James Zimmermann
Principal Clarinet
Hometown: Hillsborough, N.J.
Member of the Nashville Symphony since 1998

What inspired you to pursue a career in music?
My parents are musicians, and they spent a lot of time playing for musicals. So my roots were in Broadway, not classical music. And my dad was a little bit of a rock star after college. He toured around playing with groups that did Chicago covers and Blood, Sweat and Tears covers. He was a woodwind player in his youth, so we had a clarinet and a saxophone in the house. I said, “Dad, I want to play the saxophone.” And in his best bit of fatherly advice of all time, he said, “Do not play the saxophone first. Play the clarinet first, and when you have mastered that to a certain degree, I will let you play the saxophone because you can pick it up and learn it in 10 minutes, but it doesn’t work the other way.”

So I started as a woodwind player in about the fourth grade. I had tried piano and violin before that, and while I showed musical promise, I hated the instruments. The violin hurt to hold, and the piano was just too many notes. When I saw that you could blow into the clarinet and play one note at a time, that was that.

Who had the greatest influence on you as a young musician?
My parents, and my dad’s brother was also a huge influence. He is a woodwind repairman by day and musician by night. So I learned all kinds of stuff about the business when I was in high school — about session recording and about playing multiple instruments and caring for your instruments. My parents raised me on great music, like James Taylor — that’s actually who I’m named after — along with Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago and the Beatles. It wasn’t until later that I discovered classical music. My mom is a pianist, but she is a show pianist.

When did you discover your love of classical music?
I realized when I was 17 that I had promise as a musician. I envisioned myself at age 60 wondering if I would look back on my life saying, “I wish I had tried to be a musician,” instead of some steady job like business or law. And I was motivated by that fear. So I said, I can try this now, and if it goes sideways I will never be able to say I didn’t try. I also thought, I want to have a family someday. I want to have stability. I want to have a kind of normal life like the one I grew up in. What is a good way to do that? And I thought an orchestra would be the best of all those worlds. I could be an artist, and I could also have a family and have stability, which are not things you can ordinarily count on in the music world. So that’s when I started to pursue playing clarinet in an orchestra. And I went to college for it and became single-minded about it.

Why does classical music matter?
Whenever we play Beethoven, the audience is full. You can pack a house with Beethoven today like you could 200 years ago. And we have all talked in the orchestra: “Why do they always come to Beethoven?” It is because Beethoven is about stuff that will always be relevant, like man versus fate, what am I doing on this earth? That’s what you hear in Beethoven. And interestingly, it doesn’t seem like anyone since then has gotten to the root of those issues any better than Beethoven did. Yes, lots of music has dealt with those issues, but there is just something so visceral and raw about a Beethoven symphony. When you hear the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth, people are still terrified by that.

So I can’t really put my finger on the answer to that question, but I know that when I hear those symphonies and the way that people respond to the music, it means you can’t let that stuff go extinct. You just can’t. It would be a major piece of human history lost if we didn’t do that stuff. That’s not to say I think it is superior to what is played and composed now, but what is played and composed now reflects modern times. Giancarlo Guerrero is really great at putting those two things together. We will play a Beethoven symphony on the second half of the concert, but he’ll often pair it with a new piece.

What pieces would you pick if you could program a concert?
I really like French Impressionist music from around the turn of the 20th century — Debussy, Ravel. That’s right when composers started to break out of the Romantic art forms and experiment and bend the rules. Then after that, the rules got bent so far that music got unlistenable for a little bit in the ’40s and ’50s, and now it has sort of swung back. But if you asked me to program anything, I would probably do one of the big Ravel ballets like Mother Goose or Daphnis et Chloé. On the first half, we might do a Debussy Nocturne. Maybe put some kind of concerto in the middle, like one of Ravel’s pieces for piano and orchestra.

Do you remember the first time you performed onstage?
The first time I remember performing onstage, I was tap dancing at the age of 7. I went to my cousin’s dance recital when I was 6, and I said to my parents, “I want to do this.” They didn’t take me very seriously, but I persisted and I said, “This looks great, I want to do this.” So they relented and signed me up for dance class. I took ballet, jazz and tap. I actually danced professionally all through high school with the Jersey Tap Ensemble. I just had to make the choice between dance and music at that point, and I haven’t laced up my tap shoes since then.

What is your highlight of performing with the Nashville Symphony?
When the Schermerhorn flooded in 2010, that was devastating. But when we came back and played the grand reopening concert on New Year’s Eve with Itzhak Perlman, that really recharged the orchestra. And it was crazy, because the backstage was still full of all those contractors; I could barely get to my locker because there were all of these desks set up and computers and blueprints. But we were back, and the orchestra had really bonded together from picking up our stuff and traveling all around town to keep the music going in spite of the devastation to our building. It was a terrible event, but we had to really team up to keep it going. And we had loyal patrons who followed us around to places like War Memorial Auditorium and the Allen Arena at Lipscomb. In hindsight, we got a lot of really good team-building done during that time.

What’s the most unusual thing that’s happened while you were performing?
We recently played Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, and the third movement of that piece is very quiet and very thin and kind of distant. And then the fourth movement starts with a very loud, surprising bang. When we got to that part, someone knocked over a table in a box seat. They had obviously fallen asleep and got jolted awake and knocked over a table. Their glass crashed, and the whole orchestra had to stifle a huge laugh. People in the audience drop stuff all the time, but that was definitely the best.

How do you see this orchestra and its role in the community?
If you look at orchestras around the United States, especially in some of the bigger cities like Chicago or New York, they pretty much stick to classical music. But here, while we are a great orchestra for classical music, we can do stuff that nobody else can do. And our mission as an orchestra in Music City is to bridge with everybody, from country singers to rock singers. We are really a more diverse and exploratory orchestra than anywhere else I have seen in this country. I have friends in the business everywhere, and we just do more, and we do not spread ourselves too thin. We can play anything with anybody when we have the right pieces in place.

Favorite composer?
Maurice Ravel.

Favorite piece of music?
Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite.

Favorite non-classical musician?
Aphex Twin.

Favorite venue?
Hollywood Bowl.

Favorite sports team?
USC Trojans and N.Y. Knicks.

Favorite movie?
The Princess Bride.

Favorite movie score?
The Fifth Element.

Favorite food?
Pizza.

Favorite place?
Home.