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VOL. 129 | NO. 46 | Friday, March 07, 2014

Memphis Repertory Orchestra Plans More Growth

By Andy Meek

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Coming off a year in which it found a home at the Buckman Performing Arts Center and released a CD of its music, the Memphis Repertory Orchestra – a small, all-volunteer chamber group – is looking to do even bigger things in 2014.

The Memphis Repertory Orchestra, an all-volunteer chamber group, is looking for bigger things in 2014 after finding a home at the Buckman Performing Arts Center.

(Submitted Photo)

The group’s executive director Jordan Stephens said a letter is expected soon from the IRS solidifying the 3-year-old group’s nonprofit status. He’s in the process of securing a few corporate sponsorships, and the group – whose debut recording was released one year ago this month – wants to put out more music for sale.

Mostly, the orchestra wants to continue charting its own path to sustainability and a level of success, something it’s doing with awareness of the challenges currently faced by the much larger Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

The latter is in the process of confronting a variety of challenges including funding shortages and taking a hard look at its business model, one that Stephens and his group deliberately tried to avoid.

“The nice thing about I guess not having a big payroll is we can be flexible, depending on what we’re playing,” said Stephens, who also has a full-time job in financial services. “Typically it’s 35 to 45, maybe 50 players if we’re doing something really big. It’s a smaller kind of chamber group, but we’ve also done concerts where we did Brahms’ violin concerto where we had a big string section. We can recruit more players for that.”

The orchestra says its purpose is to “shape the next generation of orchestra musicians,” and it was started in January 2011. Violinist Heidi Han joined the orchestra for a performance March 1 of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, at which members of the group also performed some of “Appalachian Spring” by Aaron Copland.

The group’s season concludes with a finale May 17.

The name of the group was purposefully chosen. The word repertory reflects the fact that the group wants to operate as a so-called teaching orchestra, and around 75 to 80 percent of its players are at the university level.

Also included in the mix are high school students and some area professionals. A few members of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra also will play with the group.

The group’s shows are the result of only a handful of practices a week – not the way Stephens used to see things, when there would be multiple recording sessions a week, every week.

Doing it the current way forces everyone involved to focus intently, come prepared and know their material, leading to what Stephens described as a “music for music’s sake” product.

“Our players are all volunteers and are there because they see the value in doing it,” Stephens said. “And all of our concerts are free. We feel like this kind of music should be completely accessible and that Memphis is this great epicenter of talent and music.”

Keeping itself away from a big payroll and budget – and the sort of classical performance business model that Stephens said probably doesn’t work anymore – the financial piece continues to nevertheless still be a focus, he said.

More sponsorships will help secure a solid operating budget so the group can continue doing what it’s doing and also grow, with more funding for publicity and to bring in bigger soloists.

“Too many people on the payroll, and there’s never enough money to pay them – we don’t have that problem, we’re a little bit different,” Stephens said. “We’ve had some people generously help us in meeting expenses, we’re getting sponsorships, and we’d love to do another recording and get more folks in the city involved. All in all, we’re kind of happy with where we’ve gotten so far. It’s been exponential, really, in the last year.”

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