Pitch perfect

Even though we got a few sprinkles of rain today, it didn’t do much to soften up the ground.

I know; in the past couple of days, I’ve put out three yard signs for the upcoming “Symphony At The Celebration” concert. I have five to put out, but it’s been an incredibly busy week at work, and I’ve only had time to put out three of them. And I’m scared I didn’t do a good job with two of those; the ground is so hard that the little wire stands tended to bend rather than punch through the dirt.

I need to put one of my remaining signs somewhere on North Main Street. I need to ask Dawn for a suggestion, if I can get in touch with her.

Dawn Holley is the long-time chair of the local steering committee for the concert. Up until this year, my title has always been “publicity chairman.” This year, Dawn and I are co-chairs, and Dawn is at a conference this week, so I found myself attempting to stamp pipecleaner signs into what feels like the Bonneville Salt Flats.

No matter. We’re already getting the word out about the concert. Next Tuesday, I’m driving to Tullahoma to appear on a community access cable TV program to discuss it. I’ve been sending out press releases, and two different radio stations are giving tickets away. (It’s not that pricey a giveaway item – adult general admission is $5, and children or students of any age don’t even need a ticket.)

If you haven’t been around me for more than 15 seconds, I have to explain that this symphony concert is one of the great passions of my adult life. The Nashville Symphony has been coming to Shelbyville annually since 1989 (there was, at one point, a year-and-a-half gap when we switched from a fall concert to a spring concert). I attended the very first concert – I think I’ve attended all of the official public concerts – and wrote about it in the newspaper. But it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I became actively involved. The concert had been started by one of our local industries, but when that industry changed hands they dialed back their support and a bank stepped in. The bank was then known as First American Bank, and the late Scott McDonald was its president. Scott was the one who invited me to be a part of the steering committee. A year or two after that, Bedford County Arts Council got involved, and that was how Dawn came into the picture.

Scott McDonald, one of the most community-minded men it’s been my privilege to know, had a vision of the concert as an educational tool. That vision has become even more of a reality in recent years. For the past six concerts, including the one that will take place this month, we’ve rotated among Bedford County’s three public high schools, all of which now have fine band programs. This year, it’s Shelbyville Central High School’s turn. During the first half of the program, the Nashville Symphony plays, and then – just before intermission – the high school band gets to perform a few selections.

After intermission, the symphony plays some more, and then – for the big grand finale – the symphony and the high school band play together on two or three selections, always ending with “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Traditionally, the piccolo player from the high school band gets to take the solo.

The whole evening is intended to be casual and family-friendly. It takes place inside Calsonic Arena, on the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration grounds, but it has the feel of an outdoor concert. There’s an art show on the arena concourse, with everything from professional paintings and sculpture to crayon drawings by elementary school kids. The Motlow State Community College jazz band performs an hour before the concert proper. Last year, we added the Nashville Symphony’s “instrument petting zoo,” and I deeply regret that Scott was never able to see this, because he’d have been thrilled by it. Trained volunteers are stationed at tables with real symphonic instruments, and kids (or adults, for that matter) are able to pick them up, see how they work, and try them out. I dare you to watch this and not smile. Two years ago, we planned to have the petting zoo, but the Nashville floods – just a week before the concert! – destroyed the instruments used for the program. Last year, we had hoped to have things set up outside the arena, but the threat of rain forced us to use a meeting room inside. This year, we’re hoping for our original plan of having the tables set up outside, so that parents and kids will see the instruments as they arrive and get to try them on their way into the building.

We’ve had some wonderful symphony conductors in the history of the Shelbyville concert, including Karen Lynne Deal and Byung-Hyun Rhee. For five of the past six concerts, however, we’ve been thrilled to have Albert-George Schram, who normally conducts the Nashville Symphony’s pops concerts in Nashville. (I think it’s a mark of the symphony’s special affection for this concert that we get Maestro Schram, who doesn’t do most of the other community concerts.) Maestro Schram, a native of the Netherlands, is funny and accessible, which is really important for a setting where there are a lot of kids and adults in the audience attending their first-ever symphony concert.  I love getting to Calsonic Arena on the afternoon of the concert early enough to watch him rehearse with the high school band. That’s the first time the kids get to rehearse under Maestro Schram’s direction – and they don’t actually get to rehearse with the symphony at all. The actual tandem performance is the first time they get to play together with the symphony.

I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to ramble this much. I guess you can tell how much I love this concert, and how proud I am to have played even a small part in its history and development. As I approach a round-number birthday next week, there are aspects of my life in which I’m disappointed and for which I blame myself. This is not one of them.

Anyway, if you’re within driving distance of Shelbyville and would like to see the show, we’d love to have you. We always have a good crowd, but due to the arena’s generous seating capacity we always have tickets at the door. (I take that back – last year or the previous year we ran out of physical tickets, but we’ve never run out of actual seats.)

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John Carney is a journalist, a certified United Methodist lay speaker, a veteran of foreign and domestic short-term mission trips, and author of a self-published novel, Soapstone.