“My tails coat says, ‘Made for Placido Domingo.'”
The musicians of the Louisiana Philharmonic have taken their lumps. They were pink-slipped in the 90s. They reorganized, learned how to run an orchestra and saved their jobs. Then came Hurricane Katrina.
After the 2005 megastorm, the musicians of the LPO scattered across the country, couchsurfing between family, friends and temporary orchestra jobs. Their concert hall was ruined. The National Guard prevented them from returning home. They stayed in touch with one another through a website.
Around the orchestra world, LPO musicians came to be called the “Katrina evacuees.” Orchestra personnel managers around the U.S. made a special effort to hire them whenever a substitute was needed.
In the year after the storm, the LPO came together only one time, a reunion courtesy of the musicians and staff of the Nashville Symphony. With airfares donated by American Airlines, LPO players joined the Nashville Symphony for a concert at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, with proceeds benefiting the LPO. Friends and musicians of the Nashville Symphony provided lodging and even helped the Louisiana players acquire concert dress.
According to Louisiana timpanist Jim Atwood, “When everybody left New Orleans, they grabbed the kid, the dog and the fiddle, but they probably didn’t grab their black clothes in the back of the closet. … So the word went out across the orchestra grapevine … if you’ve got tails or a tux … that you’ve outgrown … mail them to the concert hall in Nashville. … We got tails from all over the place … As it turns out, Placido Domingo and I are the same size and to this day, my tails coat says, ‘Made for Placido Domingo.'”
About a month after Katrina, Atwood, who runs the orchestra’s finance committee, remembers stepping into the Orpheum Theater to find pianos, harps, timpani, the seats and the floors ruined by flood waters. The walls and ceilings had peeled under the extreme humidity. For years after the storm, it was unclear whether or not the 1918 theater would be saved.
The orchestra resumed giving concerts in the fall of 2006, playing in different locations around New Orleans, including the Mahalia Jackson Theater. It wasn’t until early 2014 that private funders stepped forward to save the Orpheum.
Ten years and $13 million later, the newly restored Orpheum is poised to become one of the jewels of the Crescent City. The Louisiana Philharmonic reopens the hall on September 17 with a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.
Jim Atwood and his wife, flutist Patti Adams, predict it will be a triumphant homecoming. But it’s not a Cinderella story. There was no magic wand — just courage, perseverance, talent, and a lot of help.