Why give up on this considerable slice of Mid-South elegance?
M emphians like to boast of our city’s soul. We like “grit” as a descriptor for our approach to challenges, large and small. To outsiders, Memphis is a “colorful” city, a delicate way of saying this town leaves an impression that can be as baffling (city/county government) as it is charming (the Peabody ducks).
One word you don’t often hear in descriptions of Memphis is elegant . And with the cancellation of Memphis in May’s Sunset Symphony after the final note is played this month, we’re losing an event that — every spring — infused this soulful river town with an elegance distinctly its own.
Having lived in Memphis for 24 years, I’ve come to see three annual events as our city’s calling cards to the rest of the world. These are the slices of time and especially place that cannot be duplicated anywhere else on the planet. The images (and memories) they create are unique to Memphis, but recognized far beyond the Mid-South.
The first is the candlelight vigil at Graceland on the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death every August. Wherever your opinion of Elvis falls on the scale of extremes, the outpouring of devotion toward him — and his home — when a Memphis summer is at its skin-broiling peak swells the most cynical of hearts. It’s hard not to feel spiritual when you hear “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” near the garden of reflection.
Then we have the National Civil Rights Museum’s annual Freedom Awards, international acclaim granted every fall to individuals who have come to personify Martin Luther King’s dream for justice, equality, and opportunity. The award ceremony is a resounding answer to the horror of King’s murder on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. Men are mortal, King was well aware. But look at the faces of Freedom Award honorees — Rosa Parks, Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela to name four — and you realize the work of right-thinking men and women is indeed immortal.
The third — and longest-running — international Memphis calling card is the Sunset Symphony, since 1976 the culminating event of what’s come to be known as Memphis in May. Perfectly titled, the event has presented classical music under the most classic of natural (if daily) events, next to one of nature’s most extraordinary bodies of water. Thousands upon thousands of Memphians grew to love the late James Hyter for his masterful rendition of “Ol’ Man River” and came to see Memphis Symphony Orchestra conductors — Alan Balter, David Loebel, Mei-Ann Chen — as rock stars, at least for this unique date on the calendar. Food tasted better, and wine smoother, with the string section in full flight.
Alas, this year’s Sunset Symphony will be the finale for more than just Memphis in May, the event having suffered (revenue-wise) in the considerable shadows of its annual predecessors, the Beale Street Music Festival and the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. MIM president Jim Holt announced in March that the event would be replaced in 2016 with something aimed at a larger, more diverse audience. The time has come for an appeal to the masses, you might say.
But why give up on this considerable slice of Mid-South elegance? Why not consider alternative approaches that would retain the Sunset Symphony for Memphis generations to come? The river will still be here. Instead of piggybacking the other May bashes, move the Sunset Symphony to late September, when temperatures (and sunsets) are every bit as lovely. Don’t charge admission. Find sponsors (and food vendors) willing to support the event and invite an entire city for a river picnic. You couldn’t get any more culturally diverse.
Among my earliest memories of the Sunset Symphony is from 1992, when I took a college buddy during his first visit to Memphis. Tamio was born in Japan, grew up in New Jersey, went to college in Boston, spent a semester in London, and was then working in New York City. But he’d never seen what he saw — and heard — that evening as we sat on the steep, grassy bluff, listening to the “1812 Overture” in a setting unlike any other on the planet. Hyter wasn’t just singing to Memphis that night. He was singing to the world. And there is another baritone out there ready to carry on Hyter’s legacy.
True elegance is hard to come by. I saw Baryshnikov on stage (once). I saw Michael Jordan on a basketball court live (once). But I knew the Sunset Symphony would be here, on our city’s front porch, every May. However we choose to define Memphis — colorful, gritty, and soulful all still apply — it begins with a river. And the river goes best with a song.