Daniel Beckley, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra's newly appointed executive director, possesses not only a remarkable blend of qualifications for the job, but he has proposed a wealth of promising new initiatives designed to reinvent the orchestra.
Beckley spent his earliest professional years as a music educator, which should help guide his expansion of the CSO's educational role in the community, one of his top priorities. He then earned his performance degree in bass trombone, lending him insight into the needs of orchestral players. He gained valuable administrative experience through his most recent position as managing director at BlueKey Web Solutions here in Charleston where, since 2005, he was instrumental in guiding the company through a 400-percent growth spurt. That experience also bodes well for new initiatives to promote, support, and broadcast the CSO via the internet. Finally, he served on the CSO's executive board in recent years, gaining an insider's perspective into the difficult fiscal realities of running an orchestra in a new day and age. Fans and musicians alike still harbor serious reservations about the organization's new business model, which reduced the orchestra's core size to 24 salaried musicians, requiring the extensive hiring of freelance "imports" to enable the orchestra to play most orchestral classics. Many see this as a performance quality issue, mainly because one can never be sure that the best players will be consistently available. Beckley plans to gradually cultivate a reliable pool of top-drawer imports who will jump at the chance to play regularly in Charleston. The plan is to book the best of them well in advance for, say, an entire season's worth of Masterworks concerts. But, as Beckley says, "Even now, our imports are performing splendidly, so I really don't see this as a quality issue."
Beckley further advises that there are no plans at present to restore lost positions. Instead, the priority will be to raise the core players' low salaries as revenues increase. He outlined the process whereby cutting the overall operating budget and core size has finally given them a practical business model that is already attracting fresh support from sources both old and new. He points out that several other distressed orchestras across the country are studying the CSO's new system as a potential model for their own survival. "Popular or not," he maintains, "I believe that the painful decisions of the former executive board under Ted Legasey's leadership will be better understood and appreciated in years to come."
And Beckley fully expects revenues to increase. While he admits that the CSO is still not completely out of the woods, he is pleased with the way fundraising is picking up. Previous major donors who had long since given up on the CSO are lining up to resume contributing, and in big ways. New season subscriptions and solid concert sponsorships are up significantly. Everybody's involved in the fundraising process: players, staff, and board members alike. "Hardly a day goes by without phone calls or e-mails from prominent new people wanting to know how they can help," Beckley says. "That said, we still need a dedicated development director. New board president John Warren and I are sharing those duties right now, but we hope to hire one as soon as we can."
Last spring's public forums hosted by the Future of Orchestral Music in Charleston committee led to extensive findings and recommendations. First and foremost, Beckley says, it's clear that Charleston wants and needs a quality professional orchestra, one that, initially, will serve both Charleston and the entire Lowcountry. Local music lovers also want to gain varied and attractive new musical experiences from them. And they want to hear great music in new and nontraditional venues, like restaurants, theaters, schools, and other suitable public arenas. Beckley even shared a photo of a portable, inflatable acoustic shell that will enable them to deliver quality sound in outdoor settings.
Beckley also outlined the heart of seasons to come: a six-concert Masterworks series, offering the greatest creations of composers from Mozart to Mahler. With a lot of help from concertmaster and artistic adviser Yuriy Bekker, they're looking at a new and different repertoire, but will also continue to offer favorite familiar works. "They're called 'warhorses' for good reason," Beckley says. "People love them. And folks should really be impressed with what they hear, as we're booking some of the finest guest conductors and soloists out there."
The remainder of the typical season will eventually include up to six pops concerts as well as a new chamber music series featuring a wide range of smaller ensembles up to a string orchestra in size. "Education will be another main pillar in the organization. We intend to take things much farther than just school concerts, planning to get our musicians working directly with school band and strings programs," he says.
Beckley's main message to the public about the new CSO is simple: "We're back, and we're here to stay. Program variety, appeal, and performance quality will soon surpass what has gone before. Why don't you show up at the CSO's pair of upcoming Masterworks concerts and see, and hear, for yourselves?"