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Louisiana Philharmonic reunites in Nashville

First time the orchestra has played together since Hurricane Katrina
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even before Hurricane Katrina devastated its home city and its audience, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra was known for its resilience.

It was formed around Ann Cohen’s kitchen table after its predecessor, the New Orleans Symphony, went bankrupt and folded in 1991.

Cohen, a cellist, and other musicians from the defunct group reorganized as the only full-time orchestra in the country that’s owned and operated by its musicians.

They sold their own tickets and enlisted friends to conduct, and it continued that way until Katrina blew in and put the future of New Orleans and its orchestra in peril.

On Tuesday, the orchestra will meet in Nashville for its first performance since the storm scattered its members across the country.

“I’m expecting it to be pretty much of a three-hanky kind of show,” said Cohen, who’s been staying in the Chicago area since the hurricane.

‘We take turns helping each other’The 68-member Louisiana Philharmonic was to open its concert season at the ornate Orpheum Theater on Sept. 15, but the venue, like most of the city, was flooded and may be lost for the season.

Like many of the musicians, Cohen, 54, still doesn’t know the condition of her home. She escaped with her cello, baby pictures of her three children and some other valuables. She doesn’t know when she’ll return.

“There are three other players up here. We take turns helping each other. The emotions come and go and range from ‘Oh, my God’ to ‘We’re on vacation up here in Chicago and have to go back to the real world,’ but we’re not sure where the real world is.”

She and some others have found temporary work with other orchestras, in her case the Baltimore Symphony.

Members keep in touch through e-mails, Internet chat sites and phone calls, often passing along gig possibilities.

“It’s very much a family, and we do take care of each other,” Cohen said.

The Nashville performance, which was organized by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, is expected to raise more than $50,000 for the Louisiana Philharmonic.

American Airlines donated flights and the Renaissance Hotel will house the musicians for three of the four nights they’ll be in town, with Nashville Symphony members and staff providing housing for the additional night.

Nashville reaches outAbout 60 of the 68 members made it to Nashville. They filled a stage at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center during the first of two rehearsals Monday. Music director designate Carlos Miguel Prieto led them through Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, a dramatic piece composed while Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was sending millions to forced labor and execution.

Like everyone else who saw the images of New Orleans in ruins, the Nashville Symphony wanted to do something. At first they considered donating proceeds from a concert, but they found greater value — emotionally and symbolically — in bringing the orchestra together.

“It’s giving them an opportunity to see each other, to make music together once again and to talk about their future,” said Alan Valentine, president of the Nashville Symphony.

About 460 miles apart, Nashville and New Orleans are about the same size in population and, most strikingly, have musical heritages: Nashville in country and New Orleans in jazz.

Both genres are represented in Tuesday’s program.

But the soul of the program will be Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and the third movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 — two works organizers say capture the spirit of New Orleans as it begins to rebuild.

“It’s a piece that starts very dramatically and one that ends victoriously,” Prieto said of Shostakovich’s symphony. “It tells a story of human accomplishment and human strength — the kind that arise from terrible times. It is a stern piece but a suitable piece.”

Likewise, Beethoven’s symphony is a comforting piece that speaks to the humanity of mankind.

Despite the hardships, Louisiana Philharmonic members say the orchestra will survive — must survive — for the city to become whole again.   “I haven’t heard of anybody saying anything about giving up,” said Karen Sanno, a 34-year-old violinist who’s been living in Chicago since the storm. “I think the extreme musician involvement really works for us in this case because everyone has so much invested in this. I don’t see us not existing.”