5 Star Stories: Memphis Symphony Orchestra

Published: Oct. 11, 2022 at 10:58 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Memphis Symphony Orchestra is the largest performing arts institution in the Memphis area and recently opened its new season, back on stage after the COVID shutdown.

In this 5 Star Story, we attended rehearsal at the Cannon Center for a masterclass in community. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra is part of Memphis’ deep musical history, starting in the early 1950s as the Memphis Sinfonietta with 21 musicians.

”And this is our 71st season, " exclaimed MSO President and CEO Peter Abell. Now the Memphis Symphony has 70 full-time musicians who Abell said come from all over the world. “That’s one of the contributions that the Memphis Symphony makes to Memphis is to bring these world class musicians to Memphis to become Memphians.”

MSO Music Director Robert Moody has been professionally conducting for 30 plus years, since the 1990s, which has taken him all over the country before joining the Memphis orchestra in 2016. He says symphony members have an average stint of 25 years in Memphis and are so much more than master musicians.

“They teach here. They’re very involved with schools, churches, synagogues... they’re very involved in the jazz scene, in the blues scene, in the recording scene,” Moody explained.

Take Michael Scott: A native Memphian, 2nd bassoonist for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, a local contractor for Broadway shows at the Orpheum, played with the likes of Gladys Knight and the Four Tops, and is now a retired instructor at Southwest Tennessee Community College.

“And so, after retiring there, I’m the Education Coordinator for the Memphis Jazz Workshop, which is a nonprofit in town. We teach students from middle school to high school how to play jazz and improvise,” Scott said.

He gives credit to his own experience of seeing MSO play when he was student at Norris Elementary School with his chosen professional path.

“I had no idea I would be a professional musician or even think about playing in the symphony orchestra. After hearing this orchestra in the sixth grade, it had that kind of impact on my life.”

Barrie Cooper is a Concert Master and violinist - this is her 23rd season with MSO. She also fosters animals in need while teaching students violin -- including Rhodes College Students -- knowing first-hand how music can change a child’s life.

“And that’s the whole point of teaching, not to make world class soloist violinists, it’s to make good people. Proud people,” she chuckled.

Abell said that’s other half of the life of the Memphis Symphony, “... investing in the musicians of tomorrow, investing in youth, especially in our school systems. The Memphis Symphony was instrumental in bringing the Orff Music programs to Memphis a long time ago and we still work really closely with Orff music teachers in Memphis.”

MSO’s “Tunes to Tales” literacy program pairs music with children’s books for performances in libraries and schools -- over 100 of those performances a year. Abell said it’s all part of making the orchestra accessible to anyone and one of the reasons MSO makes us proud to call this place home.

“The different concerts that we play, we don’t just play classical music. We get to dabble in opera, we get to dabble in some pop and some gospel, some country music even. It’s just all different styles so there’s really not a chance to get bored,” explained Barrie.

While Moody expounded on the subject, “Because I think that the 21st century orchestra is very different than what people might be thinking; the 20th or 19th century orchestra was about--this is really a place for everyone to come. People ask me this question a lot, ‘Do I have to wear a tux?’ No. Come in a t-shirt and jeans. Really, you don’t have to wear any specific thing, you don’t have to be worried about when to clap. If you feel it, clap please. I’m gonna encourage you. I’m not gonna look at you rudely -- the opposite. I’m gonna be like, ‘Yeah, do it.’ "

With Abell adding, “ultimately, we want to entertain you. We want you to hear something beautiful and that becomes a part of your life and if that’s the one time we see you we’re gonna try to make it the best one time. But we want you to know you can come back anytime.”

For more details about the Memphis Symphony Orchestra click here.

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