by Adam Pinsker, July, 2005
Kenneth Schermerhorn died on April 18 in Nashville, where he had been music director for 22 years. He was 75 years old. He had been active until just a few weeks before his death, when he was suddenly diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and died within a few weeks.
The New York Times in its obituary hailed him as an exacting conductor who was able to turn middle-tier regional groups into polished, nationally respected ensembles. It went on to praise his work with the New Jersey Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony and Nashville Symphony. It also mentioned his long association with American Ballet Theatre, with which he distinguished himself as one of the finest ballet conductors of the century.
It also mentioned his work with the Seventh Army Symphony, with which his ability to do such polishing was already manifest. He led the orchestra from April 1954 until April 1955. He had joined the orchestra as principal trumpet earlier. It was his good fortune to take over the orchestra just as it became a provisional company and was therefore able to collect a stable group of more than 70 musicians of caliber. He polished it sufficiently for James Conant, then American High Commissioner for Germany, to propose to Seventh Army Commanding General Anthony Nuts McAuliffe that the orchestra tour outside of Germany, too, and visit NATO countries. In addition to concerts in Germany and Austria, Ken led the orchestra on tours to France, Italy and Great Britain.
Ken was a hero in Nashville, even before his triumphant Carnegie Hall Concert with that orchestra in the fall of 2000, which Allan Kozinn of the New York Times called a knockout. In 2003 the board of the Nashville Symphony surprised him at the groundbreaking of the new concert hall by naming it the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
A memorial concert honoring him was held in Nashville on April 25 at the citys War Memorial Auditorium at four in the afternoon and was attended by abut 1500. Led by assistant conductor Byung-Hyun Rhee, the orchestra played the third movement of Beethovens Ninth; Edgar Meyer; Bela Fleck and Mark OConnor improvised a touching tribute; a superb quintet from the orchestra performed the slow movement from Schuberts C Major quintet and there were elegant remarks by Alan Valentine, the orchestras Executive Director, and the Mayor of Nashville, Bill Purcell.
The last work on the program was the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla from Wagners Das Rheingold. For this rousing and difficult piece no conductor appeared on the podium, just a spotlight. The orchestras performance was the greatest musical tribute to Ken, for it was as though the entire orchestra had channeled him. It was as stunning a performance of the music as I have ever heard. There were tears throughout the orchestra and the audience an unforgettable experience.
After the concert there was a reception for the entire audience in the courtyard of the War Memorial with generous potables and edibles, and champagne for all as Henry Fogel, president of the American symphony Orchestra League, offered a toast to Ken. The governor of Tennessee was also in attendance. Many members of Kens family were there including his sister, his former wives, three children and their spouses, five grandchildren and his companion, Martha R. Ingram
Ringing the large reception area were panels with photographs from every stage of his life supplied by his family. It was a glorious and moving display.
For those of us who had the good luck work with him, Ken was an inspiring musician who took and gave great joy in his music making. And for those lucky enough to have known him personally, he was a rare human being whose honesty, sense of humor, warmth and friendship will always be treasured.
The new Schermerhorn Symphony Center opened in Nashville on September 9, 2006. At the same time a book about Ken's life by his companion was published -- Kenneth Schermerhorn: He Will Always Be the Music, by Martha Rivers Ingram, together with D. B. Kellogg.