The time has come to say goodbye.
In August 2019, I will be leaving the Nashville Symphony to begin my new position as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony Orchestra in Richmond, Virginia.
Nashville has been our home for nearly sixteen years – our family spent vital and intense years of our lives here, our young children grew into adults, we worked hard and built careers, made friends, shared joys and heartaches. We have loved living in Music City. Before we turn our energies to pulling up roots and starting over in a new town, I wish to reflect on some of the many gifts you have given us over the years, and attempt to express my gratitude.
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We pulled into town on Thanksgiving Day in 2003, with two children ages 2 and 9. We were seeking new opportunities and my wife had been offered a job transfer here, so we sold our house in Florida and took the chance. When we arrived, I had neither job nor leads nor did I know anybody save for two contacts we had made over the phone at Linden Corner School, a small private K-8 school in Green Hills, where we had decided to place our children while I looked for work.
Linden Corner School
Within a few weeks I was teaching part-time at Linden Corner and after a few months was offered a full-time job there for the 2004-05 school year; I ended up teaching there until June 2007. In a short period of time I started the growing young school’s choral program, orchestral program, and a robust recorder program; taught general music, choir, strings, traditional dance, directed plays, substituted for absent teachers… basically I did nearly anything and everything.
In 2005 the school released Music From Linden Corner School, a CD of songs and instrumental music I had taught the students and recorded on my minidisc player during my first year as a full-time teacher there. It made back the money it had cost to produce and raised funds for the school music program. In 2006 I composed a ten movement song cycle for children’s choir and school orchestra (A Child’s Garden of Verses) which the students performed and which was professionally recorded and also released on CD. Three of the songs were later published by Hal Leonard. “Verses” and The Feast of Stephen – a winter solstice celebration I wrote, produced, and directed, also in 2006 – are among my favorite memories from this time of our lives.
With Music City Recorder Quartet after a performance at the Parthenon, 2007 (l to r) Madeleine Seage, Holden Bitner, Josh Kutsko, WB ~ for a couple of years these three young recorder virtuosi (7-8 graders) and I performed a repertoire of Baroque polyphony, chestnuts from the Renaissance dance prints, arrangements of Tin Pan Alley hits, and more throughout Nashville. Highlights included two concerts at the foot of Athena in The Parthenon (above), performing an arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite from The Nutcracker in the lobby at TPAC before the Nashville Ballet’s first Nutcracker of the 2007 season, and one of my favorite memories of making music in Music City: our performance of Contrapuncti I, III, & IX from The Art of the Fugue at the second annual BACHanalia in 2008. I will never forget the stunned look on the audience’s faces as we looked up from our music after the final chord of the devilishly intricate, lickedy-split Contrapunctus IX. MCRQ was the finest recorder ensemble I have ever played in and perhaps the best ever to perform in Nashville – and three of us were barely teenagers!
Music City Youth Orchestra
In the summer of 2007 I left Linden Corner behind, and together with Tracy Silverman and ten students founded Music City Youth Orchestra. I directed MCYO 2007 – 2012, seeing all of the students who founded the ensemble through the program, including my son Holden who played cello with MCYO from 8th – 12th grades. (He is now a professional cellist.)
For more than five years, MCYO occupied my attention nearly every day as I worked to grow and develop the ensemble artistically: I conducted all of the orchestra’s auditions, rehearsals, and performances, chose and arranged repertoire and prepared it for rehearsal, contracted venues, generated publicity, recruited students, soloists, and adult musicians and educators to assist us. I recruited board members and we established the organization as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit; I filed paperwork, conducted meetings, sought funding, and served as the organization’s sole administrator for the first four years of operation. During most of this time I was concurrently both a full-time high school teacher and attending graduate school. It was an exciting and exhausting time.
PRESS PLAY: Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto Grosso Op.6 No. 2 in F Major
Music City Youth Orchestra, Brianna Hugan & Elana Rosenthal, violins; Margie Way-Kiani, cello
May 22, 2011, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Nashville
MCYO grew tremendously over those years – at one point we were a 45-piece string orchestra, and we explored a wide array of music including a lot of traditional classical repertoire as well as jazz and rock standards and traditional (folk) music from around the world. In those five years we went from a scrappy group of 8th and 9th graders to a robust high school string orchestra capable of presenting full programs at major venues around Music City – and we did, performing concerts at The Belcourt Theatre, local universities, schools, churches, Centennial Park – and twice, at Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Twice also we rented The Polk Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center and performed in collaboration with the Nashville School of the Arts choirs – in 2010 this was a collaboration with NSA choral director Michael Graham, and two years later in 2012 we did it again when both programs were under my direction.
I learned so much from my time with MCYO. In many ways these years were the most crucial experience of my teaching career, as I pursued a secret agenda with my students to determine if it is possible to achieve artistic excellence in an environment that discourages competition but rather seeks to motivate students to do their best through collaboration, friendship, and love.
With the Nashville School of the Arts Madrigal Singers at the second inauguration of Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (center), September 23, 2011. I am standing on the far right in the front row; Principal boB Wilson of NSA is standing behind me. This may be the only photo of me wearing a tuxedo in existence. The choir performed William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus. (Yes, really. I asked what the Mayor’s office wished for us to sing – we were given about a week’s notice – and was told it didn’t matter. This exquisite motet in Latin was what we had been working on for my first month as NSA’s choral director.) The ceremony was held outside on a beautiful day in front of the courthouse at the top of the mall – a wide open space at the top of a hill surrounded by skyscrapers. I remember sitting in my seat marveling at the view and then being profoundly moved when we performed as I heard the (amplified) voices of my students reverberate off the surrounding “amphitheater” of glass and steel.
PRESS PLAY: William Byrd: Ave Verum Corpus ~ Nashville School of the Arts Madrigal Singers, Walter Bitner, director, 2011.
Nashville School of the Arts & Belmont University
I began teaching at Nashville School of the Arts in October 2008, During my tenure at NSA I first directed the piano program until 2011, when I moved to the other side of the building to take over responsibility for the choral program. The NSA orchestra program was added to my portfolio in 2014 and I directed both choir and orchestra until December of that year, when I left teaching to work for the Nashville Symphony.
Remarkable opportunities came my way because I taught at Nashville’s arts magnet high school. I conducted my choirs in performance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry several times (where NSA held graduation annually for many years). The NSA Madrigal Singers were invited by the Nashville Symphony to perform with them, The Chieftains and Vince Gill in 2013. Besides our performance at TPAC with MCYO (above), we performed concerts at Blair School of Music’s beautiful Martha Ingram Performing Arts Center, and at other ceremonies and venues throughout the community. The NSA Chamber Choir performed Sebastian’s Cantata 106: Actus Tragicus at BACHanalia in 2014. Also in 2014, the NSA choirs program was able purchase a fine double-manual harpsichord, which was in turn purchased by the Nashville Symphony when I came to work there. “Anna” will continue to make beautiful music for the citizens of Nashville for decades to come in the symphony’s annual performances of Händel’s Messiah and other baroque masterpieces.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Liebeslieder Walzer, Op.52. The Nashville School of the Arts Madrigal Singers, Walter Bitner & Graham Goudeau, piano four hands. May 13, 2013, Ingram Hall, Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Nashville.
PRESS PLAY: In the fall of 2012, I found myself directing a high school choir with a student accompanist all capable of taking on a major work, and programmed Brahms’ exquisite love song waltzes, which I have adored since I first sang them in the bass section of the Scripps College Chamber Choir in Claremont, California in 1985. I knew that the opportunity to bring this particular work to students would not come my way again, and made the extra effort to learn the primo piano part so I could play the four-hands accompaniment with Graham alongside preparing the choir to sing the entire set of eighteen waltzes in German. I cannot express how much joy every rehearsal and performance of this beloved masterpiece gave me, and I know that those who were part of it will never forget it.
Years later a student who had been in the choir texted me from Berlin to tell me that although she could not speak German, on her visit there she could not get the Liebeslieder out of her head.
During this time – beginning in January 2009 – I returned to school as a student myself, attending graduate school at Belmont University to earn Tennessee Teacher Certifications in both vocal and instrumental music. I completed my certifications in 2011, and received tenure from Metro Nashville Public Schools in 2012.
My Country Music Gig: I felt like I had finally arrived in Music City in the early months of 2009 when I was hired to work on a video shoot for Trisha Yearwood. Her 2007 album Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love included a sleeper hit that the studio had not made a video for: a ballad for Trisha accompanied by country band and string section This Is Me You’re Talking To. At the time I had been working as a copyist for about a year and was initially hired to transcribe the string orchestra parts (by ear) off the album and create “authentic looking” parts for the orchestra to play in the video shoot. The production company hired John Corbett to play the love interest/conductor, and I was then hired to coach John on how to conduct. The video was shot at Ocean Way, and I ended up setting up all of the scenes in Studio A because nobody else on the shoot knew how to seat an orchestra. You can view the finished video here. In a lot of the scenes I was off camera, conducting with my back to John so he could mimic me. I spent two very long days hanging out with him, mostly teaching him conducting basics, finishing with a very late night after we wrapped at Midtown bars.
At the end of 2014 I left teaching behind to work for the Nashville Symphony as Director of Education and Community Engagement. Over the last five years I strove to make the most of my career change and these years have been filled with exciting new opportunities as colleagues both at the symphony and in the community pulled together efforts to improve music education for our city’s children.
We founded Accelerando in 2015 and were awarded a grant of nearly a million dollars to fund it from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2016. The program is now about to begin its fourth year of operation and just last month, our students and faculty performed before an international audience at the League of American Orchestras National Conference. As news of Accelerando got out, I was invited to speak about this and other aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion in classical music on a regular basis: since 2016, I have spoken at a dozen conferences around the country, and was even invited to the U.K. to speak about Accelerando to the Association of British Orchestras in 2018.
There have been so many unparalleled, superlative experiences.
During my employment with the Nashville Symphony the orchestra has performed nearly 700 concerts. I did not attend them all, but I witnessed many outstanding performances over the last five years (and in the eleven years before I came to work here, of course). It would not be possible to choose a list of all my favorites, but three stand out in my memory.
In February 2015, Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony performed Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a piece for which I’ve had a lifelong fascination and studied intensely. I attended nearly every rehearsal and both performances, and that experience was the catalyst that enabled me to finally start this blog and begin my writing career, after putting this effort off for decades.
I will never forget the Nashville Symphony’s performances of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in February 2017. I’ve heard this monument of the symphonic art so many times since I first encountered it as a teenager, but hearing the Nashville Symphony perform it in Laura Turner Hall revealed many aspects of this music I had never heard before. At the dress rehearsal I sat in the balcony looking down on the stage. From this vantage point – directly over the percussion section – Stravinsky’s searing masterpiece was a visceral, chaotic, savage bacchanalia, an astounding showcase for our musicians’ virtuosity. I was astonished when Giancarlo conducted the performances from memory.
On September 9, 2017, John Williams conducted in Nashville for the first time, leading our symphony in a gala performance of his own music as a fundraiser for Accelerando. Sitting in the audience next to my wife, listening to our own orchestra perform music that has been such an integral part of the warp and weft of my life for the last fifty years under the baton of the composer was one of the most moving musical experiences I have ever had.
On my fiftieth birthday in 2015, the hall was “dark” (it was the day before Thanksgiving) and I was generously given the opportunity to spend the morning alone playing my beloved Well-Tempered Clavier on the Hamburg Steinway on the stage of Laura Turner Hall.
Ryan Middagh (Director of Jazz Studies at Blair School of Music) and I put together jazz bands comprised of Nashville Symphony musicians and Music City all stars to perform two free concerts in Laura Turner Hall: Miles Davis’s original charts from Birth of the Cool in 2016 and an All Richard Rodgers program featuring all-original charts from Ryan in 2017: both of these concerts drew unprecedented audiences.
My team and I produced or participated in hundreds of events: Young People’s Concerts, Family Concerts, Open Dress Rehearsals, Concerto Competitions, Side By Side Concerts, On Stage and the Chamber Music Series, Free Days of Music, MLK Concerts, Nashville Symphony Educational Ensemble performances and Instrument Petting Zoos throughout the community, Community Concerts, and much more. We got the Accelerando program off the ground and running: next year will see 21 students enrolled in the program, and our first graduate is headed to Northwestern University this fall.
I will be forever grateful to the Nashville Symphony, who took a chance on an unconventional music teacher with no experience working for a symphony orchestra and let me do my thing. Thank you.
PRESS PLAY: From 2015-2016 I played with the jazz piano trio Bitner Finest Ales (l to r: WB, piano; Holden Bitner, bass; Andrew McVey, drums). We performed a selection of jazz standards and American songbook tunes at clubs in Nashville and Chattanooga, and enjoyed a few pints as well. This performance was part of the Nashville Symphony’s Free Day of Music on October 10, 2015.
Nashville Zen Center
A major life experience that has been a big part of my Nashville, and one you may not know about, is that throughout most of my time here I was deeply engaged in Zen meditation (zazen) practice. I was a member of Nashville Zen Center from 2003 – 2016, including many years as a board member of this small local organization, and for a year I even served a term as President. (During my administration I pledged to accomplish nothing, and I succeeded!)
What this means (practically) is that I spent thousands of hours during those years seated crosslegged on a cushion facing a wall, silently contemplating emptiness, impermanence, birth and death, consciousness, and the nature of human experience (or at least my own shortcomings). I attended weekly group meditation services during most of this time (including eight wonderful years at 12 South Dharma Center), went on meditation retreats both in town and out of town, and eventually took vows in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition.
I am an ordained Zen monk, and I have two Japanese names.
My Zen practice got me through some tough times. As this letter describes, I am a bit “all over the place” and have an excitable “monkey mind”. Learning how to sit quietly, breathe, and attempt to do nothing else was difficult (or impossible), but I know that at times my practice truly helped me keep my head together.
Then one day in January 2016 I was out of town attending a retreat and as I sat in the zendo staring at the wall I suddenly realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. It took me over a year and a half to wean myself away from regular attendance, and after NZC moved out of the the Dharma Center that summer I sat with a small “secular” meditation group for over a year, but eventually, I was able to let this go too.
And wasn’t that the point of practice, after all?
In April 2018 Michael McLemore and I put together an eight-piece band, booked The Barbershop Theater, and collaborated with local artists Brian Hull and Kari Leigh Ames to present three multimedia performances of Pink Floyd’s 1973 masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon for Halloween 2018. Playing keyboards in a rock band for the first time in over thirty years has been a liberating experience! Thank you!
(above) The Forest performs Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon at The Barbershop Theater, November 1, 2018 (l to r) Michael McLemore, Alex Blizniak, Eric Brewer, Andrew Guinn, Danesa Harper, Kate Atanian, WB, Ryan Middagh.
The Forest will perform The Dark Side of the Moon one more time! on Saturday, July 20 at The 5 Spot in East Nashville: PINK GARCIA: a double bill with Hooteroll?
❦ The Woodlands ❦ Radnor Lake ❦ 12 South Taproom ❦ Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School ❦ Blackstone Restaurant & Brewery ❦ Percy Warner Park ❦ The Gloaming ❦ KayBob’s Grill & Ale ❦ Davis-Kidd Booksellers ❦ Thai Phooket ❦ The Nashville Shakespeare Festival ❦ Two Ten Jack ❦ Cheekwood Estate & Gardens ❦ Koto Sushi Bar ❦ The Nashville Symphony ❦ Ichiban Japanese Restaurant ❦ Wishing Chair Productions ❦ Meigs Academic Magnet School ❦ Avo ❦ The Gypsy Hombres ❦ Anatolia Turkish Restaurant ❦ Blair School of Music ❦ Thai Esane ❦ Nashville Children’s Choir ❦ Craft Brewed ❦ Scarritt Bennett Center ❦ Book Man, Book Woman ❦ Ocean Way ❦ Hurry Back ❦ Linden Corner School ❦ 8th & Roast ❦ Nashville Zen Center ❦ Whole Foods ❦ The Belcourt Theatre ❦ Bitner Finest Ales ❦ John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge ❦ Ginza ❦ Tennessee Renaissance Festival ❦ Vine Street Wine & Spirits ❦ Hollywood 27 ❦ Fido ❦ 12 South Dharma Center ❦ The Fresh Market ❦ Celebrate Nashville Cultural Festival ❦ Chauhan Ale & Masala House ❦ Belmont United Methodist Church ❦ Nashville Children’s Theatre ❦ Dozen Bakery ❦ The Parthenon ❦ Bosco’s ❦ Music City Youth Orchestra ❦ Subculture ❦ Korean School of Nashville ❦ The Vespers ❦ J.T. Moore Middle School ❦ Verge Theater Company ❦ McKay’s ❦ Grand Ole Opry ❦ Frist Art Museum ❦ Taj Indian Restaurant ❦ Music City Center ❦ Publix ❦ Music Row ❦ Jackalope ❦ Nashville Ballet ❦ Five Points Pizza ❦ Belmont University ❦ Kalamata’s ❦ Montessori School of Franklin ❦ Mozart in Nashville ❦ Nashville Aikikai ❦ Porta Via ❦ The Heartwood Consort ❦ Taco Mamacita ❦ Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center ❦ 3rd and Lindsley ❦ Intersection ❦ Lunatic Fringe ❦ Nashville School of the Arts ❦ Flying Saucer Draught Emporium ❦ International Market ❦ Williams Fine Violins ❦ Provence Breads & Cafe ❦ Nashville Chamber Orchestra ❦ Trader Joe’s ❦ Olde Worlde Theatre Company ❦ Parnassus Books ❦ Samurai Sushi ❦ Granbery Elementary School ❦ Burger Up ❦ Omni Nashville Hotel ❦ The Perch ❦ Nashville Philharmonic Orchestra ❦ Kuchnia & Keller ❦ Centennial Park ❦ Music City Recorder Quartet ❦ Penuel Ridge Retreat Center ❦ M.L. Rose Craft Beer & Burgers ❦ Vanderbilt University ❦ McCreary’s Irish Pub & Eatery ❦ The Forest ❦ Midtown Corkdorks Wine Spirits Beer ❦ West End United Methodist Church ❦ Wild Oats ❦ Musica ❦ Vui’s Kitchen ❦ Santa’s Christmas Trees ❦ Bongo Java ❦ Ryman Auditorium ❦ Oliver Middle School ❦ Woodmont Christian Church ❦ The Smiling Elephant ❦ Belmont Academy ❦ Conexión Américas ❦ Tin Angel ❦ Woodlands Indian Vegetarian Cuisine ❦ The Barbershop Theater ❦ Korea House ❦
When I reflect on all of the gifts you have given me and my family over the last sixteen years, I am overwhelmed with gratitude and love. I truly believe that what we have accomplished together could only have happened in Music City. You supported and collaborated with me on so many projects and experiences, I have learned so much from you! and we leave on our new adventure with so much more than we arrived with, thanks to you.
You helped us raise our children into fine young adults, and at the end of the day, I am still married to my best friend and the love of my life. Life is a miracle.
Walter. This town will certainly miss you, and I will miss you as both a friend and colleague. It has been my pleasure working with you and being behind you all the way on your great achievements while here in Nashville. Congrats on your new gig in Ricjhmon!
Thank you so much Rich! This means so much to me coming from such a fine musician and teacher!
Wow, I am so excited. Sorry for Nashville, but….Virginia is so lucky! I am in Charlottesville now and I can’t wait to see you!
Thank you Kenna! Can’t wait to see you!
Incredible! What a legacy you leave behind. Well done!
Walter, your story was wonderful and refreshing. It was my pleasure to have known you. Steph is planning a send off and I hope to meet you there.
Hi Abhilash, I hope to see you! Thank you so much!