Grand Ole Symphony Hall

The interior of David M. Schwarz’s slightly countrified neo-classical Schermerhorn Symphony Center, the new $120 million home for the Nashville Symphony, which opens in September, makes me think of a fancy bordello in a colorful frontier town. With its lyre-patterned nickel silver reliefs that could be mistaken for horseshoes and pale green palette strongly encouraged by a major donor, I imagine ladies with rosy cheeks standing in the doorways on its three tiers of balconies wearing long frilly gowns and mustachioed men tumbling over the railings.

It’s a cliché, but one I think of with a lot of affection—and anyway, so is the idea of building a temple to classical music with grandiose columns, colonnades, and cornices. It brings to mind immortal Tennessee-native Dolly Parton’s affinity for trashiness, which she described on Kurt Anderson’s radio show as rooted in “a little country girl’s idea of what glamour was.” There’s something endearingly earnest and literal about it—even the nice lyrical touches, such as state flowers on the pediments and railings, express the building’s function and meaning in a simple one-to-one relationship.

The other odd thing about the symphony center is the awkward positioning of its ceremonial entrance, which is turned away from the square it sits on as if it were slightly ashamed to face the adjacent Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Gaylord Entertainment Center, and Nashville Hilton. In fact, the whole square—with its four monumental structures built to revitalize the downtown area—appear to be plopped down next to each other without a plan or effort to reconcile their giant scale with the lively strip of honkytonks a block away. Admittedly, the new symphony hall stands next to the Shelby Street pedestrian bridge—a century-old truss bridge renovated in 2003 to connect the Tennessee Titans’ football stadium to the downtown area—and theoretically as the area continues to be redeveloped, the pieces will begin to feel more integrated.

Despite the nostalgiac architecture and lack of attention to urban design, a great deal of thought and money was devoted to the Schermerhorn—in particular to sound quality, with the help of Norwalk, Connecticut-based Akustiks and theater planners Fisher Dachs Associates. Every interior detail—from the number of seats and size of the hall to articulations on the railings and friezes on the walls—was designed to produce the ideal setting for non-amplified music. Along with savvy technical features such as a mechanized system of retractable risers that quickly convert rows of plush chairs into a flat room for pops concerts and special events, the small details are likely to pay off in a big way for concertgoers and management alike.

I doubt the Schermerhorn Symphony Center will turn Nashville into an international mecca for classical music. But along with the overall efforts to revitalize the downtown area and the preservation of historic sites such as the 1950s rock and roll recording studios on Music Row and the Grand Ole Opry, it adds yet another venue to Nashville’s already ample number of attractions for music lovers.

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