A native Memphian, Peter Abell was born into a family of musicians. His father was in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, his mother was a trained pianist and his sister, a violinist.
“Music never really stuck with me,” Abell says. “I was more into sports and was sort of the black sheep of my musical family and played basketball.”
Abell attended White Station High School and later the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He returned to Memphis and started his career in the nonprofit world, working with the Boy Scouts of America.
After earning a master’s degree from the University of Memphis in public administration with a concentration in nonprofit management, Abell worked with Youth Villages from 2004-2012. From there, he became executive director of Books from Birth, Dolly Parton’s literacy charity, which is now merged with the programs of Porter-Leath.
Despite not being an avid musician himself, he has found himself immersed in the arts culture of Memphis as president and CEO of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra since 2017.
“I made a leap of faith into the arts world last summer with the Memphis Symphony,” Abell said.
“To me the greatest value of the symphony is the musicians who make it up,” he said. “We’re a resident orchestra of 75 people—we are Memphis’s symphony.”
Every musician in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, which performs in the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, lives in Memphis and not only contributes to the ensemble but to other aspects of the community as well.
“Many of the musicians are arts collaborators and teachers. They are part of the fabric of the arts of Memphis and bring a lot to the community,” he said.
The Memphis Symphony Orchestra has partnerships with Soulsville and FedEx to engage the community in mutually-beneficial activities including receptions, mentoring and work presentations.
When asked about the future of Memphis, Abell points out how well he thinks things are going.
“You hear cliché things about being on the cusp of something great, but I firmly believe that,” he said. I think we have a very authentic community and a lot of people working hard to make sure everyone gets to be a part of it.”
Outside of his career, Abell is involved in his church as well as with the Boy Scouts of America. He and his wife Jessica, who is chaplain of St. George’s Independent School, have two children, Amos and Molly.
“I think that’s the key why Memphis is a unique community — it’s because we’re all in this together. The city has been through a lot, and I’m just very proud of where the city is.”
Congratulations Peter for making our community a better place for all.