Today’s Feature, January 30-31: Paul Gambill

January 31, 2008 at 9:35 pm (Today's Feature)


Combining a love for the French horn with a passion to create original and powerful compositions, Music Director Paul Gambill founded the Cumberland Chamber Orchestra in 1990. In 1997 however, it became the Nashville Chamber Orchestra… and eventually and finally, it is known today as Orchestra Nashville. While the name has changed, the mission remains the same: “To engage and inspire audiences and musicians with the innovative presentation of traditional classical repertory and new music that celebrates Nashville’s eclectic music community.”

Gambill does more than celebrate music through the richness and vigor of his orchestra; he also finds new ways to create “Music without Boundaries.” This style of musical programming goes through commissions (36 works in the past 10 years) with composers that can “integrate folk, jazz and world music with orchestra performance practice” to form a truly innovative sound. The approach began with the success of their first commission of cross-genre music, “Blackberry Winter,” a concerto for mountain dulcimer and strings by Conni Ellisor with David Schnaufer. The style challenges one’s expectations on what an orchestra should be, ultimately proving that “it’s limited by only the scope of our imaginations.”

This work certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed, attracting “recordings for major record labels, national concert broadcasts on NPR’s Performance Today, an ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, and feature length profiles in SYMPHONY and Eastman Notes magazines.” But there’s something more to the music for Gambill and Orchestra Nashville. They empower their audience by inviting them into the artists’ studio with their “Uncovered” project, as well as provide for them though the “ENCORE” project serving young adults working toward their GED and the “Kid Pan Alley” songwriting project that serves second and third graders in Metro Nashville Schools.

It’s hard to describe a live Orchestra Nashville performance, for as Gambill puts it, there is “no bench mark for what we do.” You’ll just have to check one out for yourself. Do that and keep an eye out for the February release of three singles from collaborations with current Artists-in-Residence John Jorgenson and Darrell Scott Ð recordings from the 2007-08 season of the “Uncovered” project. Learn more in the XXQ’s.

XXQs: Paul Gambill

Pen’s Eye View (PEV): How and when did you first get involved in music; Performing and conducting?

Paul Gambill (PG): My commitment to a musical life began in Junior High school when I discovered a love of the French horn and decided then to be a band director. But I quickly learned it was more about the music then the teaching for me. So I shifted toward a professional conducting career as soon as possible.

PEV: Growing up, who were you listening to that impacted your style the most? Why?

PG: Up through college it was the likes of Pink Floyd, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jean-Luc Ponty, Supertramp and Yes. Once I started down a classical path I fell for the great romantic composers that wrote those fantastic horn parts, like Mahler, Struass and Bruckner. All of this music felt very theatrical to me, which I think has led me to have a certain kind of theatrical philosophy toward programming my concerts.

PEV: What were the earlier days like for you as a then, “up and coming” musician? Did you see then, that your career would take you where you are today?

PG: Even though I used the French horn as my vehicle into professional music, it was always about finding the next opportunity to conduct. I struggled as a horn player. It was always a challenge, whereas conducting was something that just flowed for me. I’ve known from an early age that I wanted to conduct. But I never imagined I’d be in Nashville as a “classical” musician making music that combined my love of different styles the way Orchestra Nashville does.

PEV: In 1990, you founded Orchestra Nashville (formerly the Nashville Chamber Orchestra). How is the unique style of “Music Without Boundaries” programming you’ve developed with Orchestra Nashville different then other orchestras out there today?

PG: Orchestra Nashville does a lot of commissioning-36 works in the past 10 years. That’s the first big difference. Then, when you commission composers that can integrate folk, jazz and world music with orchestra performance practice, you really have a one-of-a-kind “band.”

PEV: Orchestra Nashville is about cutting edge and presenting new sounds to the masses, however when you first developed this concept, did you have any apprehensions that this unique way would not work out? Was there any doubt?

PG: We committed to this direction of creating Music Without Boundaries after the success of our first commission of cross-genre music, which was Blackberry Winter, a concerto for mountain dulcimer and strings by Conni Ellisor with David Schnaufer. The premiere of that work was the first concert we sold-out, and we’ve never looked back. The audience response was so overwhelmingly positive that it seemed like the only option as we worked to define a niche for Orchestra Nashville is Nashville’s amazingly rich music scene.

PEV: Tell us about the “Uncovered” project and what can fans expect?

PG: Orchestra Nashville Uncovered is powered by ArtistShare, which is a fantastic company created by Brian Camelio. Brian’s concept is that fans are interested in an artist’s creative process, and not just the end result of their work-the CD. So with Orchestra Nashville Uncovered, music fans get to be involved with us through streaming video, audio and downloads as we plan, rehearse, perform and record our season of concerts and special recording projects. At the end of our season you can pick a “Best of the Season” CD from either our Adventure concerts (full-orchestra) and/or our Acoustic Cafe concerts (string quintet with rhythm section). And with John Jorgenson Uncovered, we’re making an album of gypsy jazz guitar and orchestra works that we’ve commissioned for John.

PEV: When an audience leaves your show, what do you hope they have taken away with them?

PG: A new way of thinking about music, and the feeling that they’ve been challenged to engage with the world around them in a new way.

PEV: What was it about music in the orchestra setting that attracted you to it, versus any other?

PG: I think the orchestra is one of the greatest inventions of mankind. The richness of textures and the expressive power of that collection of instrumentalists is limitless. And once you stop putting expectations on what an orchestra should be, then it’s limited by only scope of our imaginations. In Nashville, we’re surrounded by great artists that are innovators and willing to experiment with us, which is what keeps my creative juices flowing.

PEV: As the music director for Orchestra Nashville, what has been the biggest challenge that you face as the “the face” of the company?

PG: I’ve really struggled with how to explain the experience of an Orchestra Nashville concert. Because there’s no bench mark for what we do, you can’t compare it to another concert experience. So many times we’ve heard from people that they had no idea what our concerts were like. They just thought it was another typical classical orchestra event. And once they experience it, they’re hooked. But now we feel we’ve found that right tool with the Uncovered projects and our work with Brian Camelio and ArtistShare. With the popularity of high-speed internet we can open up our world , bring everyone inside the process with us and let the music speak for itself.

PEV: What was the first Orchestra Nashville show like and what was going through your head? As well, how has it changed since its earlier years?

PG: That seems like a lifetime ago! Artistically it was, because Orchestra Nashville began as a traditional orchestra performing traditional classical repertory. The first concert had Debussy, Haydn and Stravinsky on the program. But I’m sure my head was full of all the non-artistic details since I was also stage manager, production manager and you-name-it manager in those early days. We still perform classical masterworks, but the programming mix is designed around the new music we commission and the non-classical artists we collaborate with.

PEV: Orchestra Nashville’s ENCORE Project, which served young adults working toward their high school equivalency degree (GED) was featured at the National Family Literacy conference as a model for integrating music into the family literacy classroom. This is something that most orchestra companies have not done. Why did you decide to focus on such a rewarding project?

PG: One of my passions that goes back to my days as a music educator, is to use music to lead audiences to a place they didn’t expect to go. So I wanted to create a program that tapped into the power of music and help bring a creative element into the GED classroom. So I designed a program that used the orchestra’s music to inspire adult learners to tap into their creativity and write about and create murals on what they felt the music was saying to them. The experience was amazing and the essays and art work they created went far beyond our expectations. ENCORE turned out to be one of the most rewarding outreach projects we’ve done.

PEV: When you sit down to study scores, what kind of atmosphere do you surround yourself in?

PG: I have a studio separate from our house. It’s a 15×15 foot room with a vaulted ceiling. It’s just my piano, desk, book shelves and a stereo. With my chai latte in hand I spend quite time out there, detached from the rest of the world.

PEV: If you had to pick one, just one, what is the most memorable moment of your career so far?

PG: The most memorable and dramatic moment was conducting Orchestra Nashville with Trey Anastasio for the closing performance of the 2004 Bonnaroo Festival. There were 90,000 fans in that audience that night. The previous act had been forced off the stage by a serious thunder storm, and we were all huddled in the buses wondering if we were going to go on. Then it totally blew over and cleared up into a beautifully calm and clear night. We had a 45-piece Orchestra Nashville performing Trey’s works with him singing and on guitar, and the audience really loved it. I’ll never forget the powerful emotion that that huge audience projected towards us on stage. It was really fantastic.

PEV: What is your take on today’s music industry?

PG: I’m putting my money on a model that has artists in control of their on-line distribution. We’ve had major and independent label releases with varying degrees of success. But I feel our on-line Uncovered projects and our work with innovators like Brian Camelio at ArtistShare gives us the best chance at developing broad support for our music.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist today that you think we should all be listening to?

PG: Check out Gabe Dixon –

PEV: When you are not performing, writing, working, what can we find you doing in your spare time?

PG: That’s all family time with Joy and our boys, Nicholas and Benjamin, and Sebastian, our golden retriever. Our favorite is camping in Tennessee and extended trips to Vermont.

PEV: Known predominately, but certainly not only for country music, how has the Nashville community embraced Orchestra Nashville?

PG: The fun part of the Acoustic Cafe is that I get to lead the preparation of the program, then sit back and listen as it unfolds at the concert. So that’s fun to be inside the audience and feel the response to what I’ve helped create form that perspective. The joy of conducting comes from leading the performance and having the chance to create an intimate interactive experience with the audience as I talk and draw them into the program.

PEV: Sometimes you are conducting a performance, and other times you get to sit back and listen like during Orchestra Nashville’s Acoustic Cafe Series. Do you feel the same kind of Ôrush’ or satisfaction with both? What are the differences for you?

PG: The fun part of the Acoustic Cafe is that I get to lead the preparation of the program, then sit back and listen as it unfolds at the concert. So that’s fun to be inside the audience and feel the response to what I’ve helped create form that perspective. The joy of conducting comes from leading the performance and having the chance to create an intimate interactive experience with the audience as I talk and draw them into the program.

PEV: What is one thing people would be surprised to hear about Paul Gambill?

PG: I love 70’s-80’s pop!

PEV: So, what is next for Paul Gambill and Orchestra Nashville?

PG: We’re getting interest from composers who want to write for us because of the orchestra’s ability to really dig into both classical and non-classical styles with equal success. There are some very exciting collaborations in the works with composers and soloists that we will be bringing to our Uncovered projects.

For more information on Paul Gambill, check out


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