While the Charleston Symphony Orchestra has been struggling to stay afloat the last few years, things have been going swimmingly for another local classical music group. Chamber Music Charleston celebrates their fifth anniversary next week with a concert featuring five ensemble members and guest pianist Andrew Armstrong.
Sandra Nikolajevs founded Chamber Music Charleston in 2006 after moving to Charleston and seeing a gap in the local music scene. An accomplished musician herself — she trained as a bassoonist at Juilliard and the Paris Conservatory — Nikolajevs wanted to offer an alternative to the major productions of the CSO by presenting more intimate chamber music performances throughout the year.
"Chamber music has always been such a strong part of Spoleto and Piccolo Spoleto, and the feeling was that there really is an audience year-round that appreciates chamber music, which is such an intimate form of experience in classical music," Nikolajevs says.
Comprised of 13 core musicians, CMC has gone from playing 30 concerts their first year to nearly 70 this season. They play small venues across the Lowcountry, from private homes to churches to galleries. One of their most recent challenges might make other arts organizations jealous: They're getting too popular. Their concerts consistently sell out, and they're searching for venues that will accommodate their fans while retaining the sense of intimacy inherent in chamber music.
"Instead of turning people away, we're trying to find the next step up in a venue that still can maintain some of the intimacy, but still reach the demand for what people are asking for in hearing the chamber music," Nikolajevs says. Their anniversary concert will take place in one of their largest venues to date, the Memminger Auditorium.
One reason for CMC's popularity is the skill level of the musicians, some of whom have been playing together since the beginning of the organization. They're highly trained and paid by performance.
"They're much tighter ensemble players, and they have a strong passion for what they do," Nikolajevs says. "I feel that they've really retained this love of making music and being with their friends, creating this piece of art that you then bring to an audience. It seems that they're as happy as they've ever been doing classical music. It's great to see those two things growing over time."
Part of that happiness is no doubt due to their generous spirit and close ties to the local community. On a mission to spread the love of classical music to the masses, they start at the foundation: with children.
"We really want to bring classical music to audiences of all ages," Nikolajevs says. "We feel that we've reached the adults very well, that love to come to our house concerts and performances in art galleries, but it's so important to show the younger audiences, the younger kids, the excitement of live music.
"What we find is having a very multi-sensory experience for the kids gets them excited, and they really get introduced to classical music in a way that's not threatening or challenging," she adds. "It's very comfortable. That's how we hope to cultivate the future audiences for classical music, by going in specifically to the elementary schools and showing them this is what a real musician does and this is what music sounds like."
As for the rest of us, CMC does their best to appeal to a wide range of patrons.
"We're finding so many different ways to bring classical music into Charleston and reach people with different interests, whether it's someone that just wants to sit on the ground at Middleton Place and hear some music or someone that likes to get dressed up and go to a historic home and auction," Nikolajevs says. "We're really finding a way to work into the community and bring the excitement of all of this live music directly to them."