NASHVILLE– Kenneth Schermerhorn, the Nashville Symphony’s music director and conductor who led the orchestra to national, even international prominence during a remarkable 22-year tenure, died early this morning at the age of 75 after a brief battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
An icon of the performing arts in Nashville whose influence will be felt for generations, Maestro Schermerhorn personified the city’s artistic accomplishments and aspirations. Like the city he adopted, the Maestro was a marvelous mixture of bravado and kindness, tradition and openness, seriousness and laughter. Like the world-class concert hall named in his honor that is now rising in downtown Nashville, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, he accepted no compromises in an unrelenting dedication to excellence.
But most of all, he was a man of passion – a man who opened himself up to life, enthusiastically gathering experience and knowledge and passing it on to others.
"Kenneth touched the lives of so many at the Nashville Symphony. Whether offering insights into a piece of music or sharing stories about his grandchildren, he exuded kindness and passion,” says Nashville Symphony President and CEO Alan D. Valentine. “He had a love of life that many of us found awe-inspiring. With Kenneth, even the simple things – like eating an artichoke or strolling along a beach – seemed better.”
He will be missed by all whose life he touched. This includes not just individuals, but entire organizations such as Nashville Ballet, Nashville Opera, the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville Public Schools and others that benefited from the strong Nashville Symphony he created.
Under Maestro Schermerhorn’s leadership, the Symphony recorded CDs that broke international sales records and garnered Grammy nominations and critical praise from the world’s most prestigious classical music writers and publications. It undertook its first East Coast Tour, which generated standing-room-only crowds and culminated in a stunning debut at Carnegie Hall in 2000. It has been seen and heard by the nation through numerous national television and radio broadcasts, including a 2003 Fourth of July concert conducted by Maestro Schermerhorn which was broadcast on the A&E cable television network.
He was so good at what he did because he loved it so much. “Even before I knew what a musician was, I knew that was what I wanted to be,” he told the South China Morning Post in 1984. “When I heard music, I just couldn’t stop dancing.”
Studying clarinet, violin and trumpet at school in Schenectady, New York, where he was born on Nov. 20, 1929, Maestro Schermerhorn became a professional musician before he was old enough to drive – forging a baptismal certificate so that, at age 14, he could join a dance band that played in nightclubs where minors weren’t allowed. He soon formed his own five-piece band, “The Blue Moods,” in which he sang lead and played the trumpet.
At age 17, he was admitted to one of the most prestigious musical institutions in the nation, The New England Conservatory of Music. Four years later, in 1950, he graduated with honors and went on to play trumpet with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Kansas City Philharmonic and several other orchestras before being drafted.
While serving with the U.S. Army in Germany, Maestro Schermerhorn was appointed in 1953 as music director and conductor of the U.S. Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra. “How did the U.S. Army come to have a symphony orchestra in Germany?” the Maestro asked. “One day a local bürgermeister was talking to the general of the Seventh Army about how wonderful German culture is compared to American culture. The general said, ‘We have plenty of culture. For instance, our Army has a symphony orchestra.’ Well, the next day the order went out to form a symphony orchestra and I found myself conducting a group of soldiers who turned out to be graduates of very good music schools – Julliard, the New England Conservatory and the like. It was great fun.”
It was his first conducting position – and it not only took him on tours of Germany, Italy, Britain and France, but also brought him the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Medal and the Harriet Cohen International Award for Young Conductors.
After leaving the service, the gifted young conductor soon found himself working with one of the greatest American conductors of his generation, or, indeed, of any generation: Leonard Bernstein. Maestro Schermerhorn studied and played under Bernstein at Tanglewood, where he received the coveted Serge Koussevisky Memorial Conducting Award two consecutive years, and later served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic when it was led by Bernstein.
“Leonard Bernstein was one of the most gifted, capable, fascinating, diverse, scholarly, energetic, successful musicians I will ever know,” Maestro Schermerhorn said. “He was my first real and certainly my most important teacher.”
Between Tanglewood and the New York Philharmonic, Maestro Schermerhorn was appointed music director of the American Ballet Theater when he was just 28 years old – a quite impressive position for someone so young. He held this position from 1957 to 1968, and then returned to the company from 1982 to 1984 at the request of then artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov.
In 1968, upon his first departure from the American Ballet Theater, Maestro Schermerhorn was named music director and conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. During his 12-year tenure there, he conducted the orchestra in its critically acclaimed Carnegie Hall debut and in numerous return engagements, and led it on eight national tours and two foreign tours. During this same period, he was awarded the Sibelius Medal in 1979 from the Finnish government for his outstanding performance of works by Sibelius. An earlier position held by the Maestro was music director of the New Jersey Symphony, where he is credited with its development into one of the country’s leading orchestras.
Before joining the Nashville Symphony as music director and conductor in 1983, Maestro Schermerhorn spent two years in New York composing, teaching and guest conducting opera, ballet and symphony performances on four continents. The Maestro wrote numerous classical compositions during his life, before, during and after this time in New York.
During his time in New York, the Maestro also served as music director of the Hong Kong Philharmonic and simultaneously as interim music advisor to the Nashville Symphony, where he had been hired to help the orchestra look for a new conductor.
"I was on the selection committee at the time,” said Symphony Board Chairman Martha Ingram. “Kenneth Schermerhorn brought such excitement to the orchestra and to the audience, and I remember asking him, ‘Why don’t we just hire you?’ And he smiled as if he liked the idea. The rest is history.”
Maestro Schermerhorn is survived by his daughter and son-in-law Erica and Glen Ancona, another daughter and son-in-law, Veronica and Robert Chasanoff, his son and daughter-in-law, Stefan and Kathryn Schermerhorn, his sister, Lenore Schermerhorn, his grandchildren, Riley DeWitt Ancona, Daphne Louise Ancona, Kory Beth Ancona, Brian K. Chasanoff, and Jamie Leigh Chasanoff, and by his long time friend, Martha R. Ingram. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center Memorial Fund, c/o The Nashville Symphony, 2000 Glen Echo Rd., Suite 204, Nashville, Tenn. 37215. A memorial concert and service will be held in honor of Maestro Schermerhorn on Monday, April 25, 2005 at 4:00 p.m. at War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, TN.