I’ve been thinking about Atlanta. Just today, a performance that I conducted was on the local radio – Missa Solemnis, made possible by the generous spirit of several in Atlanta who guided me through the difficult work. Tomorrow, I rehearse my chorus in Mahler Second Symphony – a piece I performed, recorded, toured, and passed out in with the Atlanta Symphony. And Wednesday, I have to finish programming my holiday concert – always inspired by the perfection of the Atlanta model.
Also, I’ve been asked by several to make a statement on the current situation in Atlanta. It’s tricky for various reasons, least of which is that I don’t know all of the details. Also, I have so much to say that cannot fit in one tiny post. Already, what is below is probably way too long. And, most frightening to me: I’ve been taught throughout the years to stay out of such things. After all, ‘they’ say it’s none of my business and my career could be ruined.
But, I just don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t express my total, complete, and undying love, affection, and awe for the Atlanta Symphony. So, here goes. No solutions, no judgment. Just one person’s perspective on what an institution driven by artistic excellence can do.
I was six. We dressed up, drove through tree-lined Ansley Park, found a free parking spot, and crossed the sprawling and impressive Peachtree street to the big, square building with the promise of greatness inside. We went all the way up to the top balcony and sat in the very last row. Too small to see over the heads in front of me, I precociously propped myself on the back of the chair.
The stage slowly filled with people. First the musicians of the orchestra, one by one. Then, a group of children in plaid vests, looking straight ahead at the podium as if something magical was about to happen. A men’s chorus in impressive suits took their place, followed by the wondrous sea of blue.
The single A, followed by an organized cacophony (is there such a thing?) quickly became one of my favorite sounds, as it heralded the life altering experience that was to soon to follow.
Then, the man himself entered. Unassuming in stride but mighty in presence, he stepped on the podium with work to do – an intangible task to complete.
Then, a bell. A single chime rang forth, followed by the smooth sound of the people in blue as they sang a sinewy and mysterious line. Chill bumps still raise when I think of the stage bursting forth with “Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to Thee, O Israel.”
Transfixed, I barely had time to catch my breath when a man began “Comforting” me. Then, again, the sea of blue and the people in tuxes exploded into a joyful, musical, Handelian dance.
I, like many, can probably recall the exact order of each year of the Christmas with Robert Shaw, from the mysterious opening chime to the triumphant conclusion of Bach Dona Nobis Pacem. For me, that first experience with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (and friends) made me. It was the music, the mass of people, the conductor, and excellence that molded who I am, what I do, and how I strive to be.
From that point on, I knew I had to one day be up there on stage with that excellence. Somehow, at age 6, I set that goal for myself. I was going be in the Atlanta Symphony Chorus come hell or high water.
It was no easy task.
- I joined a children’s choir. There, I was coached by people who had moved to Atlanta to be a part of the great Atlanta Symphony tradition. As a member of this chorus, I too dressed in a plaid vest and sang in the hallowed “Christmas with Robert Shaw.” In those concerts, I learned the meaning of artistic excellence, discipline, and artistic inspiration.
- I took piano lessons with the pianist of the Atlanta Symphony. She had moved to Atlanta with her violinist husband to be a part of the great Atlanta Symphony tradition. Because of her and her husband, I learned what true focus and practice was; I met the likes of Emmanuel Ax; and I witnessed first hand the physical and mental sacrifice of professional musicians.
- In school, I joined the chorus, taught by someone who moved to Atlanta to be a part of the great Atlanta Symphony tradition. I had some of the best teachers in the country because I happened to be in Atlanta, the destination for all smart singers.
- I ushered for the Atlanta Symphony throughout high school – almost every week. I heard Mahler (lots of Mahler), Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. I heard Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Sylvia McNair, and Jessye Norman (all of whom came to Atlanta to, yes, be a part of the great Atlanta Symphony tradition). And, of course, I heard the mighty sea of blue.
- All of this inspiration and excellence was intimidating, for sure, but it pushed me. In order to join the ASOC, I knew I had to sight read flawlessly, learn the instruments of the orchestra, and sing perfectly in tune. In order to join the great Atlanta Symphony tradition, I had to have good grades, be on time, and study my music from every angle.
If you’re reading this, you probably know the end of this story. My senior year of high school, I got in. At the end of each rehearsal, I would go home and cry, feeling equally thankful that I had experienced the last two and half hours with Mr. Shaw and his sea of excellence and fearful that something would happen that would make that Monday the last.
But for today, that’s not the end of the story.
Since then the ASO musicians and staff have supported me in my musical endeavors – inviting me to sing for Mr. Shaw’s memorial service, offering library guidance, opening up rehearsals and coaching sessions, meeting for programming advice, and even fielding many small and large e-mail and phone questions. When I’m back home, I buy a ticket and sit in the audience with chill bumps as I listen to many of the same players who were in the orchestra when I was a kid – all playing alongside newer members who have traveled from around the world to be a part of the mighty ASO. I still get so excited that at times I’m tempted to prop myself up on the back of the chair to get a better look at the intensity, the focus, the size, the grandness and gentleness of it all.
Still, however, my ASO love story is not over.
For as much as the great Atlanta Symphony tradition has attracted musicians to town to teach, inspire, and mold the likes of precocious 6 year olds, the same Atlanta Symphony tradition has also made its way across the country in small but meaningful ways. I know many who were trained in the school of ASO excellence who are far more accomplished than I and have done more justice to the great musical legend of the south, but I can only speak for myself and share that the ASO has through me taught tens of thousands of students to hear orchestral music; encouraged hundreds (probably more) of adult amateurs to pick up their instruments again; grown the ranks of a chorus originally founded over 40 years ago to sing with Mr. Shaw to a full-season chorus about to perform the likes of Mahler, Bernstein, and Orff; helped several students get into college – students who without music might not have graduated from high school; commissioned works by living composers; and demanded from thousands of students a level of excellence of which I hope Mr. Shaw and his sea of blue would be proud. I don’t say this to brag, because this is all part and parcel of being a conductor and a teacher. Rather, I credit the ASO University for inspiring me and pushing me to gain the skills, determination, and presence of mind needed to accomplish such tasks. And, I credit the ASO tradition for bringing teachers and conductors to Atlanta who reinforced such discipline of purpose.
I do not know the answer to the current issues. I’ve served on non-profit boards, been an orchestra staff member, a librarian, a volunteer singer and a paid singer, conducted, taught, budgeted, and lectured, so I know that the answer is beyond complicated. But I have also gotten chill bumps at the mere thought of an Atlanta Symphony performance, so I know that the solution is worth spending the time to discover and the artistic legacy is worth saving.
My greatest hope is that when the news of an answer does arrive, all of us schooled in the Atlanta Symphony tradition will go home and cry tears of gratitude that we will continue to be buoyed by the sea of artistic excellence for which the Atlanta Symphony is known locally, nationally, and across the globe. No more tears of fear that this Monday may be our last.