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VOL. 132 | NO. 197 | Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Seeking Relevance

Music director wants Memphis Symphony to take more chances

By Andy Meek

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As he prepared to kick off his first season as the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s music director with a pair of opening weekend concerts Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, principal conductor Robert Moody looked back on a career that’s taken him to some impressive highs, and acknowledged the power of serendipity.

He couldn’t have foreseen, for example, that his work as a conductor would have given him the chance to conduct celebrity names like Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming and Celine Dion; that he’d get to lead major orchestras; and that he’d get to conduct works like all of the Beethoven symphonies and most of the Mahler symphonies, among others. Certainly, he wouldn’t have assumed that at 50, after that high-flying professional ride, he’d end up in Memphis, leading an orchestra that’s been on something of a financial roller coaster of late in a city where that orchestra is trying to reassert its relevance.

Or that the current orchestra season that just launched in recent days would have a theme so appropriately fit for the moment and the times – “The Promise of America.”

Moody – part of new MSO leadership that includes Peter Abell being tapped as president and CEO in August – points to the opening weekend’s performances as indicative of what’s to come. They included Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” as well as composer Peter Boyer’s “Ellis Island: Dream of America.”

Robert Moody leads not only the musical direction of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, but its place in the community, and he wants MSO to go places it’s never been before, literally and figuratively. (Submitted)

During Boyer’s piece, images of Ellis Island were played on a screen, and actors read letters and stories from immigrants.

That’s the kind of thing Moody wants the orchestra to do more of. To take more creative chances, to break out of the stuffy mold of how an orchestra is typically regarded by the public in a bid to become more relevant and indispensable to the city.

He’s also been talking up the orchestra around the city. During the entire month of August, Moody arranged one meeting after another, including lunches, dinners and coffees, to get himself and his message about the organization out. And his enthusiasm about the material the MSO will be tackling is palpable.

“There are key American works coming up throughout the entire season,” says Moody, who came to Memphis from serving as music director of the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine. “Part of this, I should say, is really dictated by wanting us so much to be part of what is now called MLK50.

“As soon as I got offered the position of principal conductor, even before being named the music director here, I remember a day about two years ago calling someone on staff and asking if we have the Cannon Center booked for if not April 4, 2018, then sometime around then.”

“We are on what I hope to be a fast track to see the orchestra more and more reflect the entire community of Greater Memphis, both on the stage and in the programs we offer. We want to be more relevant in more parts of the community.”

Implied in that greater relevance, of course, is the orchestra, well, still being here. It’s no secret the organization has faced financial hardship in recent months.

Moody, though, said things have improved because of steps the organization has taken, like the musicians taking significant pay cuts. The MSO’s new CEO, Moody said, also wants to see the orchestra play in more venues around the community that people might never expect.

That desire for the orchestra to do more is partly why Moody took this job in the first place.

“I’m at a point in my life where at this point – I joke with my friends – at this point I’ve got a pretty good obituary written for myself,” Moody says, a reference to his professional accomplishments. “At this point, it becomes much less about me personally trying to climb some ladder and more about how can I be part of a team that makes a real difference somewhere.

“Memphis is just a place that, I think a renaissance is happening here, and that really turned me on to the city.”

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