A cellist’s tale: My orchestra just ceased to exist

A cellist’s tale: My orchestra just ceased to exist


norman lebrecht

July 02, 2020

From Stephen Drake of the suspended Nashville Symphony:

So as of today the Nashville Symphony, my employers for the last 36 years, ceases to exist in the form many of you know and love. And it won’t be back, at least not in its former state, for a long time, if ever.

History has taught some of us, but perhaps not the ones in charge (our board). During the shutdown in 1988, we lost a significant number of our players, and nearly all of the management. That lasted for 10 months – this shutdown which will last for maybe 15 months will likely have much worse consequences. IF the symphony manages to restart next September – and that’s a very big if – there will likely only be a handful of familiar faces still involved – it will be mostly a pickup orchestra, most likely working for significantly lower wages than currently. And the management team will be mostly brand new. IF the hall still exists and is in the hands of the symphony – again, a very big if – lots of things aren’t going to work, or work right – the sound and light systems will need major overhauls, and the stage lifts and chair rails will probably be frozen up from neglect. I would really love to be proven wrong about any and all of this.

Is/was there a way to avoid this? Unfortunately, while there might be, no-one has thought of it yet. Or have deep enough pockets to bail us out. The significant amount of debt that’s been run up in the last few months prevent a lot of actions that might help. The orchestras that are staying in business somehow have large endowments to draw from, something that’s eluded our board in creating. And you can’t run an orchestra with 1.2 million in payroll expenses a month without having a steady stream of concerts – and who knows when we’ll be able to resume that.

So – gone is the orchestra that can record grammy winning recordings on a regular basis. And play world class concerts at the drop of a hat. Gone are the woodwind, brass, percussion and string sections that sound cohesive and tight because they were all selected using the same criteria, and have played together for decades.

I’m not actually blaming anyone – these are impossible times, and I certainly can’t think of any obvious ways out of this. The management and board actually have my sympathy – it’s incredibly difficult to find solutions to a huge problem like this, especially when you’re being blamed for it. And as far as I know no one is at fault here.

To all my colleagues and friends from the musicians, staff, volunteers, and yes even the board, I miss you all and look forward to seeing you again, hopefully sooner than expected.




  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    He’s not the Lone Ranger. Many orchestras are in the same position and many people working even for large for profit companies have lost their job.

    It’s one thing to mourn the loss, but more importantly, it’s what is the future going to be and how are orchestral musicians going to shape that future.

    Too often, orchestral musicians depend on management and the board to make change. Musicians, it is felt, have to focus on their craft of making great art.

    That will have to change. Musicians have to be part of the Phoenix that rises from the ashes.

    And indeed, the larger orchestras have larger endowments to draw from but even that will only last so long as these larger orchestras also have larger fixed costs.

    This is going to be a make or break year for many arts organizations and what remains will look very different than the Old Normal.

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    ==1.2 million in payroll expenses a month

    That’s high. How many people on the payroll ?

    • Timothy Jepson says:

      If there are 75-80 full time professional musicians, office staff, professional stage hands, conductor (s) and CEO salaries thrown in, then $1.2M is probably a good start.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Probably about 80 orchestral musicians; then the conductor and assistant conductor, and musical support staff; then the stage and concert staff; then the administrative and management staff, which together must be at least a few dozen people. These include highly paid individuals (conductor, CEO, etc.).

    • CA says:

      That figure might be the payroll amount for the whole organization-staff plus musicians-which would be about right I think.

    • Jonathan Taylor says:

      82 musicians, 3 full time conductors, one part-time choral conductor and management and support staff of 96. Also is the expense of maintaining the 1800 seat concert hall.

  • Rose says:

    This group is the Little Engine that *did*. I hope for the sake of my former colleagues and the community they serve with such enthusiasm that they will recover from this devastating blow and return to enriching musical life in Nashville.

  • drummerman says:

    I still don’t understand why they announced the cancellation of the entire next season so far in advance. Why not take things on a month to month basis, or some such thing. What happens if Tennessee gets the “all clear” sign from the government this October or November? I certainly understand that they can’t be selling tickets now, which means no income. If the NY Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, etc., etc., etc., have not completely cancelled the 20-21 season at this time, why has Nashville?

    • Stuart says:

      The orchestra is broke and cannot pay staff. They have said they will come back earlier under the right circumstances. Not enough success in the past with building an endowment.

      “To date, the Nashville Symphony has already been forced to cancel or reschedule more than 65 concerts and events since early March, with losses directly caused by the pandemic projected to total $8 million, or nearly 30% of the symphony’s annual income,” the symphony said in a news release. Officials are keeping open the possibility of resuming activity earlier, if it becomes possible to safely do so.

  • Jaspers John says:

    What do you need a sound system for? Basic lighting should be enough. Too much pessimism/drama.

    • Jonathan Taylor says:

      Their hall also hosts pops concerts which includes Broadway, country, Celtic, and some oldies rock artists. In addition there is a jazz series and concerts by numerous other pop artists without the orchestra who use the sound system. While the orchestra is the primary user I would guess around 30% of performances do not involve them. The goal has been to keep the hall busy and occupied. Also forgot they host a number of movies with the live orchestra playing the score. These are good money makers for the orchestra but impossible without the sound system. Per their website they furloughed 79 musicians and 49 staff which means they still have a reduced staff working to reschedule concerts and handle requests from ticket holders for credits or refunds.