Spivey Hall executive and artistic director to be honored by French government

By Jeffery Whitfield

Sherryl Nelson clapped her hands and sound reflected for nearly three seconds off the sheetrock wall panels, cloth drapes and hardwood maple floor of Spivey Hall.

“You're essentially in a giant acoustical hardball court,” the 59-year-old said as she stood in the hall and described its design.

Opened nearly 15 years ago at Clayton State University, the 392-seat hall has been a venue where musicians from across the world have performed. National Public Radio “Performance Today” broadcasts also are annually held at the hall.

And Nelson has worked there since it opened.

Nelson, executive and artistic director of Spivey Hall, is responsible for leading the development of the hall's concert season and drawing artists to perform there.

She has been honored by the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce and countries such as Israel and Germany. Next month the Stockbridge resident will receive an award from the French government. She will be named a Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters, or Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. The distinction recognizes those who have contributed significantly to further the arts in France and throughout the world. Past winners have been Robert Redford as well as Yoel Levi and Robert Shaw, both of whom served as music director and principal conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Nelson learned this month she would receive the honor.

“I was completely and totally surprised and humbled,” Nelson said.

Since Nelson assumed her role in 1990, the recital hall's budget has risen from about $7,000 annually to nearly $2 million for the 2005-2006 concert season.

Named for Emily Spivey, who provided many of its furnishings, the hall was conceived as an ideal setting for patrons to listen to concerts, Nelson said.

“It was not designed to sell music, it was designed to hear music,” Nelson said.

Nonetheless, Nelson has helped the hall, which is considered an intimate setting, become a venue for musicians to play.

“We identify artists on the cusp of their career,” she said. Performers with established reputations also perform at Spivey Hall. Concert seasons are developed at least one year in advance.

The hall has featured performances by musicians such as Daniel Barenboim, music director for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as Jazz Trmobonist Delfeayo Marsalis.

About 70 percent of patrons that attend the hall's concerts typically are from northern metro Atlanta, she said.

“People that come to Spivey are the same people that go to the Atlanta Symphony,” she said.

In developing a season, Nelson works with representatives from venues such as the Georgia State University Rialto Center for Performing Arts, Emory University's Donna and Marvin Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the University of Georgia's Hugh Hodgson Concert Hall and Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Arts.

“All of us coordinate to see if there are any direct conflicts. It doesn't pay to deal competitively with the fragile ecosystem of patrons,” she said.

Some of the Los Angeles native's favorite moments consist of having music broadcasts conducted at Spivey Hall during the Olympic games held in Atlanta in 1996 and hearing the Spivey Hall Children's choir perform this year.