A grande dame of the local music scene goes nonagenarian

Emily Remington — choral guru, keyboard queen, impresaria, and all-around arts advocate — celebrates her 90th birthday this week, and the Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs threw a gala party for the grande dame at the Dock Street Theatre earlier this week.

Remington settled in Charleston in 1976, after she retired from her 25-year tenure as Director of the Augusta (Georgia) Choral Society and 12 years at the helm of Augusta College's choral program. Retired? Ha! Once here, she lost no time in upsetting our fair city's then-apathetic and primitive musical apple cart. She went on to establish herself as our most influential all-around musician.

Within a few years, she had taken on the demanding post of organist and choirmistress at Grace Episcopal Church, and began a 10-year stint on the College of Charleston faculty. When maestro David Stahl came to town to overhaul the Charleston Symphony Orchestra into a crack professional ensemble, the need for a competent symphonic choir arose. Remington promptly leapt into the breach, founding the Charleston Symphony Singers' Guild, ancestor to the current CSO Chorus.

We're talking major personality here. While traveling her musical road, Remington hobnobbed with many of the world's great musicians, and sweet-talked quite a few of them into performing here. She's lent her name, persuasive powers, and support to any worthy local musical cause you can name. She's worked on more executive committees and artistic boards than you can shake a baton at. She's opened doors and greased skids for untold numbers of local musicians — like attorney Lon Shull, who credits her with helping him find his destiny as conductor of the Charleston Men's Chorus. She's been laden with countless awards and honors.

A born entertainer, Remington's wit and showmanship let her play a crowd as well as she played her piano — and she delighted in getting a tad flamboyant while she was at it. I recall a guest appearance with the CSO after she relinquished her chorus directorship in 1995: even in her 80s, she still looked good in her slinky sequined gown and bright feather boa. Not content to relax and fade away after passing on her official gigs, she went on to sail the seas as a featured attraction on prestige cruise ships, working with some of showbiz's best.

Even at 90, Remington lends considerable time and energy to musical projects and causes — soon to include a regular monthly concert series at Franke at Seaside, her retirement residence. Ever on the prowl for fresh acts, she roots out and encourages musicians of every ilk. Last fall, she happened to walk into my classical room at Millennium Music while I was playing our Steinway grand, and the next thing I knew, I was scheduled to give a lecture-recital at Franke. As soon as Remington opens her mouth to engage you for some pet project, consider yourself recruited. She has a way of making you want to do it.

Dock street was filled to overflowing Monday night with everybody who's anybody in musical Charleston — and they all had their own Emily stories to tell. She made her grand, boa-draped entrance from a stretch limo, in the company of a special surprise guest: choral master Joseph Flummerfelt, who's been bringing us the very best in choral music every Spoleto for 30 years. The concert — including music composed for the occasion — went beautifully. It was a joy to watch her soak up the boundless love, admiration, and devotion of a grateful city. Happy birthday, Miss Emily. What's next?


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