Edward Hart: Finding the hooks in Charleston
He grew up on Savage Street, just south of Broad, a block from the house where his mother was raised and four blocks from his father’s childhood home.
The family’s been in Charleston for generations; Draytons and Bulls on his father’s side, Sieglings on his mother’s side. The original Siegling opened a music house on King Street, which closed in the 1970s, during the height of white flight. The store had rented a piano to George Gershwin.
When Edward Hart Jr., now 47, was enrolled as a student at the College of Charleston, he played keyboards and sang in rock ’n’ roll cover bands. The first band, Shot in the Dark, featured lead singer Stephen Colbert. “We were terrible,” Hart said.
But the money he earned helped pay some college bills.
Rock music, especially the New Wave of the 1970s and the loud, artsy stuff by bands like Led Zeppelin and Cheap Trick, still exercises its influence on Hart, who is a composer of classical music and the new chairman of the music department at the College of Charleston.
“There is no substitute for a good hook,” he said over coffee at Kudu cafe, as songs by The Clash and The Ramones played over the sound system. “I don’t think anyone would necessarily listen to my music and say it sounds like Led Zeppelin,” but it has got its own sort of hooks, that’s for sure.
But mostly it’s Charleston itself — the humidity, sunlight, smells, bugs, brackish creeks and marshes, abandoned rice fields, oyster roasts, coastal color spectrum, tides, storms and shrimp boats — that influences Hart and informs his music.
He is happy staying put.
‘In a vat of butter’
Which doesn’t mean he’s not interested in the wide world. He’s traveled a lot, seen parts of Europe and South America. He’s opened his mind to a variety of musical, social and political perspectives. He’s befriended his colleague and fellow composer Yiorgos Vassilandonakis, who hails from Crete (the two families will visit Greece together next summer). He derives great pleasure from experiencing the unfamiliar.
‘In a vat of butter’
“I like travel,” he said. “I like coming home.”
As an undergraduate student at the College of Charleston, Hart began by majoring in economics, but soon switched to music.
“At the end of the day, Beethoven was more interesting than the gross national product,” he said.
As a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, he studied with composer Dick Goodwin. Once he earned his Ph.D., he prepared himself for the grueling process of finding a job — somewhere.
Coincidentally, the College of Charleston had an opening for a part-time lecturer, a position that quickly became full-time and long-term. So Hart came home.
“It’s too good to be true,” he said. “I still pinch myself. I get up every morning 30 steps from where my mother lives, ride my bike to work to talk about music. I fell in a vat of butter.”
It only got better 15 years ago when he married author Beth Webb Hart after they met on a blind date. On their third outing, he took her to a Charleston Symphony Orchestra concert. The late David Stahl was conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.
The couple have two children: Frances, 12, and Edward III, 6.
Like many true Charlestonians, Hart loves the outdoors. Hunting. Fishing. Boating. Staring across marsh vistas with a cigar in one hand and a glass of Madeira wine in the other.
“Being outdoors affected me artistically,” Hart said. His main goal as a composer is to capture the essence of Charleston, its climate and atmosphere, its nature, its soul.
On one occasion, Hart was walking to a funeral through the graveyard of an historic downtown church thinking about all those who made the same passage along the same path, past the same headstones to honor both the newly dead and those long gone.
“Last spring,” he said, “the jasmine went crazy. I remember walking home and getting knocked over by the smell. I was in a daze, put in a trance.”
And then there are the tides — the ebb, slack and flood — with those breathless moments between phases when the water, either high or low in the creeks, sits still.
How can a composer capture that moment, or the fragrance of jasmine, or the sunset over the marsh, or the humidity left after the summer storm?
“Edward is one of those rare people who felt like family almost from the moment we met,” his friend Vassilandonakis said. “Three short years later, ‘family’ is probably the only word that comes close to describing our relationship. We spend a lot of time around each other on a daily basis, from running the composition area and planning concerts together, to our daily coffee run and occasional weekend boat trip or dinner with our families.”
Vassilandonakis, who writes music that is not similar to Hart’s, appreciates his friend’s musical accomplishments.
“His music is well-crafted and conceived with sensitivity to form and timbre,” he said. “His orchestral writing (is) lush and resonant, yet somehow his music never alienates listeners, without bowing down to them either.”
Yuriy Bekker, concertmaster and acting artistic director of the Charleston Symphony, premiered Hart’s violin concerto, “Under an Indigo Sky,” in 2011 with the Lake Charles Symphony, then performed it again in April 2012 with his own orchestra.
The piece, which has three movements, each representing a part of the state, is a little Edward Elgar-like — lush and flowing, with vibrant flashes from the soloist. Hart would write a passage then give it to Bekker to try, inviting feedback. “Indigo Sky,” therefore, was written especially for Bekker and harbors some of the violinist’s own music sensibilities within its phrases.
The first movement, “Fast Flowing Rivers,” is a metaphor for the fast-paced politics of the state capital and dynamism of its best-known public university, Hart’s alma mater. The second movement, “Warm Salt Air,” is a slow nocturne referring to the Lowcountry and its climate.
“My thought is, you’re sitting on the perfect late spring day on the water and you have the perfect blend of temperature, breeze and humidity,” Hart once said about this movement. “And there are no bugs.”
He said it’s the slow movement that “separates composers from the pretenders.” It’s much more difficult to write expressive, meaningful lines than to produce flash and zip. And Bekker’s ability to play a languid phrase is unsurpassed, Hart said.
The piece ends in the piedmont with a movement called “Misty Blue Horizon,” evoking the pine-blue vistas of the foothills and mountains.
Now Hart is working on a new composition for the Charleston Symphony, one that mimics the orchestration of Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro” for string quartet and string orchestra. Both works will be performed in April on a Charleston Chamber Orchestra series program at the Dock Street Theatre, with Bekker conducting. Listen for those hooks.
Hart takes over chairmanship of the music department at the College of Charleston from Steve Rosenberg, who announced last year that he’d be stepping down from that post after two decades of leadership.
“I felt like it was the right time for a challenge,” Hart said. “I have to learn new skills, including accounting. There is a stewardship aspect to this, too.” This is Hart’s hometown. This is Hart’s alma mater. “I have an obligation to make this place better. As the tide of Charleston rises, so do our opportunities.”
He hired Evie Christou, an experienced administrator and Vassilandonakis’ wife, to take charge of the International Piano Series now that Enrique Graf is no longer part of the school. He is working closely with Vassilandonakis on the Magnetic South concert series, a showcase of contemporary classical music. And he is assisting cellist and colleague Natalia Khoma as she prepares this year’s Charleston Music Fest.
All the while, he is teaching: this semester, freshman theory.
“My email pings all day long,” he said. “When I can empty my inbox it’s been a good day.”
Vassilandonakis said his friend’s leadership brings “optimism and enthusiasm” to the faculty, staff and students.
“It’s no surprise that he enjoys wide support from the community,” Vassilandonakis said. “Edward is someone that you just want to see do well, and I suspect he feels like family to a lot of people. Just take a stroll with him around town, and count all those who will stop what they’re doing and start a conversation with him.”
Bekker agrees. “He’s the ultimate Mr. Charleston.”
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