’m going to quit the orchestra and play sessions exclusively,’” says Alan Valentine, president and chief executive officer of the Nashville Symphony. “And the orchestra would bring in more people to replace them, until pretty soon, there were enough string players in Nashville to populate the orchestra and [satisfy] the needs of the recording industry.”

Many of the orchestra’s 81 musicians still do recording sessions, but their primary income and allegiance lie with the symphony.

The 61-year-old organization is well-regarded in the industry and among just a handful of orchestras in the country with a recording contract. It was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in 2000, and the A&E; cable network tapped it for a Fourth of July broadcast in 2003.

“It’s amazing to be able to have that diversity of both classical and popular music,” says Anthony LaMarchina, a symphony cellist who also has recorded with Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Jewel and the Indigo Girls. “I may do a classical symphony one day and the next do a pop or rock album. I enjoy the diversity of doing both things.”

Funded mostly through private donations, the Schermerhorn Center is one of three new performing arts centers opening this year in the United States. The others are the $200 million Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, Calif., and the $449 million Carnival Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.

Besides more seating, enhanced sound and greater performance and educational offerings, a new concert hall also can raise an orchestra’s profile.

Last month, the Nashville Symphony, which has been without a conductor since Mr. Schermerhorn’s death, announced it had attracted renowned maestro Leonard Slatkin, director of the National Symphony Orchestra in the District, to serve as musical adviser for three years. Mr. Slatkin also is principal guest conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

No one can say for certain how much the new hall had to do with Mr. Slatkin’s arrival, but many say it was instrumental.

“The buzz created by opening a new hall is terrific,” says Julia Kirchhausen, vice president for public relations for the American Symphony Orchestra League. “There’s the curiosity factor — ‘What does it look like inside?’ ‘What is it going to sound like?’ Also, the ability of an orchestra to conceive of a project like this and get it done is a tremendous achievement. It shows that the community cares about its orchestra.”

Subscriber rolls already have jumped 14 percent, from 8,817 last year to 10,033 so far this year, according to symphony officials.

Mr. LaMarchina thinks the Schermerhorn Center can do something else for Nashville and its orchestra. With a new concert hall for recording and plenty of talented producers, arrangers and musicians, the city seems a natural place for recording film scores, the bulk of which are recorded in London, Los Angeles and Seattle.

“That’s one of the things Nashville and Music Row have been lacking — space to put that many musicians in an incredible acoustic environment,” he says. “We’ve pretty much had to work with an orchestral setting in an old 19th-century church that’s been remodeled.”

Ironically, while the recording studios on Music Row once lured musicians away from the orchestra, Mr. LaMarchina notices a starkly different attitude today.

“There are times when some of the freelance session players wish they were involved in the orchestra,” he says.

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