Atlanta singer: That locked-out orchestra made me who I am

Nacole Palmer is an Atlanta-born soprano with an international career. She is worried about her hometown orchestra. Here’s what she has written to the ASO board:

I am writing this as a response to Jessie Ahuama-Jonas’ request for words from people who were molded by the ASO. I am undoubtedly one of those people, and I hope to tell you how the ASO and its people molded me into the human I am today.

Some of my earliest memories are of being in Symphony Hall at the Woodruff Arts Center. I grew up in southwest Atlanta–yes, the bad part. I also had a mother who not only loved live classical music and theater, but who was relentless in finding ways for us to experience it. So we ushered for what felt like every play and every concert that Atlanta could produce. We went to hundreds of performances–often two or three (or even four!) in a single weekend. We would usher at the ASO on Friday night and come back on Saturday morning for the coffee concert with the pre-concert talk from William Fred Scott. From the time I was five or six years old, I was holding programs to hand out to patrons, and then a few years after that I was showing them to their seats. Of course, the most exciting part was when the concert would start, and we would find an empty seat to sit in during the hush before the music would begin. There was so much music that filled my young ears! And such great music! Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Beethoven–what a wonderful experiential education for a young person. I remember leaning back into those soft chairs and swaying my head gently to the music that washed over my ears and heart and informed my soul. Sometimes, when I was little, I would fall asleep while listening, no matter how much I tried to stay awake; I remember coming in and out of consciousness to the transcendent sounds of the ASO, sometimes unsure of what was a dream and what sounds were real because it was all so beautiful.

At age six, I started singing in the Young Singers of Callanwolde (now called the Atlanta Young Singers of Callanwolde), and my official musical education began. Every year, the wonderful Robert Shaw presented his ‘Christmas with Robert Shaw’ concerts with the ASO and ASO Chorus, and Young Singers was the children’s choir that he invited to be a part of the concerts. Of course, at six I was too young to be on stage, but I remember wearing my Young Singers uniform as I ushered for those concerts, proudly telling people that I sang with that group, too. When I was old enough to sing with the ‘big kids,’ I sat in the front row–scarcely daring to move (because they had told us not to!), breathless with excitement and awe to be so near the Atlanta Symphony Chorus that sounded like heaven itself under Robert Shaw’s magical touch, to the Symphony Orchestra that sounded even more majestic from right in front of our noses, and across the stage from the Morehouse Glee Club, which literally rocked the hall with its incredible rendition of Betelehe-mu every night.

robert shaw nacole palmer

As I grew up, my commitment to music and specifically to singing grew stronger. A particularly formative experience was in high school, when I was lucky enough to be in the Robert Shaw High School Choral Workshop that performed at Spivey Hall. I still get tears in my eyes as I remember Mr. Shaw telling us the story of when he and his choir traveled to Russia and sang an impromptu Requiem (I think it was Brahms) at the request of a mother mourning the death of her young son who had died when the ground was still too frozen to bury him; Mr. Shaw, himself, was teary as he told this story of an event decades earlier, and I was in awe that such a Great Man as Robert Shaw was so humbled by the power of music and its ability to heal and touch people’s hearts that he would cry, so humbled that this music was what a grieving mother needed to comfort her in her hardest days that he spoke through tears about it decades later to a group of teenagers who needed to understand what the ‘power of music’ meant. Mr. Shaw spoke passionately about how music is not a means of self-promotion or accomplishment; rather, he spoke of how we, as musicians, are servants to the music, vessels through which the healing and beauty may travel on its way to the ears and hearts of others. Mr. Shaw’s argument for this vision of a musician was so powerful and transformative that I later could point to this experience as the turning point in my eventual decision to become a professional musician.<

My life as a classical singer has been both challenging and rewarding, as any life in the arts must be. I have sung in Moscow and Paris, Carnegie Hall and Westminster Abbey, and I have worried about how I would pay my rent for more months than I care to count. Being a professional musician means being committed to years of hard (and often unappreciated) work with no promise of commensurate pay, all in service to others and to the music itself. I know that the musicians of the ASO share this commitment because I have witnessed it first hand, practically since birth.

And so I ask you, board of the ASO and people of Atlanta, what is your commitment to the musicians, and what should it be? I believe that a society that is nurtured by art has a responsibility to support that art. The alternative is honestly that the art will die, because people cannot feed themselves with the beauty alone of the music and art they create. That’s reality. When we consider these questions, we are really asking ourselves what kind of society we want to be. Need I remind you that when we look back in history, each significant culture is defined by and remembered for its art? This is not a fluke or a mistake: arts and music are the very heart of a community and a culture. Please do not deprive Atlanta of its heart, of its most fine ambassador, of its ability to touch and reach the hearts of people through the finest music-making in the country. Please renew your commitment to the musicians who have sacrificed and created beauty and truth through music for your benefit. Not only do they deserve it, but so do you.

Most Sincerely,

Nacole Palmer

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  • Very eloquently said. I can’t help but think of the young musicians and future musicians who are witnessing this circus and being both deprived and discouraged. I also grew up attending performances and getting to work with Shaw, including at Brevard Music Center, all of which led me to Cincinatti Conservatory of Music. Your letter speaks volumes. If only WAC would listen.

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