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WQXR Features

Quiet Since the Floods, A Nashville Hall is Back

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In a city dominated by the music industry, a singular function is fulfilled by the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. A 197,000-square-foot limestone theater that resembles an ancient Greek temple, it has been a mecca and sanctuary to classical music fans in Nashville since its opening in 2006.

When nearly 14 inches of rain fell on Nashville in May 2010 and the Cumberland River crested 12 feet above flood stage, the Schermerhorn sustained massive damage. Five million gallons of water cascaded into the sub-basement and most of the basement. Two nine-foot Steinway grand pianos were destroyed. Some fifty other instruments were ruined.

The resident Nashville Symphony Orchestra gave the hall's first public concert on New Year’s Eve, marking one more important stage in the music capital's resurrection after monsoon rains also submered the Grand Ole Opry House (under 10 feet of water) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (five feet of water). The orchestra's first subscription program will be broadcast on WQXR Friday night at 8 p.m.

"It feels incredible of course," Alan Valentine, the Nashville Symphony's president, told WQXR. "Being displaced from our home the last several months is challenging as it would be for any business or person. Nothing is the same. You have to exist in makeshift offices. You don’t have access to everything. The orchestra is traipsing all over town playing in multiple venues and so it really created a situation where the staff had to do double and triple duty."

Valentine catalogued the stresses on his staff as the orchestra traveled among four temporary venues during the fall season, requiring the box office to reseat subscription audiences each time and stagehands to move a battery of instruments. 

Opened in 2006, the $123 million Schermerhorn is named in memory of Kenneth Schermerhorn, who was music director of the Nashville Symphony for 22 years. Behind its columned Neoclassical façade and lush courtyard lies state-of-the-art concert technology, including orchestra-level seats mounted on motorized wagons that can be driven forward and lowered through the floor on a system of lifts (they were spared in the flooding). 

During the nights of the floods, building engineers fought the rising waters while musicians worked to move all of the sheet music off of lower shelves in the library to higher ground. "It was a little bit chaotic in the middle of all this flood activity," said Valentine. "The city was obviously not as prepared as it might have been. The city officials did an extraordinary job at what was happening but there was a communication breakdown between the corps of engineers, city officials, county officials and state officials. That has all since been rectified for the future."

The floodwaters came up from the ground water table, as the high water pressure cracked the concrete slabs of the basement floor. Infrastructure damage included the electric control center, eleven air circulation units, a kitchen and numerous storage rooms.

Insurance has covered $10 million of the $40 million repair bill, and $24-26 million more is expected in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, much of which has been delivered. A remaining $4 million gap is being covered through the orchestra's own endowment campaign.

"Never waste a good disaster," said Valentine wryly. "The flood really rallied the community around the orchestra. It changed the sentiment of some of our key donors about the need to do the campaign. The need became much clearer."

Valentine adds that the Nashville Symphony's New Year's Eve reopening concert, with violin soloist Itzhak Perlman, had a 14-page waiting list. For this week's first subscription concerts, Nicholas McGegan conducts Mendelssohn's Overture to The Fair Melusina, Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 and Beethoven's Fourth Symphony.

Craig Havighurst, a Nashville music journalist, blogger and author, said the opening comes as a relief after months in which chain link fences and water removal equipment surround the hall. "It’s funny because it seems like such a big deal because it puts us back where we were on April 29," he said. "It does jolt you into a reminder of what we were without."