Monthly Archives: April 2015

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Musician Profile: Paul Tobias, Violin, joined in 1975, from Memphis, Tennessee

Paul Tobias, Violin

Paul Tobias, Violin

You’ve been a member of the orchestra for 40 years. As you look back over your time in the Nashville Symphony, what stands out the most? Any specific memories, thoughts or feelings?
In a word, change. We’ve changed buildings twice, music directors several times, and all but three musicians, including myself. The level of performance today is staggering. Things we couldn’t attempt when I started are now routine.

Do you have a favorite piece or pieces of repertoire that you’ve especially enjoyed performing with the Nashville Symphony?
After the smoke of 40 years has cleared, two favorite compositions are left standing: 1. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, the greatest piece ever written by an American (at least so far), and 2) Ravel’s La Valse, in which the composer rebelliously breaks every rule of counterpoint and orchestration and still manages to create an interesting and fun 12 minutes. You might say it’s a mini-metaphor of my own life. The little boy who would do something just because he was told “no” must make sense and harmony out of life. It’s a struggle, but also surprising sometimes how well things work out.

You also served as orchestra personnel manager for the Nashville Symphony in the late 1990s. How did that experience influence your work as a performing artist?
I was the last person to be a playing personnel manager. Its influence would not show in my performance now, but was profound nonetheless. Being in charge of people changes you. Once you have truly walked in the shoes of both sides, you can never go back; you can never again see things quite the same way. One thing I learned that I did not know was how much the rank-and-file members of the office staff love the musicians and what we do. They take low-paying, difficult positions which are under-appreciated, just because they love music and musicians and want to help. When you get to know them, you wish you could have an attitude and outlook such as theirs.

Do you perform outside of your work with the Nashville Symphony? If so, with whom and where? How did you get involved, and what do you enjoy about these additional performance opportunities?
I began playing outside jobs for the same reason everybody else did — our job at NSO didn’t pay enough to live on, so we all went looking for extra work. You name it, I’ve done it. Recording, television, touring, weddings, pit work, arranging, contracting and much more. I played in live shows at the Opryland theme park for nearly 20 years. The specialty for which I am best known is a strolling violinist, playing requests all over the spectrum — everything from Mozart to Free Bird to old TV commercials from the ‘60s. My outside work has taken me to most of the United States and Canada, as well as Japan, Korea and mainland China. I even had my own rock ’n’ roll show for many years with 20 strings and a drummer. Touring probably was the most instructive of my outside jobs. When you spend a long time living in one place, it’s easy to think that place as all there is. Only seeing the world in person can bring home how much bigger it is than you ever imagined. It gives you perspective.

Who has had the greatest influence on you as a musician?
My mother and father, who never dreamed that both their sons would be musicians. It was a foreign world to them, but they truly believed in us. In return, they demanded hard work and excellence and monitored me constantly to make sure I was delivering. They said I could accomplish anything if I wanted it badly enough. Though we lost Dad in 2011, I still hear him saying, “There’s no such thing as can’t.”

Nashville has changed since you joined the orchestra. What do you like most about our city now, and what do you miss the most?
The best thing about living in a city for 40 years is that almost every place in it holds a memory from your past. For instance, I can look at the downtown skyline and remember playing for the openings of many of those buildings. I miss the Opryland theme park most. It was the heart of Nashville’s tourism industry. There I made all my best friends in Nashville, one of whom became my wife of 26 years.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not rehearsing or performing – do you have hobbies, volunteer or participate in any civic or social organizations?
Life doesn’t leave much room for hobbies right now. When I retire in a few years, I have a number of projects planned, starting with seeing more of my two granddaughters, now ages 4 and 3. I have written my memoirs up to 1988 and will continue with this as time permits.

What’s the last book you read, and/or what are you reading now?
The last book was Killing Jesus by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. I have just started Hell or Richmond by Ralph Peters. You can see I’m interested in history. My favorite author is James A. Michener, and I own and have read all his great historical novels.

What would you most like people in the audience to know about the Nashville Symphony?
That the job of a musician resembles a professional athlete, NOT an office worker. They would understand us much better by keeping this in mind.

Is there any question you wish I’d asked, but didn’t?
Perhaps this one. Question: From where do you draw your inspiration as a performer? Answer: It’s been different at each stage of my career. As a young musician, it was the music itself. As a middle-aged musician, it was the money. Now I’m an old musician. What else would you call a 40-year player? My inspiration is my audience. The more fun they have, the more I have.

Farewell lunch for Norma Rogers


Former Flute and Piccolo player Norma Rogers and her husband Bruce have sold their Bellevue home and will be moving to Florida next week so many of her NSO friends had lunch with her last Thursday to say farewell. Standing, L-R: Ellen Menking, Susan Smith, Charlene Harb, Julie Tanner, Kristi Seehafer, Mary Helen Law, Lynn Peithman, Laura Ross, and Isabel Bartles. Seated, L-R: Cynthia Estill, Licia Jaskunis, Mary Kathryn Van Osdale, Cassandra Lee, Clare Yang, Dawn Hartley, Norma Roger, and Ann Richards.

Musician Profile: Jessica Blackwell, Violin, joined in 2009, from St. Louis, Missouri

Jessica Blackwell, Violin

Jessica Blackwell, Violin

What inspired you to pursue the violin? Was there a point at which you knew you wanted to be a professional musician?
I decided I wanted to be an orchestral musician during my undergraduate studies. I was fortunate to attend a school with an exceptional orchestra program, led by Maestro Larry Rachleff. The combination of being a part of that ensemble and working with Mr. Rachleff, one of the most interesting musicians I know, inspired me towards this orchestral career.

If you had the chance to meet any composer, living or dead, who would it be?
I would love to meet Robert and Clara Schumann; I would like to ask them how their marriage survived all the trials they faced. I think Robert Schumann’s music is very poignant and intricate, due to how complex his personal life was, and I would love the opportunity to chat with him about that.

You’re leading a free OnStage program at the Schermerhorn on April 29, 2015. Can you share more about that?
I absolutely love the OnStage program because it gives musicians an opportunity to interact with our audience in a very special way. I love that the audience is onstage with us and can ask questions or share their thoughts. Hearing what the audience has to say about the music is the best part, and I always learn a remarkable amount from them, plus it is really fun meeting new people!

I am very excited about the April 29 program for several reasons: it involves about 16 musicians, a very big number for an OnStage performance. The audience will have the chance to meet and interact with more Nashville Symphony musicians than usual, but in a more personal way than they would at a regular symphony concert. I have programmed two incredible string octets by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, and I think the audience will find both works, though very different in style, extremely thrilling.

A string octet is a special group, because it is double the size of a string quartet, but not quite as large as a string orchestra. Just as in a string quartet, the amount of personal responsibility each musician has is great — and perhaps even more so in an octet because there are twice as many people playing together and no conductor. Therefore, the musical awareness, flexibility and sensitivity one must possess in an octet is quite significant. I think the audience will find this program quite special!

If you were given the chance to program an orchestra concert, which works would you select for the performance?
That is a difficult question because there is so much great music out there! I am always excited when the Nashville Symphony does Brahms Symphonies, because these symphonies are so satisfying, both to listen to and to play, and I feel like I can really sink my teeth into that material. I think it is important to feature 21st century composers, and I think that works best in small doses. Whatever the program is, I would keep it under two hours. Great music is like great food — too much and your stomach starts to hurt 🙂

Where do you teach, and how does teaching influence your experience as a member of the orchestra?
I have the honor of teaching at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music, and this is an invaluable part of my career as a musician. I learn an incredible amount from my students; my teaching balances the performance aspect of being a musician — I really couldn’t do one without the other.

What do you enjoy about performing with the Nashville Symphony?
The thing I enjoy most is how kind our audience is. I love looking out into the audience after we play and seeing genuine appreciation and happiness in people’s faces — this is extremely gratifying for me.

What would you most like people in the audience to know about the Nashville Symphony?
I would love for the audience to know how much the musicians appreciate them — we do not underestimate how vital our supporters are to what we do.

What is the most unusual thing that’s happened to you while performing onstage?
Well, this didn’t happen to me, but one time I watched a YouTube video in which a dachshund puppy somehow ended up onstage during a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I secretly wish that would happen here — that my dachshund, Lollipop, would mysteriously wander onstage during a Nashville Symphony performance!

Do you enjoy listening to music? And if so, what have you been listening to lately?
I absolutely love non-classical music. Before big performances or auditions, I listen to hip-hop, because it pumps me up. I find country music very relaxing, so I tend to listen to that after work or on the weekends. I’ve recently been introduced to the indie music genre and I’m loving that right now — artists like First Aid Kit, Natalie Prass and Sufjan Stevens.

Musician Profile: Bill Wiggins, Timpani, joined in 1968, from Nashville, Tennessee


What inspired you to become a musician, and what drew you to the timpani?
I started playing drums in fifth grade, and I’ve been a member of a musical organization ever since. I played snare drum in high school band, and I went to Peabody College as an undergrad and participated in all the musical activities available to me. While in college, I studied timpani with Farrell Morris, who was a member of the Nashville Symphony, and he brought me into the orchestra as an extra around 1965 or ’66. I also played in local big bands, doing weekend work, mostly with Louis Brown’s band.

I got my first contract with the orchestra as a percussionist in 1968. Around that same time, a number of folks in the orchestra got busy doing recording work, so some of them left — this was the height of the Countrypolitan sound, so non-country musicians in town were getting lots of freelance work. The Nashville Symphony’s conductor at the time, Thor Johnson, was a mentor to me. He put me in the timpani chair when Farrell Morris left, and I’ve continued since then. Thor also invited me to play in Peninsula Music Festival in Wisconsin, which I have continued to do to this day; it’s been one of the highlights of my musical life.

You’re retiring at the end of this season. As you reflect back on a half-century with the orchestra, what stands out the most?
It’s been a remarkable experience. The orchestra has been my conservatory for a long time: I have grown as the orchestra has grown, and as the demands have increased, I’ve grown to meet them.

Some of the major milestones of the orchestra are what stand out the most. Moving out of War Memorial Auditorium into TPAC was certainly momentous for us. Going through the strife of the 1980s was a hardening experience. I chose to take off the abbreviated 1988/89 concert season and earn a Master of Music degree from Northwestern University, academically validating a 20-year career. That was one of the best experiences of my musical life.

Getting the opportunity to play a concerto with the orchestra was a peak moment for me — that was in 1996, when I was hosting a major international convention for the Percussive Arts Society. I played a piece that was commissioned specifically for me for that event, written by my good friend Dan Sturm of St. Paul, Minnesota.

The trips to Carnegie Hall really stand out in my mind, and the Amy Grant tours were a lot of fun. It was a side of the music business we hadn’t seen before.

I look back with great pride on all of the recordings we’ve done, knowing that my playing and the playing of my colleagues is well documented. Not every player gets to enjoy that.

Moving into Schermerhorn Symphony Center was also a big highlight. I was on the planning committee, and, along with other colleagues, had a hand in developing the musicians’ spaces and participating in the development of the building from the earliest stages. That’s something I look back on with great pride and pleasure.

What music have you most enjoyed performing with the Nashville Symphony?
When I look back on the breadth of repertoire I’ve played, and the variety of conductors with whom I have performed, it adds up to quite a list. I’ve played all of the Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Mahler symphonies numerous times, and I’ve played virtually all of the orchestral works in the standard repertoire, as well as many contemporary works. I have also enjoyed working in the pit with the Nashville Ballet and the Nashville Opera.

What’s the most unusual thing that’s ever happened to you, or near you, onstage?
In the opening weeks of TPAC, in 1980, a lens from the overhead lighting equipment came crashing down near one of the musicians while we were onstage. That was an interesting occurrence.

You’ve taught at Blair School of Music for a number of years. How has teaching influenced your work as a musician?
Teaching and performing are mutually complementary activities, and I learn a great deal from playing in the orchestra that I am able to transmit to my students. And as I try to communicate to the students, it also causes me to think more deeply about how I perform the piece the next time it comes around. It goes back and forth; one informs the other.

Tell us about your family.
My wife, Gay Hollins-Wiggins, was a member of the Nashville Symphony Chorus for 25 years. She teaches music at Westmeade Elementary, and she’ll be retiring at the end of this year. We have no children of our own, but we feel like we’ve got lots of children through our work as teachers. My mother has been a significant musical influence. She was a church organist for 40 years at Eastwood Christian Church and early on gave me piano lessons. She’s a regular concertgoer and still very active. My dad was not a musician, but very musical. He loved to sing and dance, and he particularly loved big band music, so I heard a lot of that in the home as I was growing up.

What do you think about the changes our city has gone through over the years?
When I walk around the downtown area, it brings back a lot of memories. My dad and his uncle operated a furniture moving and storage business at Second Avenue and Broadway, where Cotton Eyed Joe is today. So in my younger teenage years, it was not uncommon for me to take the bus downtown from Inglewood on Saturdays — ostensibly to help my dad, but mostly to roam around downtown. Sometimes I’d go to the movies, sometimes I’d walk around checking things out on Second Avenue.

Lower Broadway was nothing at all like it is now. It was gritty, and it was populated mostly by furniture businesses and wholesale dry goods places. On the ground floor of the Silver Dollar Saloon building — what is now the Hard Rock Café gift shop — was a Grade D greasy spoon where I had some of the best cheeseburgers of my life. The upper floors were basically a flophouse, and imprints of silver dollars were still in the floor.

What are you reading right now?
I’m an avid reader. Right now on my Kindle, I have Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, which is about writers and historical figures who have been pretty much forgotten. I read two newspapers seven days a week — The Tennessean and The New York Times — and I read a number of magazines. The last book I completed was Keel Hunt’s Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal. I also recently just read another local history book, James D. Squires’ The Secrets of the Hopewell Box.

Do you enjoy listening to music when you’re not working?
I do enjoy listening to music, and it’s not all classical. I listen to jazz, and I used to listen to pop music more frequently. When I’m listening to the radio these days, I mostly enjoy NPR and keeping up with current events. A lot of my listening is done for study purposes, so I can be as informed as possible about the music I’m going to be performing.

What would you most like people to know about the Nashville Symphony?
I’m not sure that, even now, people understand the level of training and preparation that the orchestra musicians put into presenting what we do. The amount of music that goes across our stands in a month’s time is enormous. And there’s a high degree of training that goes into preparing each of us for that — performing music is an activity that has to be constantly refreshed, constantly maintained. We put a tremendous amount of time and effort into bringing it to the high level that we have to achieve.

Any other thoughts as you look back on the first 50 years of your career?
I may be leaving the orchestra, but I’m not retiring from a life in music. I’m incredibly grateful for having the life that I’ve had, and still have. Having a career in music was not something I set out to do — in my first four years out of college, I was a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher at Westmeade Elementary and Cora Howe Elementary, in addition to my work in the orchestra. Most people in this business are from someplace else: In the orchestra world, there are very few people who are actually from the town where they’re now living and working. So I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to carve out a place for myself in the music community of Nashville, where I grew up.

William G. Wiggins, Timpani

William G. Wiggins, Timpani