Kenneth Schermerhorn’s Legacy

Photo: Harry Butler, 2000 Kenneth Schermerhorn with The Nashville Symphony

Photo by Harry Butler, 2000

The Musicians of the Nashville Symphony respectfully request that our Board of Directors revisit the legacy of our former Music Director.

When Kenneth Schermerhorn began his 22-year tenure in 1983, the Nashville Symphony was making the difficult transition to full-time status. Well before his untimely death in 2005, the orchestra had become full-time, with 80+ players, the season had been extended, and musicians’ salaries were steadily increasing to place them in the ranks of the top 20 US orchestras. He left us a clear legacy, and it was much more than the concert hall bearing his name.

Schermerhorn’s last five seasons were especially impressive. The Nashville Symphony performed to great acclaim in Carnegie Hall (2000) and it was that performance (and subsequent buzz) that helped make the case that a growing orchestra needed a great hall to showcase its personality and excellence as an ensemble. Martha Ingram’s and Kenneth Schermerhorn’s leadership were crucial to that momentum. Meanwhile, the Nashville Symphony’s Naxos recordings became a world-wide megaphone, declaring that our symphony was indeed worthy of respect and interest. Reviewers agreed. Kenneth Schermerhorn led the symphony to its first three Grammy nominations with three separate recordings of the American composers: Elliot Carter, George Chadwick, and Amy Beach.

During the NSO’s Carnegie Hall debut and the ensuing “Time for Greatness Campaign,” the focus was on building a top-notch orchestra. That certainly included the construction of a first-rate concert hall which would showcase symphonic music in Nashville. In an interview for the printed program for the Carnegie Hall debut, Larry Adams asked Schermerhorn what he wanted to do in the coming years. His reply was, “I would like to leave a world-class, justly remunerated symphony that is flexible and strong and authoritative.”

The Nashville Symphony 2000-2001 Annual Report states “The Symphony’s enhanced endowment assures that funds will always be available to attract and keep the nation’s finest musicians.” Beginning in 2006, a total of 7 Grammy Awards have been won for recordings by the Nashville Symphony under the direction of Leonard Slatkin, Alistair Willis, and lastly, Giancarlo Guerrero. The common denominator in all the Nashville Symphony’s 14 Grammy nominations and 7 Grammy Awards is the orchestra, not a building or a conductor.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the flood in 2010 took a heavy toll on the orchestra’s finances and understandably a significant amount of effort went toward saving the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. The musicians, many who had made personal financial contributions toward the construction of the hall, agreed to freeze their salaries for an additional season, push back all negotiated increases by a year, and then a 15% cut in salary to help save the building.

Meanwhile, the goals of our first-rate orchestra began to be eclipsed by efforts to preserve this world-class hall. Today, the Nashville Symphony ranks 30th in musicians’ salaries, and cities like Atlanta, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Raleigh pay higher musician salaries than Nashville.

As the city of Nashville enters a period of robust growth and a ranking as the 2nd fasted growing economy in the nation, it is our hope that our leaders can continue to sustain the legacy of Kenneth Schermerhorn to grow a world-class orchestra. Musicians in the top ten US orchestras earn two or three times as much as Nashville’s musicians earn.

Schermerhorn established a vision for our orchestra that is shared by the musicians who knew him and the newer musicians who were drawn to Nashville because of his vision. We love symphonic music as well as all the other kinds of music Nashville has to offer. We love our hall, but most of all, we greatly appreciate our audience. Music City needs to continue building a great orchestra, not just preserve a great building. Together, we can make this happen.

“I would like to leave a world-class, justly remunerated symphony that is flexible and strong and authoritative.” ~ Kenneth Schermerhorn

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