Nashville's Symphony Hall: A Showpiece Turned Millstone

Jun 18, 2013

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center was built as a tool to propel the Nashville Symphony forward. From an artistic standpoint--or even as a huge, stone billboard--it is a success. The last few months, as the news has gone from bad to worse about the orchestra's finances, it's been hard to see the building as anything but a heavy weight. But that wasn't always the case.

The orchestra that hears itself better plays better

Rretired piccolo player Norma Rogers call the Schermerhorn a "Cadillac" because the quietest, most intricate sounds carry as clearly as loud, bombastic ones. She says a musician can achieve more in that kind of space and can have confidence that the audiences will hear every note, every nuance. She says it's both helped the symphony hone its technique and attract a laundry list of outside talent, too. Classical music superstars like Yo Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax, and James Galway are now eager to perform in Music City.

The idea that a world class concert hall could help the orchestra become world class itself is what drove the push to erect the Schermerhorn. It seems to have been borne out by the ensemble's successes--seven Grammy wins and the invitation to perform last year at Carnegie Hall's new music festival, for example.

If the promise of artistic improvement created the idea of a new hall, the way the money and logistics fell into place only seemed to confirm that it should be built.  The project came together on time and on budget. Meanwhile, ticket sales shot up and money poured in, almost enough to completely pay for construction. According to Mercedes Jones, the building project's manager, it felt like the Schermerhorn was "meant to be."

Budgeting on the razor's edge

Then came a decision that longtime symphony-goer Glenn Locklear-and plenty of others now question: to gamble the lion’s share of that money by investing it in an endowment.

"I couldn’t believe that they didn’t spend the 120 million they raised on the building," Locklear says. "I can’t believe they didn’t spend on the building. I can’t conceive of that."

Sally Levine, on the other hand, says it seemed like a good plan, just one that required lot of hard work. She was on the symphony board’s finance committee at the time. That group thought it could afford to set those millions aside and let them make money in the stock market. The operating budget would double just from moving into the building, but the orchestra would also make more money: income from renting out the facility, higher ticket sales, and more charitable gifts from the community. Levine felt it was "very likely doable" if everything went as expected.

Things didn't go as expected

The symphony’s plan didn’t allow for an endowment that bled money or using it to pay for millions in flood repairs. It certainly didn’t have room for its primary source of income, donations, to drop by half in the recession. Those contributions were only supposed to go up.

Classical music journalist Gregory Sandow says operating without enough financial cushion is industry standard. He says orchestras seem to believe that they can always raise more money. If nothing else, he says they hope that a few guardian angels will swoop in and save the day with a handful of giant checks. That happens just often enough for ensembles to ignore the danger signs, but Sandow says those massive gifts aren't usually repeated. The well can go dry.

Dismal numbers--but still a sense of hope

Last year’s donations to the Nashville Symphony were just over $10 million. That's $3 million less than their 2003 budget, when they were still renting performance space at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Expenses have been slashed--last year's operating budget was $12 million less than the one five years before--but they can only drop so much as long as the orchestra is operating a building the size of a city block.

Still, musician Norma Rogers says she can’t be anything but optimistic that things will still work out, one way or another. She's confident that the hall won't be lost to music, and she certainly won’t entertain any thoughts that the symphony itself might be dragged under by the grand music palace it calls home

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