August 29, 2005 — the newest of infamous days in US history. Hurricane Katrina roared ashore, leaving great destruction throughout the Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coasts. We had been through hurricane evacuations before. No big deal; you pack for two days, you grab your instruments and head north, east or west to wait it out. Although we didn’t know it immediately, this time was different. It had started out the same; we seemed to have dodged another storm and we all prepared to return to New Orleans and the opening of our 15th season. But then the levees failed and we watched in horror as the water rose, the holes widened, and the city of New Orleans went under water. For days we watched the pictures that showed the world the incredible destruction of one of America’s great cities, the awful personal toll on the people who had remained, and the images at the Super Dome and Convention Center. It was unimaginable.
The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) began from the ashes of the bankrupt New Orleans Symphony and was revived by its musicians. We learned our own strengths from that period of our lives. We were committed to the city of New Orleans. However, this time many of our orchestra members had lost their homes, their instruments, their music libraries and, perhaps even more importantly, their hope of returning to anything resembling normal life as they knew it before the storm.
No cell phones in the 504 (New Orleans) area code were working because the towers were down. It was very difficult to get in touch with anyone by phone. There was a sign on I-10 in Baton Rouge as you headed east: NEW ORLEANS CLOSED. It was so very sobering and sad. Curfews were in place in New Orleans. If you went there, you had to show identification, and you had to be out by 6 PM. The streets were patrolled by the National Guard.
Baton Rouge changed overnight as so many evacuees poured into the city. The same could be said for Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, and so many other cities. There are countless stories of trying to find housing, schools for kids, myriad business relocations… Would the changes be for a month? A year? Forever?
Several decisions were made quickly by the board president, remaining staff, and musician leadership. All believed that it was crucial to return as quickly as was feasible. If there ever were a time when an orchestra was needed, it was now; as soon as the city was viable, we wanted to be back in New Orleans.
For weeks we worked to find every member of the orchestra and assure that all were safe. Health and instrument insurances were put in place for the entire season. A Google family website was initiated as a way of contacting each other and sharing information about the orchestra plans, new addresses, and updates as people found work. An outpouring of support from the AFM in New York, ICSOM, ASOL, Drew McManus at Adaptistration, the personnel managers around the country, and other groups too numerous to mention was very helpful and, more importantly, a great morale lifter to all of the LPO members. Orchestras were asked to hire LPO musicians if at all possible without hurting the normal sub lists of those orchestras. Many of us were fortunate to find work; I spend some weeks in the Baltimore Symphony; it is a great orchestra. I was delighted to renew acquaintances with so many old friends and I made some new ones.
Many orchestras had their own fundraisers in support of the LPO or New Orleans musicians. Alan Valentine, executive director of the Nashville Symphony, stepped forward and organized a fundraising concert in Nashville with the LPO, members of the Nashville Symphony, our principal guest conductor, Klauspeter Seibel, and our music director designate, Carlos Miguel Prieto. Mark O’Conner donated both his time and talent as he performed on stage, and then again later at a reception with members of his group who had left a tour to help out. The Nashville musicians donated their time. Hotels and Nashville Symphony board members donated rooms and homes. American Airlines donated all of the flights to Nashville for the LPO musicians and staff. The bartenders in the lobby kindly donated the money in their tip jars. It was the first meeting of the orchestra since our final concerts in May 2005. The event was extraordinary; audience members who were evacuees from New Orleans came up to the stage with tears in their eyes. We shared stories of our own evacuations. We hugged. We cried. A lot.
Zarin Mehta called soon after and offered a similar event in New York. A great evening was planned with the help of Ben Rosen, a NY Phil board member originally from New Orleans. Indeed it was great. We played on the stage at Avery Fischer Hall in Lincoln Center with many members of the New York Philharmonic, who also donated their time during a very busy week. Lorin Maazel conducted, along with James Conlin, Leonard Slatkin (a former New Orleans Symphony Music Director), and Carlos Miguel Prieto. Beverly Sills emceed the event. Itzak Perlman played, Audra MacDonald and Randy Newman sang, and Wynton Marsalis brought a few of his musicians with him to perform a jazz set. It was, for the LPO musicians, a very special event, and one that we will never forget. Randy Newman sang Louisiana 1927; it has become an anthem of sorts for the city of New Orleans. Hotels and air were again donated. Local 802 in New York City was very helpful and supportive in helping to put the event together.
Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, called one day immediately following the storm and offered his help to the LPO. He has helped in so many ways: fundraising, of course, but also helping the orchestra to develop long-range planning in the face of so many unknowns. He has a great gift of management skills, humor, and imagination. We are honored to have his help, and I look forward to seeing the results of the planning committee.
People were able to move back to some New Orleans neighborhoods in October 2005. Eighty percent of the city lay in ruins; electricity was very slowly returning to some parts of the city and the streets were still patrolled by members of the National Guard. Babs Mollere, our Managing Director who had evacuated to Baton Rouge and whose house was badly flooded by the broken canals in New Orleans, worked from space donated by the Baton Rouge Symphony. From her corner in the office, she worked hard to plan a week of concerts at the beginning of the holiday season immediately following Thanksgiving.
The LPO returned to New Orleans to play a previously-planned memorial concert for Pat Tayor, a New Orleans oilman and philanthropist who had died the previous winter. The LPO proceeded with several holiday concerts in and around New Orleans. We all felt very strongly that the orchestra was needed more than ever after the hurricane. We had some existing contracts, and we wanted to perform holiday concerts in whatever halls were viable. Power had returned to some parts of the city. Music was in place, and chairs and stands were found.
Many members of the orchestra returned for the concerts in the first week of December. Many no longer had homes and were put up by others who were more fortunate. Many tears were shed as we all saw first-hand the destruction of so many homes, of the concert halls, and of the city that we loved. The pictures shown on television do not begin to describe the scenes in so many neighborhoods around the city. Tulane and Loyola Universities were in the process of cleaning up and finding their own student bodies, professors and staff, but they also found the ability to help us and donated to us the use of their halls. Those first concerts in New Orleans were so very special. The concerts were well attended by very appreciative audience members desperately needing an evening’s entertainment in an otherwise very messy and depressing time.Perhaps it is the sense of coming so close to losing something so necessary. It was crucial to erase the images we had seen at the Superdome and Convention Center. Is civilization really so easily lost? It seemed to be a very thin veneer as we watched the city – left helpless by the failures of all levels of government in that first week – fall quickly into chaos, looting, mayhem and murder.
Planning continued for a twelve-week season between March and the middle of May. We wanted to be part of rebuilding New Orleans; we wanted to salvage as much of the 15th season as possible. It is an important part of our mission to ensure that our subscribers always get the concerts for which they paid. In addition, we worked with orchestras around the country to allow evacuated LPO subscribers to attend their concerts to ensure that they could hear music when they needed and wanted to.
At least fifty percent of the LPO was able to return for the twelve weeks in New Orleans. We were joined by players from other orchestras, students in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, several players from the Baton Rouge Symphony, and friends who simply wanted to help. Conductors and artists donated their time and appearances.
I think the role of an orchestra is crucial to our communities. I think perhaps it is even more so post-Katrina. As human beings, we aspire to those things that make us better; we offer our music in the hope that we find solace for ourselves and for the city of New Orleans. We share our talents with our community just as we share our losses, and begin the rebuilding process. Together. An orchestra cannot survive without the support of all segments of the community.
We plan to return to New Orleans next September as we begin our 16th season and welcome our new music director, Carlos Miguel Prieto. We have planned a thirty-six week season, and are selling subscriptions with an obvious air of assumed success. Any other option is not acceptable. We simply must prevail. New Orleans is the birthplace of classical music in this country. It is unthinkable that the city will cease to exist. It is equally unthinkable that the orchestra will cease to exist.
The sign on I-10 was wrong. New Orleans is NOT closed.