Music director and conductor for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra (NSO) from 1983 until his death in 2005, Kenneth DeWitt Schermerhorn is credited with leading the orchestra to national prominence. His tenure with the NSO included critically acclaimed recordings (including four Grammy nominations), national television and radio broadcasts, and a successful East Coast tour where the orchestra debuted at Carnegie Hall. Known for his musical passion, dynamic flair at the podium, and accessible manner with the public, he helped pave the way for construction of the NSO’s state-of-the-art $123 million Schermerhorn Symphony Center, completed in downtown Nashville in 2006.
Born on November 20, 1929, to Dutch and Belgian immigrants in Schenectady, New York, Schermerhorn began formal trumpet studies at the age of eight. He possessed an interest in both classical and jazz music. Following high school, Schermerhorn played trumpet in dance bands while also pursuing classical studies at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In 1950, he received his first full-time professional appointment as a trumpet player with the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra.
Schermerhorn’s first conducting opportunities arose after he was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He earned a post as conductor for the Seventh U.S. Army Symphony Orchestra and led the orchestra on tours throughout Europe. After discharge from the Army in 1955, Schermerhorn turned his attention full-time to conducting and composing. He studied with iconic New York Philharmonic conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and soon received a position as conductor for the American Ballet Theater (ABT) in New York City. With the ABT he premiered one of his first compositions, a ballet entitled The Mirror. He also led the ABT on national tours that included a performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in 1961. Between this first visit to Nashville and his appointment with the Nashville Symphony in 1983, Schermerhorn held stints as conductor with the New Jersey, Milwaukee, and Hong Kong symphony orchestras.
In Nashville, Schermerhorn inherited an orchestra with dwindling community support and poor financial footing. A dispute between musicians and management over wages resulted in Chapter Eleven bankruptcy for the NSO in 1988. Schermerhorn responded by embarking on a multi-year trek to rebuild the orchestra’s endowment, increase the orchestra’s size, and achieve national recognition for the NSO. He accomplished this by bringing a number of high-profile classical artists to Nashville (including renowned tenor Pavarotti), featuring important Nashville country and Christian recording artists in the symphony’s concert schedule, and producing a number of successful recordings with the Naxos label.
His career in Nashville culminated with the planning of the NSO’s downtown symphony hall. In December 2003, he participated in a ground-breaking ceremony for the hall, but died on April 18, 2005, before its completion after a brief battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During his career, he composed over thirty chamber, orchestral, and stage scores, recorded over fifty albums, and conducted works by hundreds of composers.