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VOL. 127 | NO. 99 | Monday, May 21, 2012

Strike up the Band

Memphis Symphony Orchestra shares city’s stories during 60th anniversary season

By Andy Meek

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For anyone who finds themselves in conversation with Mei-Ann Chen about the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, its big plans for the year and major guest performers who’ve been lined up, be prepared to get an earful on a topic about which Chen will evangelize, her smile broad and voice brimming with cheer.

Yes, it’s the 60th anniversary of the MSO, and a big slate of guests are on the way during the symphony’s coming 2012-2013 season – including three members of the quartet who performed at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Yes, the symphony has a new assistant conductor. Its president has said goodbye, and a new interim one has been chosen. Dr. James Gholson Jr., the symphony’s principal clarinetist since the mid-1970s, also is bidding farewell to the MSO at the end of the current season.

And, yes, a number of exciting programs and performances are on tap for the near future.

Memphis Symphony Orchestra music director Mei-Ann Chen on MSO’s 60th anniversary: “We decided early on to celebrate how far the symphony has come in 60 years, and at the same time we wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate our wonderful city.” (Photo: Courtesy of Memphis Symphony Orchestra)

But Chen keeps steering the chat back to Memphis, to the home of the symphony where she’s going on three years as music director. Memphis is what she wants to talk about, is excited about, because like the printed score from which a masterpiece is born, it’s that cultural and community foundation upon which the success of the MSO rests.

“We decided early on to celebrate how far the symphony has come in 60 years, and at the same time we wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate our wonderful city,” Chen said. “My favorite thing about Memphis – you know, I have never been to a city where so many people either chose to stay here or chose to come here to make a difference. That is a wonderful characteristic, I would say, about the city.

“The people here. The caring. The genuine caring. People might say it’s the hospitality in the South, but I think it’s more than that. I think there is soul to the city, and that’s what we’re trying to capture. And there’s also resilience. This rebirth that, coming as an outsider, I’m sensing about the city. Where our symphony is in our history seems to reflect that.”

Some of that Memphis flavor she’s keen to convey and that will pervade the coming season includes the theme the MSO has chosen for the year – “Memphis stories.” That theme will be launched by a forum paid for by a grant from the Assisi Foundation held in conjunction with an October concert by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

The daytime forum will be held at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Its purpose is to help the orchestra and community groups explore partnership opportunities and to launch a broad professional development plan for the symphony’s musicians.

A concert titled “STAX! The Memphis sound,” also in October, will open the MSO’s pops series. In January, the MSO will recreate Elvis Presley’s famous “Aloha from Hawaii” concert, and in February the MSO will host the concert “A Memphis Gospel Celebration.”

Speaking of Ma – he’s one of three performers coming to play with the MSO who also performed at the Obama inauguration. The others include guest pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill.

Beyond that, there will be performances during the upcoming season of works by Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler and more. Special events include “Symphony in the Gardens” scheduled for Sept. 30 at Dixon Gallery and Gardens, and “Memphis Messiah,” scheduled for Dec. 14 at the Cannon Center.

First up, however, is the MSO’s annual Sunset Symphony concert on Saturday, May 26, during Memorial Day Weekend at 7:30 p.m. in Tom Lee Park. In addition to a fireworks show and the MSO performing with the Bar-Kays, the symphony will perform selections from Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” and Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” among others.

The MSO is positioning itself in an interesting spot in the industry – to discover talent, cultivate talent and launch careers for many young and up-and-coming conductors,” Chen said.

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra has a full calendar for 2012-2013 – its 60th anniversary season – including an appearance Oct. 22 from renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. (Photo: Courtesy of Memphis Symphony Orchestra)

Meanwhile, it’s a time of change behind the scenes at the organization. The symphony, for example, has a new interim CEO – Arthur Seessel III – who has stepped in for Ryan Fleur, the MSO’s president and CEO since 2003.

Fleur’s last day with the symphony was a few weeks ago. He said he expects to get started in his new job toward the end of May with The Philadelphia Orchestra, where he’s been named executive vice president of orchestra advancement.

Fleur lived in Memphis’ Central Gardens neighborhood with his wife and children and said what he’d miss most about Memphis was that neighborhood and his neighbors – as well as the MSO’s many subscribers and patrons.

“It’s felt like home every time I go to a performance, whether it’s Pops or Masterworks or anything like that,” Fleur said. “Just seeing familiar faces and being able to share those stories.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra is considered one of the big five orchestras in the U.S., so it’s a prominent spot for Fleur, who has helped the MSO make big strides during his tenure. In his time here the MSO hired Chen, held the 2011 Inaugural Memphis International Conducting Competition and saw the rise of the MSO’s popular Opus One concert series.

The symphony also has made strides growing ticket sales and private funding support.

His replacement, Seessel, is the former president of Seessel’s Supermarkets and serves on a variety of corporate and community boards.

“There are three things I’m really proud of,” Fleur said of his time in Memphis.

“First, we went through a pretty intensive process that resulted in a new mission statement for the organization. Our mission now is – the symphony exists to create meaningful experiences through music, and that has really come to embody everything we do on stage and out in the community.

“So you have that. Speaking of those partnerships and those programs, things like our Opus One series and the series of programs we do in the libraries and the mentoring we do at the Soulsville charter school ... those sorts of programs and partnerships are the second thing.”

The third involves the hiring of Chen as musical director.

“Those three things kind of equally are the three things that, when I look back, I say yeah, we were able to get that done,” Fleur said. “And Mei-Ann has done so much to raise the artistic level of the orchestra and capture the imagination of so many Memphians – who previously, frankly, hadn’t had the symphony on their radar screen. I feel very bullish about the future of the Memphis symphony.”

Among the symphony’s new arrivals is Conner Gray Covington, who has been tapped as assistant conductor for the MSO’s 2012-2013 season.

Memphis Symphony Special Events, 2012-2013:

LeMoyne-Owen College
Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012
Free to the public

Symphony in the Gardens
Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012
Saturday, May 4, 2013
Dixon Gallery and Gardens

Yo-Yo Ma in Concert
Monday, Oct. 22, 2012
Cannon Center, 7:30 p.m.
Mei-Ann Chen, conductor
Yo-Yo Ma, cello

Memphis Messiah
Friday, Dec. 14, 2012
Cannon Center, 7:30 p.m.

He got picked out of a pool of 106 applicants that was winnowed down to five finalists. He’ll also lead the Memphis Youth Symphony Program as music director and is scheduled to get his master’s in orchestral conducting this month.

Andre Dyachenko, a Houston musician and Rice University doctoral candidate, has been chosen for the position of principal clarinetist. He will succeed Dr. James Gholson, who is retiring in May after 39 years with the orchestra.

Next season will be Chen’s third guiding the MSO. She’ll conduct six of seven First Tennessee Masterworks concerts and a Paul and Linnea Bert Classic Accents concert, as well as the concert with Yo-Yo Ma.

Today, more than 400 musicians, staff and volunteers comprise the MSO, the symphony’s chorus and the Memphis Symphony League.

“We would not exist without our wonderful city,” Chen said. “We’re trying to spread the Memphis gospel everywhere we can.”

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