August 23, 2008

Three Years Later, the Louisiana Philharmonic Continues Its Healthy Rebound!

The article below was taken from the August 2008 International Musician. - Sam

To conclude its 2007-2008 season, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra performed Mahler's Second Symphony in two mid-May concerts. The symphony is frequently subtitled “Resurrection,” reflecting Mahler's own obsession with suffering and death, as well as the piece's evolution, through many twists and turns, from stormy, minor-key music to a rousing major-key finale with chorus.

It's the perfect ending to a successful season for the orchestra, especially given the events of the past three years in New Orleans: the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent flooding, the scattering of the city's residents, and the slow, often difficult process of rebuilding homes, businesses, and lives. The result, though, has been the resurrection of an entire orchestra, leading the way for the residents of New Orleans to return and start rebuilding themselves.

A Difficult Test

Leadership in the Louisiana Philharmonic comes from the musicians' themselves, making them unique among US orchestras. In the weeks and months following the September 2005 destruction of New Orleans, that leadership was put to a tremendous test.

Greg Miller, a trombonist who also serves as the LPO's personnel manager and on the board of Local 174-496, returned to New Orleans in late October after nearly two months in Seattle, Washington. A member of the orchestra since 1976, when it was called the New Orleans Symphony, before the storm Miller was serving as an artistic administrator, arranging for guest soloists and conductors. The post-Katrina period brought about many challenges.

“Some of the artists we had booked weren't available or they switched at the last minute,” Miller says. In addition to filling those gaps, the orchestra moved between multiple locations in the city for rehearsals and concerts. Many of the city's concert venues, including the Orpheum Theatre, the LPO's hall, were destroyed by the flooding, and the orchestra was forced to become a mobile, rootless organization.

The musicians, though, were undaunted. Though some players sat in with other orchestras during their evacuation from New Orleans, nearly all returned by the end of 2005 to help revive the orchestra. Annie Cohen, cellist and current chair of the personnel committee, played with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra during the evacuation, but felt very strongly about returning to New Orleans, where she has played since 1978. “We all felt it was really important to be here and to provide whatever solace we could,” Cohen says. “The city was just shredded, and we wanted to provide music to the people who could find us.”

Hitting the Road

Before attempting to launch an abbreviated season in the spring, the LPO played several fundraising concerts in Nashville and New York City, hosted by the Nashville Symphony and New York Philharmonic, respectively. Far from New Orleans, the musicians still saw familiar faces. “We were so grateful and surprised to see people who had evacuated to Nashville or who trekked to New York to see the orchestra,” Cohen says. “It helps redefine what community is.”

The outpouring of support made the LPO's musicians and management even more determined to push on in 2006-2007, and they worked through the shifting locations and scattering of their regular audience to put on a full, 36-week season.

Kim Foreman, secretary-treasurer of Local 174-496, marvels at the orchestra's swift recovery as well. “They've been working steadily, and they've even seen a small increase in salary,” he says. “They're truly a success story coming out of the mess we went through.” Foreman also notes that the members of the LPO are the largest constituency within the New Orleans local. “They did an exceptional job of keeping it together,” he says. “That's our number one client, and you can imagine the loss we would have realized if we'd lost our symphony.”

Southern Support

Babs Mollere, managing director of the LPO, received personal and professional support from another orchestra following the hurricane. “I landed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the first week after the hurricane, and the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra became the temporary home for the orchestra for almost nine months until March 2006,” she says. During this time, donations and other demonstrations of support came pouring in from both US and international orchestras, AFM locals, and individual musicians. “These were very critical things that showed us we could move ahead,” she says.

Mollere also credits Foreman with working to obtain grants to support the orchestra and with waiving union dues for the orchestra musicians for that year. The musicians, in turn, kept their morale high and committed themselves to rebuilding the orchestra as a key part of the rebuilding of their home city, with leaders like Miller, Cohen, and timpanist Jim Atwood setting the example for newer musicians. The LPO's music director, Carlos Miguel Prieto, arrived shortly before the hurricane, and his leadership and commitment to remaining in New Orleans through the difficulties was inspiring as well.

The solidarity within the orchestra withstood the trying times immediately following the storm. “During the hurricane, it became clear that this is one of the great strengths of the orchestra,” Mollere says. “What we had grew bigger in this period—it was magnified.”

“We have flourished in terms of donations and subscriptions, and our salary has gone up,” Miller adds. A planned 10% increase in players' salaries is still slated for the 2008-09 season. For both long-term and new members, as well as audience members, “they see a definite future,” Miller says. “The salary and benefits are such that people can make a decent living here. People are coming here and they know they can make it.”

Relocating and Rebuilding

Though the Orpheum Theatre has not yet been repaired, venues throughout the city have welcomed the LPO for performances and rehearsals: Roussel Hall on the campus of Loyola University, McAlister Auditorium and Dixon Hall at Tulane University, and at churches, synagogues, and theaters throughout the region. The 2008-2009 season will see additional performances at First Baptist Church in Kenner and at locations throughout the city, as well the reopening of the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts in January 2009, after the hall's extensive renovation is complete. According to Mollere, the orchestra currently performs in seven parishes, building on audience relationships formed before the storm and the city's changed demographics after.

“Part of it was the audience following us, and part of it is the audience already being there,” she says, adding that the change of locations and the transportation of instruments and equipment has been a strong test of the musicians and the production staff.

May's Mahler performances provided an additional test; the instrumentation of the symphony requires additional orchestral forces, and freelance musicians from throughout the US came to town to beef up the LPO's core players. Many of the visiting players were people whom LPO members met during the evacuation. “It's a small way of saying thanks—inviting them to come play with us here,” Cohen says. “The person-to-person support, that part has just been incredible.”

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