Editorial: Bravo to Symphony for Changing Course

Saturday, May 31, 2014, Vol. 7, No. 23

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra has completed its season with money in the bank and ideas about how different the next season must be on several fronts.

With more stable financial footing and fundraising appeals that have raised more money than the goals set, we hope the symphony’s innovative forays across the borders of art and expression will continue.

The fundraising results show Memphians realize the value of the symphony and the appeal of the recent new directions the organization has ventured into.

Those efforts ran head first into the worst national economic downturn since the Great Depression and they were far from the only entertainment ventures that suffered in the fallout.

But the symphony is unlike most entertainment ventures.

Nevertheless, we also heed a basic tenet of symphony president and CEO Roland Valliere, who has told the symphony board that the financial turnaround will take time – a few years.

There has been enough innovation and experimentation in recent years that the symphony should have some idea of new programs that have worked and those that are riskier and may take longer to develop with smaller steps.

That innovation should be rewarded over time by restoring the pay cuts musicians and symphony staff have taken in the financial crisis. Without their sacrifice what comes next would not be possible. Without their artistic contribution there would be no reason for what comes next.

Any game plan should also consider changing trends in how people access classical music. The move to streaming recorded performances is an important shift for audiences that affects the viability of live performances and the nature of those live performances.

In recent years, the symphony has gracefully upped its game when it comes to live performances and made them must see box office events while maintaining its integrity. Such experimentation is a risk. But the symphony has approached the experimentation in bold ways that have not compromised its creative foundation.

The arrangements of the popular Memphis music canon of the last half of the 20th century the symphony has unveiled in recent years have kept the simplicity of the originals from Stax and Sun and added a light but noticeable heft that speaks to the decades that have made the originals a part of larger Memphis and world culture.

The symphony has also embraced our often-turbulent history with original works and an orchestral sweep that does what history texts cannot – explain its drama and its lasting impact in ways that take audiences beyond the explanations provided by words in other forums.

This is what symphonies contribute to culture and community.

Whether it works in parts or together as the stage filling unit that does what no other ensemble can musically, a community as creative as Memphis simply cannot do without a symphony, especially one that is a major force for innovation across the arts.