The night was beautiful.
The weather was perfect. The crowd that descended on Tom Lee Park for the last-ever Sunset Symphony was enormous. And they say that the fireworks display that closed this year's Memphis In May (MIM) festival was the largest pyrotechnic show the city has ever witnessed.
That last bit may very well be true, but as impressive as the fireworks were, the night's biggest bang wasn't launched from a cannon set up behind the stage. It was delivered by conductor Mei-Ann Chen and the musicians of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO), who tore through a diverse selection of patriotic anthems, popular favorites, and classical crowd pleasers, pulling out the stops at every turn.
Earlier this year, Memphis In May President and CEO Jim Holt announced that the Sunset Symphony, a festival tradition since 1977, was being discontinued. The concert, he said, had reached the end of its natural life span and would be replaced by a new, more participatory event that won't be announced until sometime in the first quarter of 2016.
So, for their 39th, and possibly final riverside concert for Memphis In May, the MSO packed the park front to back and gave the diverse and multigenerational crowd a generous taste of what they'll be missing in the years to come.
"For me, this kind of program isn't just about the kinds of things we love as lovers of classical music," Chen said, explaining her method for selecting the appropriate sunset material. Chen has proven to be an especially thoughtful music director, who worked with Memphis In May to develop a nostalgic program that satisfied expectations, while still leaving room for some surprises.
"It's about the community and creating a memorable concert experience for the widest audience we ever reach. It's about creating that rich communal experience and doing whatever it takes," Chen added.
In this case, Chen thought the appropriate communal listening experience required a healthy mix of familiar classical works, like Rossini's "William Tell Overture," some of the more romantic passages from Bizet's Carmen, and three selections from Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet. The last Sunset Symphony also saw the return of popular favorites such as "Old Man River" and George Gershwin's "Summertime," as sung by Memphis-based soprano Kallen Esperian. Even piano-pounding Senator Lamar Alexander, who wowed MIM crowds back in 2008, showed up to play a medley of Memphis songs backed by the MSO.
"I'm here because I play piano just a little bit better than other senators and governors," Alexander quipped modestly, as he sat down to the keyboard, name-checking the recently deceased B.B. King and reminding Memphis of the tremendous cultural gifts the city has given the world.
Not only was this year's concert the last Sunset Symphony, it also marked the first and only time that Chen, a dynamic rising star in the world of classical music, has conducted at the event. "I did make it clear to [Memphis In May] that I would like to do at least one Sunset Symphony before I wrapped up my tenure," Chen said, explaining that she often books guest conductor gigs several years in advance, and May is a popular month for scheduling concerts.
"We didn't know at the time this was scheduled that this concert was also going to be the sunset for the Sunset Symphony. But I am so honored and grateful that, at least, I get to close the door. It's such an honor to be on the podium for such an important, historic event, even though it's bittersweet."
The event was more bitter than sweet, in some regards. In February of this year, Chen, a highly sought after guest artist with an explosive and theatrically charged conducting style, announced that she would also be leaving the MSO when her contract ends in 2016. "But Memphis will always be home," Chen said. "I will always come back.
"And I want to also let people know," she said, "that even though the Sunset Symphony is ending, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra is always going to be here serving our community through incredible concerts.
"We've got so many talented musicians, and they are indispensable assets to our community. That's why I also wanted to build into this [concert] music that would showcase the musicians before I wrap up my tenure here."
The MSO's CEO Roland Valliere has only lived in Memphis for 18 months or so, but he has a strong sense for what the event has meant to the city and faith that the MSO will find newer and better ways to connect to the community.
"The Sunset Symphony has been a signature event for the orchestra for a period of time," he says. "It has been an opportunity for the orchestra to reach a broad segment of the community, and it's something the community greatly enjoys," Valliere said.
For many Memphians, he added, the Sunset Symphony and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra have become synonymous. "We're exploring other possibilities, having active conversations about what might happen next, but we're not prepared to announce anything definitive as of yet. Still, we are optimistic and encouraged about the future of this event or something similar."
Although the MSO has depleted its modest endowment and continues to struggle financially, Valliere has good reasons to be optimistic.
"A year ago, the orchestra was faced with some significant challenges, but we have made remarkable progress," he said, while allowing that the musicians have taken steep pay cuts and were "extraordinarily impacted" by changes as the organization shifted into austerity mode.
"But the community has really responded," Valliere said. "Now we have some cash and some time. So we're in a much better place than we were a year ago. We're not out of the woods, but we're on the path out of the woods."
The Sunset Symphony has always had a patriotic edge, coming as it usually does on Memorial Day weekend. From the roar of retired war planes in the traditional airshow to the rousing strains of a John Philip Sousa march to usher in the closing fireworks, it has remained an old-fashioned community picnic.
Until he retired in 1998, bass-baritone James Hyter entertained the Sunset Symphony's diverse crowds with multiple encores of "Old Man River," the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein classic contrasting the hard life of African Americans with the slow-moving Mississippi River's endless ambivalence.
"You take the high note, and I'll take the low note," he'd say, encouraging the audience to sing along.
The song was powerfully revived by baritone Richard Todd Payne, who, like Hyter before him, was brought back for repeat performances.
"After 'Old Man River,' nothing can follow that," Chen said. Nothing except for a reprise of "Glory," the recent Golden Globe-winning theme song to the civil rights film Selma. The MSO, which had performed "Glory" in April at the National Civil Rights Museum with rapper Al Kapone, made the protest song its parting shot, prior to the "1812 Overture."
"Resistance is us," Kapone chanted, in what may have been the most socially relevant moment in the history of the traditionally conservative Sunset Symphony. "That's why Rosa sat on the bus. That's why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up." Like Payne before them, Kapone and baritone Donald O'Connor were brought back for an encore.
Then, as it has for 39 years, the Sunset Symphony ended with the "1812 Overture" and "Stars and Stripes Forever," while fireworks lit up the night.
Then it ended it for good. The music faded, the trucks selling funnel cakes rolled away, the families milled back to their cars. But old man river just kept rolling along.