Nashville, Tenn. (TN Tribune)–It’s been five months since we celebrated the Nashville Symphony’s first concert 75 years ago on December 10, 1956 at War Memorial Auditorium. The Musicians of the Nashville Symphony wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate by sharing memories and stories from a few of our former members plus one current member; all four of these Musicians spent 40 or more years performing for Nashville audiences. While Nashville Symphony’s Musicians have come from across the U.S. and numerous foreign countries to make Middle Tennessee their home, these four Musicians—Gene Mullins, Bill Wiggins, Ann Richards, and Gilbert Long—are native Nashvillians who also had a spouse connected to the orchestra, either as an NSO Musician or chorus member. We thank them for graciously sharing some of their special memories of how the Nashville Symphony has changed and flourished through the decades.
The one constant these past 75 years has been our Musicians, who are part of the Nashville community. Despite everything—a seven-week strike in 1985, an eight-month shutdown in 1988, or cancellation of an entire season in 2020-21 due to COVID—our Musicians continued to perform for the community. We presented concerts during every single work stoppage because we understand the importance of community service, and it was members of our own community that helped support and present many of those efforts.
Thanks to you—our Nashville family—for 75 years of support!
Gene Mullins left the Army in 1953 to attend Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt) where he met his wife Mary Anne Ridley Mullins, and joined the Nashville Symphony as Second Trombone during the 1953-54 season. Mary Anne was a versatile player—both string bass and tuba—and Gene admitted, “I had to carry both.” Mary Anne’s cousin Robert Ridley was the NSO’s first tubist; Mary Anne was its second and served in that position through the 1977-78 season for 25 years. Gene retired from the Nashville Symphony at the end of the 1993-94 season after 40 years, having worked with five Music Directors: Guy Taylor, Willis Page, Thor Johnson, Michael Charry, and Kenneth Schermerhorn.
In its first 10 years the NSO was “made up of lawyers, folks from Clarksville and Cookeville, faculty and students from Peabody, and townspeople. There weren’t many recording musicians yet,” according to Gene. “The only concerts the orchestra played were classical concerts; it was Thor [Johnson] who started the ‘Kinder’ Concerts and he also asked me to do arrangements of orchestra music for concerts that featured puppets.” Kinder Concerts later became Young People’s Concerts (YPCs), and of course Pops, Ballet, Opera and even small school ensembles were added in those next 30 years. “I really enjoyed working with Gil Long in the NSO’s Brass Quartet that performed in Metro Schools beginning in 1991.”
Gene has many memories such as the NSO recording with Willis Page at the Ryman, but he also sadly remembers the 1988 shutdown and bankruptcy that locked the orchestra out for eight months and reduced an orchestra of 86—almost entirely in the string section and nearly every titled string player—to 73 musicians.
Gene shared a few amusing performance stories: “We were rehearsing Carmina Burana and Guy Taylor couldn’t figure out what he was hearing. He’d start and then he’d hear this sound that wasn’t right. It turns out C.B. Hunt was also playing the notes in the time signature!” [Rather than writing the time signatures as 4/4 or 3/2, Orff put the number on top and the actual note value on the bottom so it could be 4 over a quarter note or 3 over a half note, etc.]
“We were rehearsing a Christmas Pops concert and the conductor decided the March of the Tin Soldiers was too long, so had everyone mark a new ending. In the concert the orchestra ended in the right place except one horn player who kept playing a few more bars until they realized it was over, so they played two ending notes and stopped!”
“A funny trick was played on Assistant Conductor Amerigo Marino when he was conducting Pines of Rome; when the recording of the birds was played during rehearsal, someone replaced the bird song with duck calls!”
Bill Wiggins very likely holds the record for the NSO’s longest tenure, having performed with the Nashville Symphony as an extra in 1967 while studying with Farrell Morris at Peabody College, then receiving a section percussion position contract in 1968 before moving into the Principal Timpani position in 1969, when Farrell Morris left the orchestra. Bill retired from the orchestra in 2015, having worked under the baton of Music Directors Willis Page, Thor Johnson, Michael Charry, Kenneth Schermerhorn, and Giancarlo Guerrero.
The orchestra he joined was a vastly different organization. According to Bill, “Services were held at War Memorial Auditorium; rehearsals were held in the evening during the workweek, and daytime on weekends, and concerts were scheduled on Monday and Tuesday evenings. The orchestra was filled with college professors, public school music teachers, lawyers, physicians, and freelance musicians. For the first four years in the orchestra, I was a fifth and sixth grade classroom teacher in the Metro Public Schools.”
During Thor Johnson’s tenure, a small core of players—the ‘Little Symphony’—moved closer to full-time employment thanks to funding from a three-year Ford Foundation matching grant that expired when the NSO chose not to continue funding it. While in existence, the Little Symphony toured extensively throughout the Mid-South and performed at New York’s Town Hall. During this period the recording scene exploded, so many of these full-time players left the orchestra to perform studio work, including Farrell Morris. When he left, Thor asked Bill to take Farrell’s position in the orchestra. Bill said, “I was very fortunate that Thor Johnson found favor with my work and potential. That was still a time when Conductors could hire and fire at will, very different than today! He was instrumental in my career. Thor was a fine musician and educator, but had numerous quirks and idiosyncrasies; among those was a habit of repeating instructions in threes. ‘Better, Better, Better’ became a frequent admonition which was repeated with humor among the musicians. He was also very gracious, frequently saying ‘thank you so much people’.”
Michael Charry’s five-year tenure included more full-time employment for musicians performing as quintets for school outreach concerts – “We saw lots of school cafeterias!” Kenneth Schermerhorn’s 25-year tenure included moving the orchestra from War Memorial to TPAC, recording, touring (Carnegie Hall and multiple Amy Grant Christmas tours), surviving a strike and shutdown, and the construction of the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. One of the most important changes during this period was the change from a multi-level/tiered contract orchestra to a completely full-time orchestra. During this time Bill shared, “2001 holds special importance to me because I had the opportunity to commission and perform Concerto Art Nouveau by my friend Daniel K. Sturm. The performances were held during the Percussive Arts Society International Convention, which I was hosting in Nashville. Playing on the front of the stage for our Nashville audiences, as well as for fellow percussionists from around the world, was truly memorable.” Another, came shortly after returning from completing his Master’s Degree at Northwestern University during the shutdown in 1988-89, when, Bill said, “I reconnected with my current spouse, Gay Hollins-Wiggins. She subsequently joined the Symphony Chorus and sang in the alto section for 25 years. We are celebrating our 30 yr. anniversary this year.”
Following Kenneth’s death, Interim-Music Advisor Leonard Slatkin led the orchestra in achieving their first Grammy Awards, which continued under Giancarlo Guerrero’s leadership. Bill admits, “For me it has been a wonderful and rewarding career in my home town. I have special memories of our tours (of concert halls and hockey arenas) and Carnegie Hall performances. These were especially significant events for the NSO and engendered a sense of unity and importance for the musicians of the NSO.”
Nashville-Native Ann Richards joined the Nashville Symphony as its Second Flute (this position was later upgraded to include Assistant Principal Flute) in 1977 and retired in 2017, having worked with Music Directors Michael Charry, Kenneth Schermerhorn, and Giancarlo Guerrero.
Ann remembers when she joined the orchestra, “It was a part-time orchestra because everyone had daytime jobs, so we worked on nights and weekends. There was also a lot of dissention among the younger Musicians who wanted full-time jobs. We performed Classical and Pops concerts, school concerts, outdoors and in parks, in churches and even a corn field.” She added, “Initially when I joined the orchestra, I was planning to commute from California, but then I saw the schedule and realized it wouldn’t be possible, so I moved back to Nashville.”
During her 40-year tenure, Ann married Assistant Principal Bass Glen Wanner, and their son Marcus—who was once an aspiring conductor—was instrumental in producing the composite Beethoven Sixth Symphony video production (i.e., Brady Bunch-style tiles) for the Musicians of the Nashville Symphony at the beginning of the COVID-19 furlough.
Ann observed that the biggest changes over 40 years were in the conditions. When she joined, the orchestra was part-time, but it then survived a strike, an eight-month shutdown and bankruptcy, and there were numerous contract negotiations that improved the Musicians’ wages and working conditions. Because many concerts were outdoors, Musicians began purchasing clip-on fans to attach to their music stands. “But”, she added, “the fans required electrical outlets so, combined with the stand lights, plugs were at a premium and all those fans were dimming the stand lights! So, then they used huge portable lights that were hot and attracted bugs! Thankfully over the years, the NSO bought a portable shell or play in amphitheaters, and many concerts transitioned indoors, so things got much better!”
“A low point, but also one of the funniest”, according to Ann, “was a concert at Montgomery Bell Park with Kenneth Schermerhorn. We were underneath a picnic covering, and there were vending machines behind the violin sections. Through the whole concert, audience members were walking up and buying drinks. At a particularly quiet place in the music at this very hot and uncomfortable concert, all anyone heard was the individual coins put in the machine and the clunk of the drink dispenser! The look on Kenneth’s face was priceless!”
For so long the Nashville Symphony had an image problem in the community. Ann said, “I can’t tell you how many times people didn’t know the Symphony paid us, or that it was a full-time job, or that the city even HAD an orchestra! We played nearly every community opening—the downtown library, the ‘bat’ building, the Frist, the football stadium, and many others—and that has really changed. There are still folks who ask about the orchestra, but it’s far less frequent than before.”
And of course, how we used to do daily activities improved as well. “Way before GPS and cell phones”, Ann added, “we had terrible problems with bad directions (that included missing street signs) to get to all the school concerts and runouts! People kept getting lost all the time because the directions were wrong; some people even ended up in Kentucky! I remember one time we were playing on a tiny stage in a Dickson County school, that could only be entered on one side. Musicians were all arriving late and at one point our Principal Trombone Larry Borden—whose stand was on the other side of the stage—entered before the next piece by following behind the four soloists as they were making their entrance to the front of the stage, almost as if it had been rehearsed, he then kept on going to get to his seat! The orchestra was in hysterics!”
Gilbert Long is only the third musician to serve as the Nashville Symphony’s Principal Tuba, having replaced Mary Anne Mullins in 1978. As a member of the NSO, Gil has worked with Music Directors Michael Charry, Kenneth Schermerhorn and Giancarlo Guerrero, but he also worked with Thor Johnson when he was a member of the Nashville Symphony Youth Orchestra. Gil has additional ties to the Nashville Symphony – his father Rufus Long, was the NSO’s Principal Flute in the early years of the orchestra’s history, and he met his wife Erin McGinnis Long when she was a first violinist with the orchestra.
He has seen huge changes to the orchestra’s schedule since the early days performing at War Memorial and accompanying the ballet at the Opry House. Moving to TPAC in the early 1980s finally offered a backstage area in which to put cases, warm up, and talk with colleagues. Gil said, “I remember doing a Pops concert and we could hear Dizzy Gillespie warming up backstage. We used to go to Huddle House (a restaurant across from the stage entrance) during breaks because there was nowhere else to go.” [War Memorial has one room at the bottom of the stairs and a corridor that wraps around the back of the stage – that’s it.]
Accepting the NSO position also meant agreeing to an interesting compensation model. “I had a salary of $5,000 when I joined the orchestra; the rest of it came from all the MPTF (Musicians Performance Trust Fund) school concerts we did every week that paid through the union.” He added, “we did four education concerts every week that were paid through MPTF and each one was a separate payment using a separate green sheet (the contract). I used to go to the accountant to do my taxes with a stack of W-4 forms just from those concerts!”
The past 40+ years has seen the expansion of every type of concert and some new additions too; Gil observed that “there is more of everything. In the beginning, there was no recording at all and now it’s different as we moved from sessions to live recordings. They’ve added movies too – they’re great.” But looking to times that really stuck out, Gil said, “the biggest were the strike and the lockout (the 1988 Bankruptcy). I remember being on stage with the strings playing the Barber Adagio on that last concert; everyone was crying – musicians and audience members – and I was thinking: this is it, will we ever come back again? I had just bought a new house and I turned on the TV to hear a news report that they were shutting us down.”
Some concerts are long gone, such as the Sunday evening summer concerts at Cheekwood. Those concerts are now performed indoors at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in June and July but Gil remembered, “they were the hottest concerts to play, it was so humid and the music was wet and it would roll up! We also played a couple concerts for a private party at Opryland sitting on the balconies—two to a balcony—in the Cascades. I remember waiting in occupied hotel rooms in the dark, waiting to appear suddenly above the audience below. We couldn’t hear anything or see anyone except the conductor standing on top of the gazebo conducting. It would end with Lee Greenwood performing Proud to be an American with the orchestra as fireworks fell from the glass ceiling; it was quite a spectacle!”