"I have the best conducting job in the world," says Paul Gambill, music director of the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. "It's way too much fun!" A typical evening Gambill might direct -- though there is no really typical program for the NCO, whose mission statement is 'music without boundaries' -- comprises an intense piece from the classical repertoire, a set of music from the guest artist with the orchestra in support, and a collaborative piece written by the guest artist and the orchestra's composers, commissioned especially for the chamber orchestra and drawing on a combination of traditions. Those traditions include Nashville's rich musical past and present in country, gospel and bluegrass, of course, and also take in "jazz, and klezmer, and Greek -- I get to do everything, really," Gambill says, "and it's in one of the greatest music cities in the world, so the level of artistry is over the top."
The combination of that level of musicianship and Gambill's own diverse background led to the founding of the NCO in 1990. "I grew up with Pink Floyd and The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and all that pop band experience in college in the 70s," he said, "and came to classical music later. I was a band director for three years, and then came to professional classical music, as a horn player, with the idea to move into conducting as soon as I could." Classical music brought him to Nashville. "When I moved here, I was struck by all the classically trained musicians who weren't in the symphony but were playing at the highest level," Gambill said. They were doing studio work, working in varied areas of commercial music, and teaching, but not, in general, having much chance to play classical music, "so we just got together," Gambill recalls, "and said, yep, got to do it." The music without boundaries idea evolved from the players' diverse interests and the vibrant musical crossroads which is Nashville. Gambill heard mountain dulcimer player David Schnaufer perform and invited him to collaborate on a piece with violinist and composer Conni Ellisor. "The response to that piece, Blackberry Winter, was so strong, and so intense," Gambill recalls more than ten years later, "that we decide to follow that path and it's really morphed into decisions to celebrate Nashville's unique music community, by integrating the worlds of folk, fiddle, and world music into classical performance practice."
Guest artists who've worked with the NCO include jazz composer John Jorgenson, country and pop Grammy winning writers Beth Nielsen Chapman and Gretchen Peters, folk singer Maura O'Connell, the eclectic Turtle Island String Quartet, gospel groups, a Greek music ensemble, and The Nashville Bluegrass Band. For a successful collaboration the guest artists often "have to be really willing to get out of their artistic realm, and if they don't read music, tha's another real leap of faith they have to be willing to take with us. So the best artists are the ones who are the most experimental," Gambill points out, and that's one of the attractions for the classical players too. "The new music is one of the things that keeps them active and engaged, and keeps them coming back, because we certainly aren't able to pay top dollar," he points out. In common with most Nashville musicians, NCO members regularly do studio work and other sorts of gigs in addition to their orchestra schedules.
Another thing which interests Gambill and the other musicians of the NCO is connecting and communicating with their audiences. That's not just from the practical point of marketing, but from the musical and collaborative standpoint as well. In other sorts of music, including those the guest artists bring to the mix, "there's a personal, intimate relationship with the people who make the music and the people who listen to it. That's a historical challenge orchestras have, to bridge that gap. Our performance practice doesn't include much back and forth between the audience and the orchestra -- we play and they listen. Have you ever been to a concert other than classical where the performers never address the audience? or where the audience never express themselves except at the end of the piece?" he asks. "There are other traditions where people sit quietly, but ours is rather staid in that respect. So the notion of how we connect with our audiences, so they get over this idea that classical music is something you can't touch, or can't get up close with, or can't understand -- we are about breaking down those barriers." To that end the NCO is exploring internet initiatives and continuing its community connections by working on such projects as Kid Pan Alley, a collaboration between schoolkids and Nashville musicians including Amy Grant, Jon Vezner, and Darrell Scott. They also sponsor a less formal Acoustic Cafe concert series in which artists such as Scottish guitarist Tony McManus have been featured. "As the global music community expands, it behooves orchestras to celebrate that expansion," Gambill says. "The accessibility we have to music now, through the internet especially, is shaping what people are hearing." Classical music is a vital part of the mix, Gambill believes, and he also believes that it is a mix. "Classical music will endure because it's a great art form, one I am passionate about," Gambill says. "I don't believe in diluting that. I believe in experimenting with other musics, along side that. I believe that's the surest way to grow our service to our community."
note that the NCO has recenlty changed its name to Orchestra Nashville. current projects include collborations with jazz musician John Jorgenson and singer and songwriter Darrell Scott.
Voices is published every other Thursday to Gather Essentials: Music. Ahead, look to hear from Oisin McAuley, Emmylou Harris, Eddi Reader, Donnell Leahy, Carolyn Hester, Chris Smither, and many other thoughtful and creative artists involved with folk, country, Celtic, and bluegrass music. Earlier columns include insights from Vince Gill, Hanneke Cassel, Cathie Ryan, and others.
Kerry Dexter, Music Correspondent Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, The MusicHound Guides, and the CBC. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road .
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