The Promised Land 

After six years of waiting, the 50-year-old Memphis Symphony Orchestra returns downtown to a new, state-of-the-art facility.

And just what were you doing in 1996? The economy was in full Clinton-era boom, so let's assume that you were counting your stock-market earnings, sipping Cosmos at some patio bar, and chomping on a $20 cigar while discussing whether or not all this talk about the resuscitation of downtown Memphis was just a flavor of the moment. Unless, of course, you were a part of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. In that case, you were most likely counting your pennies and pulling your blankets tight around you while contemplating the realities of being homeless. The symphony's home base, Ellis Auditorium, was slated for demolition in 1996, and its new hall wouldn't be completed until 1999.

"When we heard we were going to be without a hall for three years," says principal trumpet Scott Moore, "I said I bet a hundred bucks we don't get in until 2001. Everybody laughed." When 2001 rolled around and the hall was still under construction with no end in sight, nobody was laughing.

While all of Memphis' attention seemed to be focused westward on downtown's central business district, the MSO was in exile at Eudora Baptist Church on Poplar Avenue at Perkins: the very heart of old East Memphis. Three years without a hall turned into four as asbestos was removed from Ellis prior to its demolition, and four turned into six as serious flaws in the new structure's design were discovered and dealt with and sundry legal squabbles erupted. During this period, the symphony watched its audience slowly disappear. Though 350 subscribers have been added to the rolls for the second half of the current season, the symphony began 2002 with 5 percent fewer subscriptions than in 1996, its last season in Ellis Auditorium.

"The whole experience of the symphony isn't just the performance," says Moore. "Eudora was preferable to GPAC, or [in terms of sound] even the old South Hall, but the look and feel of it killed our audience." Eudora, of course, looked like a Baptist church: fine for Sunday mornings but not quite right for a secular, weekend performance.

"People want to have a full experience," says principal horn Sam Compton, who, entering into his fifth season with the MSO, has never played in an actual concert hall. "They want to go to the lobby for a drink at intermission."

On January 26th, one day and half a century since the MSO's very first public performance, the symphony will make its triumphant return to downtown Memphis and to the new Cannon Center, a space designed by Williamson Pounders Architects in conjunction with the Pickering Firm specifically for the performance of orchestral music.

"I've been in 80 or 90 concert halls all over the world," says Moore of the new performance venue. "The Cannon Center isn't just good for Memphis, it's one of the best ever. Truly world-class. It's huge."

"As professionals, you always try to give the best performance no matter where you play," says Concert Master Susannah Perry Gilmore, acknowledging that the MSO's collective morale has sunk pretty low over the past six years. "But we certainly feed off of external things. This is a space designed for what we do. I predict that this will be an emotional week for everybody. A hall is our identity as an orchestra, and being without one it's been harder to hold on to any feeling of identity."

With that new sense of identity in place, the MSO is embarking on its largest public-relations campaign to date, with $685,204 earmarked for marketing -- almost twice the amount budgeted for last season.

Brian Wiuff, director of public relations and publications for the MSO, believes that the new hall will not only make subscription sales soar. It will also attract donors and sponsors. "The Cannon Center is so attractive to donors," says Wiuff, "because it's so attractive. They will be inclined to be associated with such a wonderful hall and the experience patrons will have in it."

According to Wiuff, the Cannon Center has a large lobby, perfect for displaying cars or other large merchandise, which also makes the space attractive to potential donors.

"I hope, with the inevitable attention that will be coming our way with the opening of the new facility, that the message gets out about what a great group of musicians we have," says Moore. "It's a truly great group, trained by the best schools in the world." That's a sentiment echoed by longtime subscriber and board member Scott Heppel. "I don't think the quality has held up [at Eudora]. No, I think it has improved. [Conductor] David [Loebel] revitalized the orchestra, and they are playing better than ever." n

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra's 50th Anniversary Concert, featuring guest pianist André-Michel Schub performing Mozart's Concerto No. 24, January 26th.

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