The Charleston Symphony Orchestra enters the fall season with more cause for optimism than it's had in quite some time. They've found a new executive director, Janet Newcombe, who brings 25 years of experience with her to help keep the CSO afloat. Artistically, the coming nine months will offer a greater degree of musical cooperation and cross-fertilization within the local music community than we've ever seen before. And that's good news for all concerned.
More and more these days, one of the main jobs of a symphony orchestra — or any performing arts institution — is cultivating new and younger audiences. Gone are the days when an orchestra could survive by simply pandering to the traditional musical demands of its faithful bluehairs and greybeards. God bless 'em, they're the ones with the deepest pockets (and biggest hearts), so we've got to keep them happy. But they won't live forever, and any artistic entity — if it wants to survive — has to appeal to new generations. That means folks whose lifestyles, tastes, and attention spans are entirely different.
Ancient music by dead white European men just doesn't do it for everybody — at least not right off the bat. That's why you take music appreciation in college. But let an orchestra dabble in cool new composers or some snazzy crossover material — or maybe rub elbows with some of the same musicians who entertain the masses in local clubs or coliseums — and just watch the public come around to what an orchestra can do. Then, once you've got their attention, throw a little Mozart or Beethoven at them.
And these are just the sorts of things that the CSO has been doing a lot more of lately. One of the folks who's responsible for that is Scott Terrell, entering his fourth season as resident conductor. He shares Music Director David Stahl's conviction that an orchestra can succeed these days only if it makes itself an indispensable part of its surrounding community.
After a rocky financial season last year, the CSO and its board have worked hard on garnering support from local businesses (Baker Motors, Ginn Resorts, McCrady's Restaurant), and a dedicated new director this year should help relieve their persistent financial woes.
The orchestra's non-musical leadership has come around to a new way of thinking lately, too. The board of directors used to fuss mostly about how many tickets they could sell to a given concert. But now it's working on how to worm its way deeper into the community. Appeal to a broader demographic range, and ticket sales will take care of themselves.
According to both Stahl and Terrell, last season was something of a watershed year, when the CSO could first dare to hope that a turnaround was truly in progress. Several new approaches to programming proved to be viable attention-getters and revenue sources — if brisk ticket sales thus far for this season are any indication. But, for the first time, Terrell is finally seeing the kinds and extent of diverse, well-balanced offerings and audiences that he and Stahl have been striving for. As he gleefully told me last week, "We're not just a museum anymore."
Stahl — who built the CSO from scratch — remains in charge of the band's core Masterworks series, where the timeless orchestral traditions are honored and larger-scale classics are offered. But Terrell guides the three smaller series that appeal to modern tastes. The first of these is a fresh approach to the Casual Classics series, now known as Backstage Pass, to be presented at the newly-refurbished Sottile Theatre. With its casual attire and Terrell's chatty talks from the podium about the music, the CSO is letting its hair down a bit.
That's been taken a few steps further this season, with five laid-back events that will feature at least one living composer per program. You'll hear prime new sounds from tunesmiths like Osvaldo Golijov, John Corigliano, Roberto Sierra, and Aulis Sallinen. But never fear: all of these dudes write music that you can love. The rest of them (including Piazzolla, Ginastera, Janacek, and Revueltas) are mostly from the past century, and will make for some pretty interesting listening, too.
Tired of evening-length concerts and wasted intermission time? Try showing up for Backstage Pass performances by 7 p.m. Fridays, enjoying up to 75 minutes of catchy music uninterrupted (except for Terrell's user-friendly commentary) — and you're back on the street by 8:30 tops, with hours of Charleston's weekend nightlife yet ahead of you.
On the non-classical side of the musical spectrum, there's the Saturday night McCrady's Pops Series. There'll be something for everybody here, beginning with a 50th anniversary tribute to one of America's greatest musicals: Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story. Following December's perennially popular holiday pops program, 2008 will bring three very different sorts of events. The offbeat (and very funny) Quartetto Gelato uses conventional classical instruments to perform very unconventional music — and they'll use them here to celebrate the music of Italy. To wrap things up, the CSO will join with Rajaton, a fab group of Finnish vocalists to pay tribute to the '70s Swedish supergroup ABBA.
Terrell is particularly pumped about this season's Out of the Box mini-series, slated for the Charleston Music Hall. Their third annual springtime film contest, with local cinematographers setting their work to varied musical selections from the CSO, will be back this season, but two tasty events will precede it. The first will feature local jazz percussion legend and teacher Quentin Baxter in a program improvising on the music of jazz-influenced composer Darius Milhaud, plus the work of jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Max Roach (who passed away in recent weeks). Then Jay Clifford, of Jump, Little Children fame, will join the orchestra with music that he's written himself since Jump disbanded two years ago. His acoustic rock program will also serve as a tribute to the legendary local arranger Earl Mays, who also passed away this summer.
Maestro Stahl's headlining Masterworks series promises a juicy array of larger scale classics this year. He'll kick off with Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, the 20th century's favorite choral-orchestral blockbuster. Talk about community involvement: the choir is a mega-bunch made up of the CSOC, the CSO Gospel Choir, Rob Taylor's College of Charleston Concert Choir, and the Charleston Children's Choir. That adds up to over 250 pairs of vocal chords, coming from more different choirs than ever before ... so count on some heavy decibels.
The same community spirit will also grace the next program, where the main attraction is Beethoven's radiant Triple Concerto. It'll show off the considerable solo chops of resident CofC pedagogues Lee Chin Siow (violin), Natalia Khoma (cello) and Enrique Graf (piano) — all three of whom sport international reputations.
And there are plenty of plums to follow. Alex Kerr, a former CSO Concertmaster who went on to a fiddler's fame and fortune, will return to solo in Beethoven's noblissimo violin concerto; we'll hear Brahms' crackling Symphony No. 4 in the same program. Next, searing Russian pathos will scour our souls, thanks to the glittering "Rach 3": Rachmaninoff's near-impossible third piano concerto (made famous in the movie Shine), plus Tchaikovsky's gloriously gloomy "Pathetique" symphony. Then, Haydn's Cello Concerto in D will provide perky contrast to the chill Nordic landscapes of Sibelius's fifth symphony.
Doing the elegant honors in Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 will be Columbia "piano diva" Marina Lomazov, followed by the lush impressionism of Ravel's virtuosic Daphnis and Chloe ballet music. This season, you can also count on Yuriy Bekker, the CSO's concertmaster, to bring Erich Korngold's ultra-romantic violin concerto to passionate life, warming us up for Berlioz's wacky but wonderful Symphonie Fantastique. The season should go out with a bang, thanks to a complete concert performance of Leonard Bernstein's comic operetta Candide. — Lindsay Koob