IRIS Orchestra began as a bold experiment in September, 2000. Still bold, and still experimenting, IRIS Orchestra embarks on its 18th season as an acknowledged centerpiece of the cultural life of the Mid-South. This astonishing success stems in part from an innovative structure envisioned by Founding Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Michael Stern: IRIS Orchestra boasts a stellar roster of talent from the leading orchestras, universities and chamber groups in the country, all of whom share a passionate commitment to the highest standards of performance. These virtuosic musicians, assembled under one roof as the resident orchestra of the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Germantown, Tennessee, have created an exhilarating laboratory for musical discovery. Over seventeen seasons, IRIS Orchestra has earned an international reputation as a champion of new American music — including works commissioned and premiered by IRIS – and consistently receives critical praise for its “precise and nuanced” interpretations of the classical canon.
A clear confirmation of the caliber of IRIS Orchestra is the stunning list of musical luminaries who make time on their schedules to join IRIS as guest artists. These range from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who calls IRIS “always brilliant”; to violinists Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, and Midori; soprano Dawn Upshaw; and pianists Yefim Bronfman, Andre Watts, Garrick Ohlsson, and Emanuel Ax, who says, “I have loved being a part of their amazing energy, ability, and wonderful attitude to music.”
The list of composers IRIS has commissioned is equally distinguished, including Stephen Hartke, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, William Bolcom and Ned Rorem, as well as younger talents such as Huang Ruo, Adam Schoenberg and Jonathan Leshnoff. IRIS recordings have earned places on the “Ten Best” lists of the The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun. Classical Reviewer “enthusiastically recommended” its most recent recording, featuring harp soloist Elizabeth Hainen, for its “superbly played performances,” which the Irish Times called “utterly gorgeous” and “time-stillingly luscious.”
Not surprisingly, musicians feel an extraordinary loyalty to IRIS. More than fifty members of the orchestra have returned to IRIS for more than ten seasons, even as IRIS members and alumni have assumed leadership positions in some of the world’s foremost orchestras, including the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam.
Fundamental to the IRIS philosophy is the idea that the orchestra’s members do not simply alight several times a year and leave, but instead put down strong roots in the Germantown/Memphis community. The Host Family program creates lasting bonds between IRIS musicians and their local host families that extend far beyond the concert weeks each year.
Connection to community both on and offstage is at the core of the IRIS mission. From the beginning, the orchestra has made a commitment to deepen and enrich musical education in the Mid-South. IRIS musicians regularly go out into the community to perform for and mentor students at public and private elementary, middle and high schools. The orchestra’s world-renowned guest artists give professional master classes for students at the University of Memphis Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music. For adults, an evening lecture series explores the week’s program in depth; and, unique among all orchestras in this country, the “Friday Live Lunch” broadcasts over public-radio station WKNO offer listeners the opportunity to eavesdrop on the process of preparing that week’s concert.
Community engagement continues on the GPAC stage. For the youngest members of the community, Family Concerts at GPAC combine an engaging concert with a hands-on “instrument petting zoo.” GPAC Youth Symphony Orchestra members attend IRIS dress rehearsals for free, have the opportunity to ask questions of both IRIS members and guest artists, and participate in master classes for each section of the orchestra. In a separate program, IRIS musicians and the Memphis Youth Symphony Program rehearse a piece of music side by side, giving young musicians the chance to play alongside their counterparts in a first-rate professional ensemble.