The Charleston Symphony Orchestra is proving that it’s hard to dislodge a long-standing cornerstone of arts and culture in the city. Kick at it as you might, pound it with hammers, and all you’re likely to do is put a crack in it.
The big crack inflicted by the recession of 2008 and subsequent financial, labor and management struggles that nearly caused the symphony organization to crumble, now has been sealed and the cornerstone strengthened.
Today the Charleston Symphony is on an upward trajectory. Its ticket sales are breaking records. Its programming is more varied than ever. Its donor base is expanding. Its board of directors is populated with some new people. And its musicians are engaged in the process of determining its future.
The 2013-14 season, which begins Friday and Saturday at the Sottile Theatre with the first Pops series concerts, featuring a Latin program called “Fiesta,” is an unusual one for the symphony. For this is the year a new music director likely will be selected.
The symphony is auditioning six candidates, each of whom will conduct a Masterworks series program, and it is asking the Charleston community to pay attention and provide feedback. Audience surveys, pre-concert discussions and public Q&A sessions all are planned.
The symphony has been without a permanent music director since the death of David Stahl in October 2010. Guest conductors have been cycling through, which has helped diversify programming and energize players. Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker has served as acting artistic director, a role he will relinquish, at least in part, once a new music director or lead conductor is named (though he surely will continue to exercise his influence).
The symphony also is searching for a new executive director, the administrative chief of the organization. Daniel Beckley, a young bass trombonist and former board member, assumed the post in December 2010 and helped steer the organization out of its financial and contractual hazards before leaving this summer because of disagreements with the board.
Cindy Hartley, first vice president of the board, is spearheading both searches. She said the symphony’s music director search committee, which consists of many musicians, received about 200 applications, narrowed down the selection to 20, then whittled it down further, to the current six.
A national search is underway for an executive director who will be “a key leader,” someone who must manage change, build bridges to the community and ensure the symphony is well situated in the new Gaillard Center, now under construction, Hartley said.
She said all the officers are motivated by the organization’s recent successes, and the board generally has a firm grip on the rudder.
At the annual meeting last month, Michael Moody, vice president for finance, offered a breakdown of revenues and expenses. The symphony took in about $2.6 million during fiscal year 2013 and spent nearly $2.5 million. For the third year in a row, it ended its fiscal year with a small surplus.
About 54 percent of income is a result of individual giving; ticket sales represent 35 percent, with grants and a small endowment draw making up the difference. Artistic and production expenses last year consumed 63 percent of the budget while general, administrative and development costs amounted to 37 percent of total spending.
Over the last three years, revenue and assets have grown significantly. The stabilization of the symphony’s finances has instilled renewed confidence in donors, Moody said. The symphony has seen a 65 percent increase in corporate funding since last year and 86 new donors who have contributed $1,500 or more.
Jim Braunreuther, vice president for education, said a special emphasis is being placed on outreach programs. Some initiatives, such as the Young People’s Concerts and the Composition and Critique experiment, have proven popular and worth expanding.
The goal is to give 3,000 public school students exposure to orchestra concerts during the new season, to introduce small ensembles to classrooms in 32 schools and to pair College of Charleston composition students with children from 12 area schools to work on creating new music together as part of the literary Composition and Critique program.
Other initiatives include:
The new Classical Fusion effort, which uses popular music to build bridges between different musical genres.
Share the Stage, which gives young players in the state a chance to perform on stage in the orchestra.
The new Young Artists Competition for high-level performers, the winner of which will perform with the symphony at a family concert in the 2014-15 season.
The symphony has started a young patrons program called Remix, which has about 50 members and organizes special events and family programs. This is a part of an effort to engage younger people and cultivate a new generation of classical music supporters in Charleston, according to Remix committee chairman Hugh McDaniel.
The search for a new music director has been slow to start because it was important to stabilize the organization and set it on its current course, Bekker said.
“We are listening to our patrons, donors and concertgoers and we are performing concerts and providing outreach that are absolutely important to our community,” Bekker said. “My hope and wish, looking in the future, is that we reach out to more people. ... We have to open doors to make (the symphony) more accessible.”
Don’t be surprised if free outdoor concerts are soon introduced.
But the immediate priority is twofold: to find a chief conductor and to provide audiences with a memorable season, symphony officials said.
The Chamber Concert Series at the Dock Street Theatre, which has expanded to six performances, is already 75 percent sold. And the Masterworks series will include performances of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7, Berlioz’ “Symphony Fantastique,” Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration” and Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, popularly known as the Organ Symphony.
Soloists include violinists Karen Gomyo and Alexander Kerr, singer Jennifer Luiken, pianists Andrew Armstrong and Marina Lomazov and cellist Natalia Khoma.
“It’s a most exciting time,” Bekker said. “We’re in a really great place right now.”
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Brandon Nichols is principal horn player for the symphony.×
Thomas Joyce plays bass trombone for the symphony.×
Norbert Lewandowski, the symphony’s principal cellist, performs at Piccolo Spoleto’s Sunset Serenade concert in May.×
Guest conductor JoAnn Falletta directed the Charleston Symphony in an all-Russian program earlier this year.×