Classical Music

Thursday, June 22, 2017

PRIZM Ensemble Co-Founder Lecolion Washington Tapped to Head Community Music Center of Boston

Posted By on Thu, Jun 22, 2017 at 4:37 PM

Lecolion Washington, the co-founder and Executive Director of Memphis' PRIZM Ensemble will become the new Executive Director of the Community Music Center of Boston.

Washington, who also serves as director of in-school programs for the Memphis Music Initiative, has described the transition as bittersweet. In a positive, forward-looking statement he announced that, "PRIZM’s core values — diversity, opportunity, and access – are much larger than its founders."

The Community Music Center of Boston is a 107-year-old nonprofit education hub, " where people of all ages and abilities share music as common ground, and where diversity, expression and self-transformation are the very air we breathe."

PRIZM's Director of Operations and Educational Programming Roderick Vester, will serve as interim executive director while the growing classical company conducts a national search for Washington's replacement.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Star Trek in Concert?

Posted By on Thu, Jan 7, 2016 at 10:46 AM

Yes, Star Trek in concert. And I'm not talking about Spock Rock either.


On January 29 Star Trek: The Ultimate Voyage is coming to the Orpheum Theater. Fans can see their favorite characters from the past 50-years of film and TV shows projected on the big screen while a live orchestra plays selections from the iconic soundtrack.

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Friday, February 27, 2015

MSO Conductor Mei-Ann Chen to Step Down Following the 2015-2016 Concert Season

Posted By on Fri, Feb 27, 2015 at 12:36 PM

  • Photo by Justin Fox Burks
  • Mei-Ann Chen

Mei-Ann Chen, who has served as Conductor and Music Director for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra since 2010, will step down when her contract expires at the end of the 2015-2016 concert season.  

According to a press release issued Fri., Feb 27,  officials from the MSO are currently in discussions about her future role with the symphony as Conductor Laureate.

With her dramatic, dance-like conducting style, Chen is often credited with revitalizing the orchestra, although it's probably more fair to say that she brought her rising star-power to an already innovative orchestra, in the process of revitalizing itself through a variety of artist-led, community building initiatives.  

"Mei-Ann is one of the most in-demand guest conductors for orchestras, and we respect her decision to step away at this time to pursue her many opportunities around the world,” MSO Board Chair Gayle S. Rose was quoted as saying. 

Although it has enjoyed a period of exceptional artistic achievement, he MSO has fallen on hard times and is working to determine the new way forward.

MSO President and CEO Roland Valliere says the 2015-2016 will be dedicated to Chen. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

MSO Crisis: By the Numbers

Posted By on Wed, Feb 5, 2014 at 1:52 PM

Yesterday, while trying to make sense of the crisis at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, I quoted a cautious, but generally upbeat interview with former Memphis Symphony Orchestra CEO Ryan Fleur, and noted that he had every reason to be optimistic. It's important to understand that the organization's forward motion can only be understood in the context of ongoing economic difficulty. It was February, 2011, the orchestra was trying new and exciting things, and, as I noted, the ink was once again black. But things had been tougher in previous years, and the hungry bear would return in 2011 to take a bite out of the MSO's total assets. But at that moment in time new revenue and granting opportunities, and a higher public profile, gave the appearance that he MSO was ahead of the curve when it came to figuring out how manage all the challenges facing American orchestras.

Memphis' professional classical ensemble had momentum but the wind was hardly at their backs. The company had taken some real hits, and once the positive trend started, there wasn't much room for backsliding. Here are some numbers that tell a story.

Fiscal year 2008

Total revenue minus expenses : - $1,731,985

Net Assets: $2, 365, 243

Fiscal Year 2009

Total revenue minus expenses: - $388,515

Net Assets :$2,412,723 Net assets up

Fiscal Year 2010

Total revenue minus expenses: $111,961

Net assets: $2,541,365 Net assets up

Fiscal Year 2011

Total revenue minus expenses: -651,148

Net assets: $1,930541 Net assets down.

The Biggest Changes
Investment income seems to fluctuate the most. In 2008 the MSO lost $309,862. In 2009 they lost $111,700. In 2010 the number moves into the positive column to the tune of $405, 058. It stays positive in 2011, but drops significantly to $1,383.

Gifts and grants fluctuate between a low of $2,076,245 in 2008 to a high of 3,029,031 in 2010. The trend is upward by roughly a half-million per year 2008-10. In 2011 the number drops by a little less than $25,000 to $2,782,654.

Total expenses range from a low of $3,854.274 in 2009 to high of $4,765,387 in 2011. Total expenses for 2008 were also comparatively high: $$4,747,915.

Salaries and Compensation numbers were highest in 2008: $3,411,098. That figure drops to $2,763,116 in 2009 and then creeps back up to $3,367,917.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra is in Crisis. How Did We Get Here?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 4:02 PM

In case you haven't heard already the Memphis Symphony Orchestra is running out of money. The endowment has dried up and the sky is falling. Or maybe the sky is merely restructuring, depending on the account you believe. In either case, unless someone can convince me otherwise, the word "dire" seems appropriate.

A recent gift of $100,000 will prop up the MSO in the short term but the 2013-14 shortfall is closer to $400,000, and barring a much larger cash infusion hard decisions will have to be made sooner rather that later. While not desirable obviously, worst case outcomes can't be completely dismissed. This shouldn't be surprising news given the challenges orchestras playing all the hits of the 18th and 19th-Centuries face in 21st-Century America, but it's especially disconcerting given the MSO's high level of artistic achievement, innovation and audience engagement.

The local news has broken on the heels of a critical dustup and Internet skirmish between Slate's Mark Vanhoenacker who recently wrote that things were looking bad for classical music and the New Yorker's William Robin who passionately disputed Vanhoenacker's muddled but still compelling math.

Both of the above-mentioned accounts are a little obnoxious. One uses truly ugly numbers that never quite add up to its hackneyed conclusions about fat ladies and song. The other, leaning too much on this grumpy blog post for support, is nothing more than extremely serious cheerleading. Taken together, however, these pieces do point us in the direction of a dialogue we need to have, employing more civil and less sensational terms.

What's especially disquieting is that in Memphis classical music has been winning. Although the "Memphis model" has been widely misunderstood, the MSO has been having this conversation with itself for a long time. Right here in River City the MSO's artistic and administrative leadership joined forces in unprecedented ways, with the full understanding that the fate of modern orchestras has less to do with the quality or importance of classical music, than the bond of reciprocity created between the orchestra and the community it serves.

By building unique community partnerships the MSO attracted unlikely donors and unusual grants. With some new cash streams, innovative community engagement projects like Leading from Every Chair, and Opus One it looked like Memphis was well on its way to finding a sustainable way forward.

"The Memphis Symphony has not yet achieved long-term financial stability," Ryan Fleur, the former MSO CEO said in a Feburary, 2011 interview with, an online forum for orchestra musicians.

"By doing all these things we’re still in business and we have a path to success," Fleur added. "We’ve captured the imagination and attention of a much wider circle of Memphians who will ultimately help us change our own business model. Now we’re in lag time — in the business world it takes 5 years before you find the full revenue return on an investment."

Although the country was mired in economic crisis and the MSO had been forced to slash its budget the ink was black and there were reasons for Fleur to be optimistic. For the fiscal year starting July 1, 2010 and ending June 30, 2011 the orchestra took in $4,722,614 with expenses reported at $4,610,653.

Three years after Fleur made the case for his five-year plan much has changed, at least on the surface. He's an Executive Vice President with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Former COO Lisa Dixon is Executive director of the Portland Symphony, innovative concert master Susannah Perry Gilmore has joined the Omaha Symphony, and Memphis is in crisis.

In an admittedly dated promotional video MSO board member Dan Poag broke down some numbers that are worth chewing on still, especially in light of the stats collected in the much- vilified Slate article . The average ticket price, he explained, covered only 30% of what it actually costs to produce MSO concerts. The other 70% — a subsidy for MSO ticket holders — comes in the form of sponsorships, gifts, and grants.

Inside the MSO

Roland Valliere, the new no-nonsense CEO of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra has a reputation for salvaging seemingly doomed orchestras. With austerity measures and outsourcing he was able to prop up the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio. The message he is currently sending Memphians is clear: When this season ends, things are changing.

Not so very long ago the MSO seemed to have momentum. It was trying new things, reaching new audiences by way of Opus One, and cultivating a reputation for dynamic live performances under Mei Ann Chen's baton. Although the path forward was always uncertain, the organization was clearly energized, engaged, and positioned to develop new revenue streams while attracting new donors. So what happened to all of that potential? Or what didn't happen?

Among other near-term changes an Opus One concert scheduled for March has been cancelled. The concert would have paired the MSO with the best of Memphis' singer-songwriters. I bring this up because it's sad, obviously, but also because there's one more question worth asking, and nobody has ever asked it better than Memphis rapper Al Kapone, on the electric night when he shared the stage with Opus One: "What about the music?"

Well, what about it?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Lincoln Two Ways: Tips & Tidbits for the Theatrically Inclined

Posted By on Fri, Sep 20, 2013 at 2:42 PM

... In his own words.
  • ... In his own words.
President Abraham Lincoln once spoke of the “better angels” of our nature. The "Lincoln Portrait," being performed this weekend as a part of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks series, is the sound of a person struggling to find those same angels and set them free.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor Aaron Copland was commissioned to create a new work inspired by the life of a great American. Initially the composer wanted to honor Walt Whitman, but he eventually turned to Lincoln, suspending the President's own words on a bed of melancholy, majesty and brass. America was in a Depression. The world was at war. Words first used by the great emancipator and preserver of the Union often found their way into the mouth of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, just as they now seem to find their way into the mouth of President Barack Obama.

For a chance to let those words seep into your own imagination you might want to spend some time with the MSO this weekend.

As Ron Popeil might say, "That's not all..." Former MSO concertmaster Joy Brown Weiner and guest concertmaster Ellen Cockerham will be the featured soloists for Bach’s Concerto in D-minor and the evening concludes with a performance of Strauss’ Ein Heldenlebenin.

For details and ticket information click here.

The cast of The Whipping Man
  • The cast of "The Whipping Man"

There’s another way to experience the 16th President this weekend. The Hattiloo Theater’s strong production of The Whipping Man isn’t actually about Honest Abe but Lincoln’s intense spirit is felt throughout. Set in a war-ruined mansion in Richmond, VA, April, 1865— the month of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre — The Whipping Man reunites a Jewish Confederate with his newly freed slaves.

The Whipping Man actively aims to portray the best of all possible relationships between the master and his human property. The audience is presented with a real family in faith and blood alike. The unusual approach doesn’t mitigate the atrocities of slavery and the African diaspora however, it confirms and even magnifies them.

Note to the squeamish: The live onstage amputation is performed in mercifully dim light. You'll live through it, but it may leave a scar.

The Whipping Man also showcases the considerable talents of Memphis actors Bart Mallard, Delvyn Brown, and Shadeed Salim. Imagined as a jazz trio Brown and Mallard are the soloists and Salim is the steady heartbeat. It’s a terrific ensemble in an old-fashioned play that feels positively up to date.

For more details here's your click.


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