The young Spoleto Festival Orchestra form the festival's backbone 

Orchestra of Virtuosos

Director of orchestral music Emmanuel Villaume rules the SFO with an iron baton

William Struhs

Director of orchestral music Emmanuel Villaume rules the SFO with an iron baton

Among the hardest working, yet least recognized, of Spoleto's many accomplished artists are the roughly 90 musicians in the Spoleto Festival Orchestra. Much of the Spoleto-going public is clueless about their backgrounds and future potential. But, in fact, they're some of the best of their generation.

Spoleto's planners and directors are far from idle, even when they aren't in Charleston for the festival's 17 days. Two of them — Director of Orchestral Music and Opera Emmanuel Villaume and Music in Time Series Director John Kennedy — spend considerable time at 15 annual nationwide auditions for the SFO, sifting through nearly a thousand candidates comprising the cream of America's young instrumentalists. Most of them are either budding professionals or postgrad students from the nation's most prestigious conservatories, like Juilliard, Curtis, Oberlin, Indiana. These are the wildly gifted kids who are destined to become first-chair players someday for the world's top orchestras. Some may even become famous soloists and chamber players. No wonder Maestro Villaume calls them his "orchestra of virtuosos."

Thus, for a little more than two weeks each year, Charleston is home to an orchestra that contains more raw talent than most any major metro ensemble you can name. And the festival runs them ragged; they put up with grueling 12-to-14-hour days filled with multiple rehearsals or performances, plus constant personal practice in between.

They work for peanuts and glory. They crash in the College of Charleston's dorms and are paid a tiny stipend that covers little more than daily meals. But they do it because SFO experience is a big feather in any young musician's cap, a coveted professional ticket punch guaranteed to open doors in the future. Like Kennedy says, "Many dozens of former SFO members now hold important positions with the world's finest orchestras — and many more are headed in that direction."

Kennedy also believes that this year's orchestra may well turn out to be the best ever. He mentions that — as usual — some of the finest players from previous festival orchestras will return. "Besides," he says, "this year's auditions were perhaps the most rigorous and competitive yet, and a higher percentage of our first-choice players than ever before answered our call to come play for us."

How can that be possible, from a bunch of orchestral "rookies," most of whom have never played in this kind of big band before? For these players, orchestral music making is still a fairly new thrill; performing hasn't yet become a matter of daily routine for them. Thus, they bring a palpable measure of youthful freshness and energy to their playing, a kind of passion born of new discovery. "But this can sometimes be hard to control," says Villaume. "Conducting them, I often get the feeling of having a tiger by the tail."

But control them he does. A music lover from Chicago perhaps said it best after hearing a particularly gutsy SFO performance of Beethoven's fabulous fifth symphony a few years back: "The Chicago Symphony can play this old warhorse in their sleep," he cracked, "but unfortunately, they sound like they're asleep." That's something you'll never have to worry about from these players.

This year, you'll find them at just about any of the festival's classical events that require instruments, save for the Chamber series at Dock Street. But let's highlight their main shows: the two big festival concerts at the Gaillard. The first, on May 31, will present works composed for big-band forces, requiring all of the SFO's players plus a few scattered extras. The main fare will be German composer Richard Strauss' mighty Also Sprach Zarathustra, a sumptuous extended-tone poem that the classic Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey made famous.

Their second big event comes on June 6, but you'll probably hear fewer players in a program that features Beethoven's witty (and underrated) masterpiece, his Symphony No. 8, as well as Mozart's revered Haffner symphony (No. 35).

For the first time, they'll be in the pit for Giselle, the festival's big classical dance event, as well as for Philemon and Baucis, the Haydn opera production for marionettes.

In the course of the Intermezzi series, we'll get two more smaller-scale symphonies by Beethoven (No. 4) and Mozart (No. 40) from the SFO, plus a bubbly Rossini overture and several concertos showcasing members as soloists. They'll also appear in smaller ensembles throughout Kennedy's esoteric Music in Time series.

Their sole remaining duties will be to support Mozart's Coronation Mass — plus shorter works by Brahms and Verdi — in the big choral-orchestral gig. A small ensemble of players will also grace one of the Westminster Choir's smaller events: Charpentier's Litanies de la Vierge. On top of that, many of them will be in the pit for both of the festival's main operas, Neely Bruce's restoration of Flora and Wolfgang Rihm's Proserpina.

Indeed, most of the festival's big classical shows could not go on without these amazing musicians. So, next time you see a crowd of young people with bags under their eyes dragging their instruments wearily up and down Calhoun Street, take a moment to stop, smile, and tell them how much their hard work means to you.

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