The Secret Lives of Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Musicians

So who, exactly, are those people in tuxedos and formal gowns playing in the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra? You might be surprised.

Norris Dryer, violinist/activist

photo by Shawn Poynter

Norris Dryer, violinist/activist

A SYMPHONY, YOU'D THINK, is no place for individualists.

The well-trained musicians of a symphony orchestra devote much of their lives to performing music written by other people. They dress alike, and keep their eyes on the conductor, following his gestures closely. They respond carefully, as they’ve been practicing for months. They cooperate tightly, to a degree extraordinary compared to almost all other professions. In performing the works of Stravisky or Dvorak, improvisation is not a virtue.

Watching a symphony is fascinating in the same way as watching a well-oiled threshing machine. At the ovation, they bow together, then leave the stage together. You might think they all live in a dorm in the bowels of the Tennessee Theatre, spend their days in monotonous practice, and live only for their moment to emerge on the stage and perform.

It does takes years to learn an instrument well enough to play for a symphony orchestra and the musicians of the KSO have that in common. The members of even a mid-market symphony like the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra are part of a national elite much smaller than the elite of, say, millionaires or Mayflower descendents. Maybe one in 50,000 Americans plays an instrument well enough to be a member of a symphony orchestra like Knoxville’s. It requires a lifetime of discipline, and from childhood to retirement, practice is a daily routine.

You’d think people who work so closely, in such tight order, who have been training all their lives and who practice so much, would be a lot alike. But after that last ovation, they’re on their own. And as it turns out that, when they’re free of the baton, the KSO is full of individualists. They might stand out in a crowd even if you didn’t know about their symphony association.

“The only thing that these 71 musicians have in common is having attained a certain proficiency on their instruments,” says violinist Norris Dryer. “Otherwise they’re as diverse as any group you’d pick out at the mall, or on Gay Street.”

The longtime KSO member, and longtime Knoxvillian—once among the most familiar voices on local public radio, he once ran for City Council—ought to know. But it’s not necessarily true. The more you talk to the KSO’s musicians, you get the impression maybe they’re a good deal more diverse and individualistic than the rest of us.

Dryer, who’s played violin with the symphony for 42 years and is the KSO’s second-most senior member, is a case in point. The former public-radio personality teaches violin in his downtown apartment. Many symphony members teach on the side; they’re professional musicians.

But the idea that the KSO is just as diverse as any random sample of Knoxvillians is an understatement. A random sample of 71 Knoxville garages, for example, is unlikely to disclose a single Volkswagen Thing, the jeep-like bug that enjoyed a brief vogue in the mid-1970s. If you see a VW Thing on the streets of Knoxville, bet that the guy behind the wheel is Norris Dryer. A random sample of 71 Knoxville political affiliations wouldn’t necessarily turn up a member of the Green Party, but, as it turns out, Dryer is the Knoxville Green Party’s coordinating chairman. The Knoxville Greens meet monthly, and to him and the other 196 Knox Countians who favored the Green Party ticket over both Obama and McCain in 2008, neither party takes environmental and other progressive issues nearly seriously enough.

“The only difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is how fast they fall to the feet of corporate America,” says Dryer, paraphrasing Ralph Nader. “It’s been said before, but we feel pretty strongly about it.”

The symphony contains the usual spectrum of political affiliation: some staunch Obama Democrats, some Republicans, one reportedly disgruntled former Republican Libertarian, and several who don’t much go in for politics.

There are atheists and agnostics in the symphony. There’s at least one hardcore fundamentalist Christian who takes a literal interpretation of the Scriptures and believes the Earth is only 6,000 years old. There are Unitarians, and Jews, a couple of Buddhists, at least one active member of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church, and one member of the strict Episcopal sect known as the Society of St. Francis. Several practice yoga or tai chi. One is rumored to be a Trekkie; our interviews did not disclose his or her identity.

Only 19 of the approximately 71 musicians are able to make the KSO their full-time professions, but more than half are professional musicians even outside the KSO, playing for other symphony organizations or teaching, either privately or in high schools or colleges. The faculty of the University of Tennessee is well represented in the symphony’s ranks.

But a couple are real-estate agents. French horn player Jennifer Crake is an especially aggressive one; as a Century 21 rep, she’s won several realtor awards over the last couple of years. Cellist Alice Stewart is a nurse practitioner in a neurology clinic. Violist Bill Pierce—from New York state, he originally came to Knoxville to play in the pit band at the 1982 World’s Fair—is a high-tech whiz, webmaster for a church and a musicians’ union, and has formed a Mac club. Bass player Steve Clark runs a veterinary clinic. Bass trombonist Brad McDougall is a home builder.

D. Scot Williams plays cello with the symphony, but he’s a professional cabinetmaker who has a full-time business working with wood. Lately he’s been in business building organs made to order; one of his organs is at St. James Episcopal on Broadway. Why would a cellist make organs? “I haven’t ever made a cello,” he says. “Probably never will. I don’t have the patience. It takes 26 to 30 weeks to make a cello.”

But his KSO bio ends that he’s “recognized internationally for his fly-tying abilities.” A rather serious fly fisherman—a Southerner, he intends to retire to Maine to chase the elusive landlocked salmon—Williams says, “I probably enjoy fly tying as much as fly fishing.” A few years ago, the English fishhook-manufacturer called Partidge of Redditch sponsored an international fly-tying contest. Williams submitted an invention of his own, the Little River Quill. The challenge was that contestants had to choose a specific pattern to tie, and then submit three. “That’s the hardest thing to do, if you’ve ever tied flies, is to tie three that look alike. So you tie 27 and pick the closest three.” Williams’ Quill won the transatlantic competition. It’s one of the cellist/carpenter’s proudest accomplishments.

He says fly fishing has absolutely nothing to do with music. “I don’t know if you’ve ever known a fly fisherman,” he says. “But it’s like drugs—I’ve heard.”

Sean Claire, violinist/swordsman

photo by Shawn Poynter

Sean Claire, violinist/swordsman

WE MAY BE FORGIVEN if we don’t always assume tuxedoes conceal the rippling sinews of an athlete, but symphonic performance on most instruments requires more physical stamina and strength than most downtown jobs do.

Several symphony members are competitive athletes, and a few take it beyond the realm of casual diversion. A few play tennis, with varying degrees of skill. Some KSO members warn that cellist Stacy Miller—still another of those who perform Celtic music on the side—is deadly on the tennis court.

Originally from California, Sean Claire is a Type A outdoorsman, hiking, mountain biking, and skiing at every opportunity. He’s also a member of the Knoxville Academy of the Blade. He spends a few hours a week fencing. His dangerous-sounding club competes in tournaments around the region, especially in Nashville and Atlanta.

Touted by some as a cigar aficionado, he demurs, and says he hasn’t been smoking that much lately, but mentions another avocation that seems to have been preoccupying him lately. “I’m a do-it-yourselfer,” he says. “I designed and built my own kitchen, tore out the walls and ceilings.”

Doesn’t demolition affect the delicacy of a violinists’ phrasing? “You have to be very careful,” says Claire, who occasionally has a solo. “That kind of work will slow your hands down. I’m not in my peak form” after a job, he admits.

Gary Sperl, clarinetist/Ironman

photo by Shawn Poynter

Gary Sperl, clarinetist/Ironman

As athletes, it’s unlikely that any can out-brag Gary Sperl. The KSO’s principal clarinettist is a marathoner. He’s completed 17 of the 26.2-mile races, including some of the toughest to qualify for—he’s done the legendary Boston Marathon four times, the New York Marathon six, and Washington, D.C.’s Marine Corps Marathon—as well as Knoxville’s, which he calls one of the hardest.

In his case, he didn’t pursue the avocation in spite of classical music, but because of it. He’d always been a casual runner, a mile or two, largely just to keep his lungs in shape for the long clarinet phrases. You don’t want to run out of breath in the middle of “Rhapsody in Blue.” All clarinettists need a deep breath, but some compositions are much more demanding of the lungs than others. Most of us don’t have to plan our projects more than a few weeks in advance, but in the early ’90s, then-conductor Kirk Trevor gave Sperl a two-year warning about an upcoming piece that was particularly demanding of the clarinettist. (Orchestra members live on a different calendar than the rest of us.) It was a particularly complex piece, Concerto for Clarinet, by contemporary composer John Corigliano. “It was demanding on every single front, including breath control, technical demands on the fingers, zillions of notes. It had some very long phrases.”

“I wanted to play it for somebody who would make me nervous, who’d make me challenged,” he says. So he called the composer himself, John Corigliano, one of a minority of composers the KSO features who’s actually alive. The composer agreed to meet him at Corigliano’s home in New York, and when Sperl visited in November, 2001. “It was just coincidence that it was the weekend of the New York Marathon,” he says. He had never witnessed such a thing. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, how can they possibly run 26.2 miles?’” He ran a little, himself, just a couple of miles a day to keep his lungs in shape, but had never considered a long competitive race, much less a marathon.

“After I took that two years off to learn that Corigliano piece, I thought, ‘Okay, now what. What’s my I next challenge?’” he asked, then answered: “‘I’m going to figure out how to run 26.2 miles.’” Back in Knoxville and in the Smokies, especially at Cades Cove and the following November ran his first marathon in New York. (Several musicians say symphony members tend to be intensely goal-oriented.)

It helped his playing only a little. “If you run two or three miles a day, it helps tremendously,” he says. “If you run 10 miles, it helps just a little bit more.” He was in the long-distance running business mainly for the challenge.

Not content to become a marathoner in middle age, Sperl also began dabbling in triathlons: specifically, Iron Man triathlons. He’s also completed three of those ordeals, which most of us first heard of as the jaw-dropping freak show on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. It involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle, and a 26.2-mile run. A lot of fitness buffs would think of themselves as unusually well-rounded athletes if they accomplished that much in a month, but Ironmen do all that on the same day. Sperl completed his first at age 56. “As the years go by, it’s tougher and tougher to compete,” he says. “I’ve never been particularly fast, but I have good endurance.

“I really enjoy the Ironman triathlons,” he says. “Or, rather, I enjoy the moment when you come around that last corner and see the finish line after hours and hours of doing all that stuff. There’s nothing like it.”

SANDE MACMORRAN IS A MARATHONER, too, but of a different sort. The KSO’s head tuba player, a veteran of the U.S. Army Band in D.C.—co-founder of the Army Brass Quintet—is a University of Tennessee professor of music, teaching tuba and euphonium for the last 36 years. He also races canoes.

“Flatwater racing,” as it’s known, is canoeing on rivers. Very different from rowing or sculling, it’s not a term you hear much hereabouts. “It’s a shame that Tennessee has no flatwater racing,” says MacMorran, with real pathos. He has canoed all over the country, especially in the upper Midwest, which seems to be the epicenter of the competitive sport. “This area has the most beautiful flatwater I’ve seen.” He canoes a lot on the Holston and French Broad Rivers. “It’s kind of funny. When I go out on the river, I’m by myself! You will not find any prettier flatwater than the French Broad and the Holston. And it’s almost right downtown! Beautiful water, beautiful water.”

In canoe-racing terms, a “marathon” is any race nine miles and up, and he’s finished several. The longest he’s done is a 22-miler, up in Michigan. He’s a serious competitor. In 2001, his two-man team placed fifth in a national canoeing championship.

He hasn’t been canoeing quite as much just lately; he bought a ca. 1900 Queen Anne cottage in Old North Knoxville, and an old house can keep even a tuba-playing marathoner busy on weekends. He picked the house in part because it’s within walking distance of Market Square’s farmer’s market; MacMorran is a Saturday-morning regular. That might qualify as a hint about another of MacMorran’s offbeat enthusiasm, but you still won’t be able to guess it.

One night a week, Sande MacMorran, the canoe racer, tuba instructor, and orchestral performer, works as a restaurant greeter. “I am a host at RouXbarb,” he says in the same tone that another might announce he was the Duke of Malta. “It is, as far as I’m concerned, a super gourmet restaurant. It’s completely different from music. I greet people, and seat them.”

He likes the accidental nature of the meetings in front of the small restaurant by the trestle on Northshore Drive. And he really likes being around the food. “One of my favorites is the pork tenderloin,” he says. “And the smoked duck—oh, golly.” He likes just being near these dishes, and the process of assembling them, eager to learn things he can try at home.

“It’s a hobby, and it’s an indulgence,” he says.

Eunsoon Lee-Corliss, violist/Korean epicurean

photo by Shawn Poynter

Eunsoon Lee-Corliss, violist/Korean epicurean

QUITE A FEW KSO PERFORMERS confess to a preoccupation with fine food—not just dining, but preparing. Even Maestro Richman says he cooks at home. At least one goes to some lengths to recreate the cuisine of a faraway country, from farm, of sorts, to table. Assistant principal violist Eunsoon Lee-Corliss grew up in Korea; one of her first regular gigs was with the Singapore Symphony. When fate landed her in Knoxville, she found herself adaptable. A lot of musicians seem to have restless minds. Most of us, perhaps after an obligatory foreign-language credit, tend to be content to lapse into monolingualism. Several KSO musicians are multi-lingual, and some seem bent on learning more.

Lee-Corliss spent some time learning French, but has lately been taking Spanish classes “in my spare time,” as if maybe she has any. Though the more you talk to musicians, the more you suspect they’ve found a way to conjure a few more hours in the day than the 24 allotted to most mortals. She’s lately taken up swing dancing. It doesn’t come naturally to someone who wasn’t raised with the Astaire-Rogers ideal, but, she says, “I’m trying to get used to it.”

One thing she couldn’t get used to, though, was American food. Memories of Korean food haunted her, and on that subject she is an epicurean. Some particular vegetables, she found, were hard to find here. On a recent trip home, her mother snuck back with some seeds she treasures. “I don’t know how she did it,” the violist says. With this assist from her mom, Eunsoon Lee-Corliss grows what sounds like a victory garden of Korean vegetables, a microcosmic plot of East Asian agriculture in her Knoxville yard: sesame leaves, red-leaf Korean lettuce, mugwort, and Korean zucchini. “It’s round and has a sweet taste to it.” She squeezes it through a loofah to make juice of it, and bakes it with honey, chestnuts, and dates.

A particularly rare backyard exotic is a Korean pepper called go-choo. It’s three-and-a-half inches long, very shiny, and doesn’t curl. She says it’s named for a slang term for boys’ genitals, which they are said to resemble.

“Korean people like hot things,” she says. She loves to make kim-chee, the Korean relish that’s kind of like jazzed-up sauerkraut.

But, married to an American, and raising three kids in Knoxville, she has learned to adapt. She also grows thyme, basil, and other more common herbs. Americans, she has learned, like Italian food.

RICHMAN SAYS MUSICIANS don’t have “careers,” exactly: “They have musical lives.” That’s the case with several, even, or especially, when they play well outside the classical repertoire.

Jill Allard, flutist (or flautist if you prefer) is originally from Houma, La., and the mother of twins; the Carson-Newman teacher loves to make gumbo with chicken, oysters, and andouille sausage—she says she has a hard time finding good andouille here, but she tries to make do.

When she’s not playing Bach with the KSO, she plays penny whistle, and also flute, for the Irish band Red Haired Mary. The six-piece Celtic band plays in various venues—they headlined a ticketed show at Laurel Theater earlier this month, but have played local bookstores and festivals, and seem to be especially appreciated doing the circuit of North Carolina’s folk schools.

Louisianans aren’t necessarily known for Celtic music, and Allard admits she had never been a particular fan. But when her friend, guitarist Amy Porter, joined the band, she asked, “Do you have a flute?” They didn’t. It seemed to her that an Irish band should have one. As if to help her friend’s Irish band be more authentic, she joined it. She’s grown fond of their repertoire, which tends toward contemporary takes on traditional airs.

Liz Farr, a KSO violinist who has occasionally also played harp with the orchestra, has her own very different Celtic-influenced act, Farr Horizons—aforementioned bassist D. Scot Williams is another member—which has played for a variety of quieter venues, public-television soundtracks, and has recorded a couple of CDs.

Allard’s not the biggest classical fan in the KSO. “On my iPod, which I’m addicted to, there are 8,000 songs. I only have about five classical pieces. I very rarely listen to classical tunes.” Like KSO keyboardist Carol Zinavage, she loves the Beatles. Zinavage recently made a pilgrimage to Liverpool, the Beatlemaniac’s Mecca.

Ayca Yayman, oboist/alt rocker

photo by Shawn Poynter

Ayca Yayman, oboist/alt rocker

AYCA YAYMAN PLAYS OBOE for the KSO. Though raised in Alabama, she’s three-quarters Turkish, and is enthusiastic about her ancestral cuisines. She loves to prepare dolma, the stuffed-grape-leaf delicacy. “The canned aren’t nearly as good.” She says she’s lucky to find most of what she needs at the Holy Land, the Arabic grocery on Sutherland Avenue. She likes a particular sort of chili called kirmizi biber, a chili rolled in olive oil and roasted and sometimes served as a dish in itself. “It’s hot, but not Mexican hot,” she says, adding that it’s a spice with a taste of its own, and a dish that has to be experienced to be understood.

She stays plenty busy with classical repertoire, the only musician we spoke with who’s a member of three symphony orchestras: she lives in Knoxville, but plays occasionally with the Birmingham-based Alabama Symphony as well as the Oak Ridge Symphony, for which she plays English horn. “It’s a bigger oboe,” she says. We caught up with her earlier up with her this Monday playing with the Bach Choral Society in Chattanooga, but by Tuesday, she was at the smoky Preservation Pub, with heavily percussive New York band Asa Ransom.

“I really like other music: rock and progressive, experimental,” she says. On the rare times she’s available to work with him, she plays with Angel Zuniga and his local rock band, as well as Jon Worley (an oboe in an offbeat blues combo) and with local hipster piano-rock band Hudson K.

Almost offhand she drops the fact that she worked with Nine Inch Nails, a band iconic to a post-punk generation. She appears on a recording they made in 2000, when she was living in New Orleans. (She doesn’t even remember the title of the track she recorded; she was invited to the release party, but couldn’t make it.) She has played some with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. But what she really likes is Wednesday nights at Sassy Ann’s, the Fourth and Gill nightclub that features improvisational sessions. “You have no idea what you’re going to play when you go there,” she says. “It’s very different from the orchestra.”

“There’s something really exciting about inventing something on the spot, and it really gelling into a mutually creative moment,” she says.

Andy Bryenton, cellist/jazz afficionado (with his band the Johnson Swingtet)

photo by Shawn Poynter

Andy Bryenton, cellist/jazz afficionado (with his band the Johnson Swingtet)

Andy Bryenton, the KSO’s principal cellist, does like classical music, especially chamber quartets by Beethoven and Brahms. But he’s done a lot of that over the years. “I just want to do other things with the cello besides playing mostly classical.”

He’s well known to habitues of downtown bars like the Bistro and the Crown & Goose as a regular member of the Johnson Swingtet, the string-jazz combo that conjures the erratic spirit of ’30s European innovators like Django Reinhardt.

“I’d heard that music before, but I thought it was unapproachable, it’s so complex-sounding. But it’s really just a simple form that is improvised on to the nth degree.”

He ended up in the band as a way to relax. “After a concert, I’m wired. I just can’t go to bed.” Sometimes he gets to play again, just down the street at the Bistro.

The Johnson Swingtet seemed an ideal accompaniment to the first in-process public opening of the S&W, their ’30s stylings harmonized with the historic cafeteria’s art-deco lines. They played a Rhythm and Roots festival in Bristol last month, and recently made a CD. Last week they became one of the first bands to perform live at the new Internet studio in Market Square, knoxivi.

Also a guitarist, he admires Leo Kottke and Richard Thompson, and had played with other local bands. Lately he’s been playing with Jeff Heiskell, former frontman of the Judybats, the oddball pop band that put Knoxville on the national indie-rock map about 20 years ago. Alongside others like guitar wizard Tim Lee, Bryenton appears on Heiskell’s latest effort, Clip-On Nose Ring.

“Jazz is free; it frees me from the strictness of classical.” Even rock can be restrictive, he says. “With jazz, when it’s your time to let loose, there’s a lot of freedom.” It may be relevant that several KSO members also play in the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.

Originally from Vermont, Bryenton attended school in the Northeast, where the division is stricter. Big-city orchestra members are sometimes discouraged from playing in other styles, he says. Big-city musicians perform so much, at home and on tour, they often don’t have lives outside of classical music. “It takes everything out of you,” he says. In a mid-market like Knoxville, symphony members take time for family—he and his wife have two teenage sons—and spend much of their off time like any parent, following their kids around to soccer practices and scout meetings.

“A good many players are parents,” he says, and refers to a miniature baby boom in the early ’90s, a phenomenon one may not expect might afflict a symphony orchestra.

Bryenton had noticed the KSO’s remarkable range of personalities before, and attributes it to the self-confidence that comes with having achieved something difficult. “There aren’t too many shrinking violets” in the symphony, he says. “Not many people who aren’t sure they’re in the right place. If they’re there it’s because they know they belong there.”

Several say they aren’t sure the Maestro knows what they’re all up to when he’s not looking. Bryenton noticed Richman in the Bistro once when the Johnson Swingtet was playing there. He left without offering commentary on his principal cellist’s other work.

But in a conversation he seems proud of his orchestra’s personal diversity. “The KSO is a melting pot of people who come to Knoxville from the far reaches of the Earth,” says Richman, who is himself from Pittsburgh. “The extraordinary thing about music is that it is another language. People of all these walks of life and different languages unite to speak this common language.”

The word “symphony” comes from Greek roots meaning “together, sound.” Few professions are required to cooperate in such tight order and at such high performance. But when the show’s over, the members of the KSO go back to the fascinatingly discordant business of being human beings.

© 2009 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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