Each spring, about 80 of the country's best young musicians flock to Charleston. Mostly graduate students at great conservatories, they are the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, performing everything from a new opera by Philip Glass to Verdi's Stabat Mater to Stravinsky's Piano Concerto No. 1.
"There's a great deal of activity in a short amount of time," says Chris Powell, festival orchestra personnel manager. "They never stop, from the time they hit the ground."
Running just ahead of and right behind those busy musicians is the orchestra management team. Before the musicians show up, this crew is at the concert venue squeezing the requisite number of chairs into a small orchestra pit, making sure there's a stand in front of each of the chairs, and setting up the big stuff like drums, harpsichords, and marimbas. After the musicians pack up violins, cellos, and oboes, the tech people load up the rest and take it to the next place the orchestra will play.
"These are eager young people who want to be exposed to the inner working of the festival," Powell says. "It's completely exhausting work, but young people have a ton of energy."
Judge Kelly, a Mt. Pleasant native, recently became orchestra operations manager after two years as an apprentice. "I move the chairs, and Chris makes sure everyone sits in them," Kelly says. "You work really hard — 12 or 13 hours a day — but I came in with the expectation of working hard and making sure things were done right."
Unlike the musicians in the orchestra, Kelly (a trombonist who studied music on a college level for several years) and the others in orchestra management are from South Carolina. He and three of his colleagues have been friends since they were classmates a short time ago at Wando High School, while assistant manager and Atlanta native Katherine Crozier is a music education student at the University of South Carolina. They're all young — between the ages of 19 and 22.
"You think management is telling people what to do, but actually it's the opposite," says Crozier, a flutist in her second year working at the festival. "You make sure everything is set up, everyone has a stand, everyone has their music. The maestros are happy, the musicians are happy. You get your hands dirty."
Kelly and Crozier may not get to play music at the festival, but they get to hear a great deal of music and interact with some of the finest musicians, conductors, composers, and directors in the world.
"This year Philip Glass is coming and I'm really looking forward to that," Kelly says. "I've met people from the Metropolitan Opera, Germany, China, all over the world."
The job melds day-to-day-drudgery with amazing artistic experiences that produce life-long memories. "I remember the first few days last year just sweating and heavy lifting," Crozier says. "Then I got to meet the composers and the conductors and so on."
In Kelly's experience, things run surprisingly smoothly, with a few exceptions. Last year, just as he was arriving at a concert by Trombone Shorty, Kelly got a call telling him the band's drummer had broken the snare drum. He headed back to instrument supply and brought another drum. The drummer broke that one as well.
The heavy lifting and long days end just fine, Kelly says. By and large the young musicians in the orchestra are friendly, and the orchestra management team and the musicians often explore the haunts of Charleston when the day is finally done (which can be very late in the day.) "We do all this really hard stuff, but then we get to relax in Charleston," Kelly says. "The city is the equalizer."