Orchestra Spotlight:
Memphis Symphony Orchestra

Memphis Symphony The Memphis Symphony Orchestra (Click to enlarge.)

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra started out as the Memphis Sinfonietta in 1953 with 21 musicians, conducted by Vincent de Frank. The organization gradually grew into a full symphony by 1960.

Throughout its history, the MSO has had only four music directors: Alan Balter replaced Maestro de Frank in 1984. Less than a year after Balter retired in 1998, David Loebel joined the symphony, serving as music director until 2010. Mei-Ann Chen was named the orchestra’s fourth music director in February 2010 and began her tenure in the fall of 2010.

The MSO is fortunate to perform in a fairly new hall, the 2,100-seat Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, which opened to rave reviews in January 2003.

Mei-Ann Chen Music Director Mei-Ann Chen (Click to enlarge.)

But currently Memphis is best known for its innovative community engagement programs, which bring MSO musicians into the community in a variety of very unusual ways. The orchestra recently announced that they will be receiving $1 million in support of their community engagement and professional support of musicians: $550,000 from the Mellon Foundation, $400,000 from the Plough Foundation, and $75,000 from the Thomas Briggs Foundation. This spotlight will profile a few of these community engagement activities, but first, a myth must be dispelled.

Cannon Center Cannon Center for the Performing Arts (Click to enlarge.)

The term “Memphis Model” has been circulating among musicians and managers since early 2010, meaning that MSO musicians are performing office tasks and community outreach performances for “service conversion” – using services usually spent in rehearsals and concerts to carry out these non-traditional tasks. This is simply not true. No MSO musicians work in the MSO office, and all MSO musicians who decide to opt in to the extra community engagement activities are paid additional monies, according to a formula clearly spelled out in their contract.

The misperception, which is popping up at negotiations across the country, stems from the American Orchestras Summit meeting in January 2010 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. MSO President, Ryan Fleur, who was asked to attend at the last minute to replace Jesse Rosen of the League, talked about the community engagement activities in Memphis and, according to Ryan, he misspoke. His comments were disseminated on several blogs after the Summit, in particular that of Joseph Horowitz, and the misperception persists. I asked Ryan about the Ann Arbor meeting and the controversy about “the Memphis Model” in our interview. (See page 2.)

Michael Barar, MSO violist and former chair of the orchestra committee, first heard the term “Memphis Model” during the opening remarks at the ROPA conference in August, 2010, and was rather stunned, to say the least. He carefully refutes the charge, and explains the nature of the compensation received by MSO musicians who choose to opt into the community engagement activities. (See page 3.)

Gaylon Patterson, MSO acting principal 2nd violin, and Lisa Dixon, former Chief Operating Officer and now Executive Director of the Portland (ME) Symphony, give us an overview of how Leading from Every Chair® got started, and the impact these new activities have on the city's perception of their symphony. (See page 4.)

Susanna Perry Gilmore, MSO concertmaster, was instrumental in developing the Opus One concert series. She explains how this all came about and describes the concerts. (See page 5.)

Rhonda Causie, Director of Grants and Innovation, has not only a highly unusual title but also a highly unusual role in the Memphis Symphony. She’s the point person for musicians who want to try to do something unusual or different – and she puts together a logic model to see if it can work! (See page 6.)

Frank Shaffer, MSO timpanist, and Jennifer Puckett, MSO principal violist, were original members of the group that is mentoring students at Soulsville Charter School. They describe the Memphis musicians' roles at the school. (See page 7.)

Frank Shaffer is now leading drum circles at Youth Villages, a facility for kids with serious problems, and is totally energized by the experience. (See page 8.)

And finally, Tony Woodcock, President of the New England Conservatory, stopped by Memphis on his way home from a conference and has some thoughts to share about the controversy, as well as an interesting blog post. (See page 9.)

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor
March, 2011

The Memphis Symphony has made a montage video, showing some of their many community engagement activities. Take a look to watch Leading from Every Chair and Soulsville mentoring in action.

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