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A Good Note

Young musicians with the IRIS Fellows Program collaborate with inner-city youth to provide support for underrepresented sectors of a city built on music

Story by Sarah Vaughan  |  Photos by Michael Allen

Embarking on its 18th season this October, IRIS Orchestra has become a centerpiece of the cultural life of the Mid-South. Their roster features talented musicians from leading orchestras, universities, and chamber groups around the world who have served as the resident orchestra of the Germantown Performing Arts Center. 


IRIS began in September of 2000 as a bold experiment by conductor Michael Stern to bring world-renowned classical music to the Memphis community. His endeavor led to a breakthrough in music for the city in the form of a Memphis-based symphony composed of world-class musicians. 


“Many classical musicians pursue a variety of professional experiences,” says IRIS Marketing Manager Nancy Raileanu. “They join the IRIS community to play with Michael Stern and the other amazing musicians who share a passionate commitment to the highest standards of performance.” 


IRIS has earned an international reputation as a champion of new American music and consistently receives critical praise for its interpretations of classical pieces. IRIS has also made made numerous contributions to the community at large. IRIS musicians put down strong roots in Germantown and Memphis. During their time in Memphis, they stay with local families. The host family program creates bonds between IRIS musicians and their local families that extend beyond the concert weeks each year.

Through the recent introduction of the IRIS Artist Fellowship Program, IRIS has initiated a special one-year program for emerging professional musicians. The fellowship, which began in August 2016, allows IRIS to become a platform for musicians of color to transition from the academic world to the professional world. Their experience includes teaching in Shelby County schools, performing with IRIS orchestra, and performing together as a chamber ensemble. 


“Community outreach is a tremendous part of what we do,” says Rebecca Arendt, Director of Community Initiatives. “From its beginning, the Orchestra has made a commitment to deepen and enrich musical education in the Mid-South.”


This year’s fellows arrived in Memphis in mid-July. During their stay, the artists will be given accommodations at the newly completed Crosstown Concourse. The large support network that sustains IRIS has already donated beds, nightstands, artwork, and kitchen and bathroom supplies for these young musicians who are on a mission to help the youth of Memphis.


“The fellowship as a whole came about because of two needs that we identified in which we felt we could take an active part in working toward the solution,” says Arendt. One is the inequity of historically underrepresented populations of African-American and Latino musicians in the classical world. The other opportunity is to model positive life paths. By sharing their diverse backgrounds and perspectives, the IRIS Fellows share a powerful positive message.”


This year’s fellows are cellist Dara Hankins, violist Gabriel Polycarpo, and violinist Marcos Santos. In conjunction with Memphis Music Initiative’s in-school fellows program, they will mentor students at Douglass Elementary School, Snowden School, Kingsbury Elementary School, and Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School. IRIS musicians also work with other Shelby County schools by mentoring students at Overton, Kingsbury, Cordova, Central, and Houston high schools, as well as the Memphis Oral School for the Deaf.


IRIS’ outreach extends to working with community organizations like Art for Life’s Sake and other organizations that don’t necessarily have a musical component to allow children to explore different ways of expressing themselves. These partnerships include the Carpenter Art Garden, Knowledge Quest, and St. Jude and Le Bonheur children’s hospitals.


“In some ways, what these artists are doing transcends words,” says Arendt. “We think what we’re doing is important, but beyond that, we just feel so lucky to have the opportunity to share this with our community. So many people don’t get to share their passion with others. Not only do we get to do that, but we get to watch so many youths in the city share their passion with us.”


Contributions or inquiries about the IRIS Artist Fellows program can be made by contacting the IRIS office at (901) 751-7669 or at the website at


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