Within the halls of Atlanta Symphony, the silence has been deafening. For nine weeks, an extended musician lockout prevented the performance of many great pieces — from works of Ravel to a Pops concert with Seinfeld-alum Jason Alexander. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s scheduled performance on September 27 also was a casualty of the labor dispute. As an Atlanta staple for decades, Carpenter was set to perform Songs from the Movie, a collection of her compositions that have been reimagined with a full orchestra. But she withdrew when it appeared at the time that the dispute would continue.
“As the tour date got closer and closer, we had to pay closer attention to it,” she says. “It was very important. We were watching and hoping for resolution, but when it got so close, and it wasn’t clear whether it would be resolved, I had to make the decision.”
After she pulled out of her engagement at Symphony Hall, Carpenter found an opening at the Variety Playhouse for a more intimate evening with her acoustic songs. The Friday night show (with special guest Tift Merritt) — her first at Variety Playhouse since 1992 — is a Thanksgiving food benefit for Hosea’s Feed the Hungry and the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
“It’s my desire for something good to come out of a difficult situation,” she says. “It feels like all the pieces of the puzzle fit together; a good serendipity. We’re just really happy and excited to be coming after all.”
For fans of Carpenter’s folk-country storytelling, Songs from the Movie may seem on the surface like a 180-degree turn. Not true, she says. “A lot of times, pop music artists will say, ‘Oh, I want to do an orchestra record,’ and their vision was, ‘Let’s just slap a string section on an existing track,’” she says. “And they don’t really take the music or songs to another place to reimagine them.”
To strike the right creative chord, she collaborated with diverse pop-jazz composer Vince Mendoza, who helped her interpret her well-known works such as “Come On, Come On” through a classical lens. “Vince’s work has always been so original and evocative,” she says. “He wrote entirely new passages for ‘I Am a Town,’ and ‘Goodnight America.’ They just kill me when I hear them, and when I’m on a stage, I just want to fall over. I say to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is beautiful.’”
As an accomplished acoustic-folk and country musician, Carpenter’s current tour allows her to pivot between storied concert halls and down-home venues — both with their own distinct flavors.
“I was playing with 88‑plus beautiful musicians at the Royal Albert Hall in London,” she says, “and then within a few days I was in Santa Barbara, California, playing with my two dear friends who are accompanying me on this acoustic tour. Each one forces me to bring a different skill set, and it requires me to be awake, aware and nimble. I’ve found that I love that feeling.”
Although written back in 2007, Carpenter’s “On With the Song” might as well be an anthem for Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, its governing body and patrons. As a response to the ire directed at Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines back in 2003, the song lyric tells the story about people who buck conventional wisdom during confrontation. “When the whole world seems to be upside down,” the lyric goes, “the shots bein’ taken get cheaper, cheaper.”
At the epicenter of our city’s cultural institutions, the Atlanta Symphony’s world has most certainly been turned upside-down with lockouts in both 2012 and 2014. Carpenter hopes this new agreement — which facilitated the ASO’s return tonight with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — is an important spark for the future. “I’ve seen what the final agreement is, and as someone who has always loved everything symphonic, I hope it can become a positive thing going forward, and that Atlanta as a city can support this treasure they have,” she says.
Symphony trouble is not exclusive to Atlanta — far from it, Carpenter notes. “It’s tough times for symphonies around the world, and certainly here in America,” she says. “Not a day goes by where we don’t hear of some organization that is really struggling to make it all work. But as we all know, as far as the arts go, community support is incredibly important, as is outreach, programming, labor issues, and everything else.”
Carpenter has played Atlanta in different venues more than 15 times since 1991, and says she’ll rebook a visit to the Atlanta Symphony as soon as scheduling permits. As she explains, collaborating with symphony players around the world has been a profound and humbling experience.
“Singing live with an orchestra is very complex,” she says. “I have to not oversing so I don’t end up screeching; but also, I can’t undersing because then I’ll be swallowed up. The best analogy I can come up with is that you’re on top of a wave, and you’re riding it, constantly recalibrating your balance. There’s a euphoric feeling when you’re in the zone, and it’s levitating.
“I say to myself, ‘Oh my God, I love this,’” she adds, “and every time I get to present it, the symphony music, I come off the stage and say, ‘I hope this never ends.’”
Will Pollock is an Atlanta-based freelance journalist, blogger and author of Pizza for Good.