Bringing Back the Music: New York Welcomes the Louisiana Philharmonic

October 29, 2005, 4:12 PM · Karen Sanno stood on a busy New York City sidewalk Friday afternoon, one half her worldly possessions in her hand.

"It's bittersweet," the Louisiana Philharmonic violinist said. "I've lost everything, but I get to play in the New York Philharmonic tonight."

For many musicians, a New York debut represents a dream fulfilled. But a nightmare brought the members of the Louisiana Philharmonic to Avery Fisher Hall last night. Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent New Orleans flood, left every member of the orchestra homeless, its season canceled, and the future of this musician-owned and operated symphony very much in doubt.

"We were on tour in Germany when the hurricane struck," New York Philharmonic violinist Fiona Simon said Friday night. "I think there was a certain resonance with 9/11. It is sort of a pathetic feeling to watch a disaster like this on CNN. We wanted to do something as an organization to help."

And so it did. The orchestra invited the LPO to Lincoln Center to share its stage, forgoing payment to perform a joint benefit to raise money for the LPO. Stagehands, airlines, hotel workers and tux shops donated time and merchandise to make the event happen.

"When you get the players in the New York Philharmonic giving, it sets the stage for a lot of other organizations to do this," Simon said. New Orleans' musical diaspora would come together again.

* * *

Opera legend Beverly Sills strode to a lectern, set at the edge of the Avery Fisher Hall stage. "A return to civilization is not just about bricks and water," said Sills, with the 130 musicians of the New York and Louisiana Philharmonics gathered behind her. "We also have to feed our souls."

Lorin Maazel opened the concert with Gershwin's noisy "Cuban Overture." Then a platoon of stagehands parted the violin section to make way for a grand piano. Broadway star Audra McDonald and songwriter Randy Newman emerged to join the orchestra for Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today."

"Broken windows and empty hallways," sang McDonald in a low and sobbing voice, "human kindness is overflowing."

Then Newman, who, like most of the LPO members, was making his New York Phil debut, took his turn at the mic.

"Some people got lost in the flood, some got away all right," sang Newman. The lyrics of his 1974 piece "Louisiana 1927" sound like they were written for today. "Louisiana, Louisiana, they're tryin' to wash us away."

* * *

"When I was breaking down my neighbor's apartment to get water..." LPO violinist Burt Callahan said, shaking his head and trailing off. "I've seen a lot of things you would never want to see."

Callahan, who rode out the hurricane in his St. Charles neighborhood apartment with his cat, Sparkles, has been staying in Whitehall, Montana with his friends.

"They're letting me become part of the family," he said. "Right now I'm in another world," he said after Friday's concert. "People are incredible to do these things to help. It's been an overwhelming experience."

Callahan and his stand partner, the NY Phil's Fiona Simon, left.

New York Phil President Zarin Mehta announced at the beginning of the concert that the benefit had raised almost $300,000 for the LPO. Listeners of a nationwide live radio broadcast then were encouraged to phone in pledges as well.

The LPO estimates that it needs between $850,000 and $1.1 million to fulfill its financial obligations for this canceled season, and survive. Simon said she hopes the efforts by the NYP musicians, board members, donors and audience inspire other cities to organize similar fundraisers for the LPO. After the concert, several LPO members spoke hopefully of future events with other orchestras.

* * *

The LPO last spring selected Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto to become the orchestra's new music director. Friday, he conducted the two orchestras in Copland's "Promise of Living," from the Tender Land Suite, eliciting a sound that made one imagine a hymn, but sung by 50 violins accompanied by the biggest church organ you've ever heard.

Itzhak Perlman, who had conducted a concert the night before, a concert that morning and a rehearsal in the afternoon, then treated the audience to the first movement of the Barber Violin Concerto, with James Conlon conducting. Barber is said to have meant the opening of the concerto to cushion the soloist like a "pillow of love," and on Friday night it was a very large and plush cushion indeed.

Following the intermission, McDonald returned, opening with "Somewhere" from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. The occasion gave the song's lyrics a poignant new meaning.

"There's a place for us, somewhere a place for us."

* * *

Violists Scott Slapin and Tanya Solomon walked into their flooded home between City Park and Gentilly in New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

"We saw stuff on T.V., but we weren't prepared," Slapin recalled, as he stood in his tuxedo in Lincoln Center after the concert. "Everything was covered in mold and slime. The couch was turned around, and on top of the treadmill. The bed had moved across the room. And the smell..."

Laurie Niles, Slapin and Solomon

"The smell was indescribable and unforgettable," Slapin said. "We had masks on, and Vicks under our noses. A half hour later, we were eating a meal, and the food still tasted like mold. You just can't get the smell out."

"There was no color anywhere," Solomon added, "Everything was grey, and nothing is alive, it's all dead."

"A tree blocked our driveway and broke part of our roof," Slapin said, "But we don't know where the tree came from. And the trees that were in our yard, we don't know where they went to."

The couple is currently living in a hotel in Birmingham, Alabama, where Slapin is playing in the Birmingham Symphony. But it is not the home they worked so hard on, and it doesn't feel like their place. They miss their friends in the LPO, and they miss their home.

* * *

New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis long ago found a new home in Manhattan. And the New York crowd welcome the jazz legend on to the stage with a roar. Marsalis responded with a whistle.

That whistle morphed into backdrop of sound from his combo for his wide range of trumpet tune. After that came a very, very fast and wild ride. A check against a wristwatch clocked the metronome at a quarter=150, so those sixteenths he was playing (and it did not seem like an easy, repetitive pattern) were humming along at 600!

The last piece scheduled for the evening was Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." Would they end the evening with no strings? Orchestras often play an abbreviated version with only percussion and brass. But this was the entire movement from Copland's Symphony No. 3, elegantly conducted by Leonard Slatkin.

The piece starts like the Fanfare for the Common Man that we all know, with the pounding timpani and majestic brass. But then the timpani rolls away, like thunder becoming distant, a storm going away. The violas enter, then woodwinds, then an industrious little wickedly hard fugue for the strings.

Strength lies in so much more than the volume of the brass and the force of the drums, though the raw power of that is compelling. It is when every single voice makes its contribution that our "Fanfare for the Common Man" makes its clearest and most compelling utterance.

The orchestra responded to multiple ovations with " a few treats," in the words of Slatkin. Without a conductor, the orchestra played Bernstein's Overture to Candide. The piece has enough transitions and tempo changes to make this a bit of a feat, at least to do it well, despite the fact that most orchestral players have had it in their fingers since high school. How did they do it?

They listened to each other.

The musicians of the LPO hope to listen to one another again, and soon. "But tomorrow morning, we scatter," Sanno said. LPO musicians are currently living in Florida, Delaware, Seattle, Illinois, California, Montana, even Japan. "Literally everywhere."

"It was so overwhelming to see everybody," Sanno said. "These people have become my family since I moved to New Orleans eight years ago. All of a sudden, they were scattered."

"Even though this is wonderful, I think that any of us would trade this for having our normal lives back."

To contribute to the LPO Relief Fund, visit


October 29, 2005 at 11:26 PM · I was in NYC friday afternoon. It would have been really neat if I met up with you!


October 30, 2005 at 03:18 AM · Back during the N.O. hubub they played a string quartet by Wynton and he was talking about the difficult problem of getting a groove feel into a classical style piece and how he solved it. It was great, and not the kind of thing you might expect. Also, he played a trumpet concerto. The cadenza was improvised of course. Dynamite! You're in my favorite place in the world - have fun.

October 30, 2005 at 03:37 AM · Laurie, that was truly inspiring. Your journalism background shines. I like your description of Fanfare for the Common Man. The strength is not determined by who plays the loudest, but by the commingling of many voices. (I wish all of life were like that.) Many things you wrote about were touching, but the strongest, for me, was the donation of services by nonmusicians (hotel workers, etc.) Disasters usually bring out the best and worst in people. You've shared some of the best with us. Thanks!

October 30, 2005 at 05:34 PM · Laurie,

Thank you so much for this. It's really difficult for many of us, even seeing pictures and hearing testimony as to how bad things really are. We all watch the news and secretly are glad that it's not us that went through that, but it's nice to see so many wonderful people taking action to help out these people. Among all of the hatred and violence in the world today, it's good to know that there is still some genuine care and generosity left somewhere.


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