Charleston Symphony announces plans, changes for 2016-17 season

Vladimir Tsarkov is a performer with Cirque de la Symphonie, which is joining the CSO for a Pops concert next season.

How can a symphony orchestra that’s been around for 80 years remain vital and win new audiences? This is the $64,000 question with which almost every classical orchestra is grappling these days.

The Charleston Symphony, which was founded in 1936, is tackling this challenge in several ways: with expanded education outreach, more collaboration, the presentation of special musical guests and creative programming.

It’s a great moment for the CSO to implement new ideas and make some incremental changes, according to its leadership.

It has a new music director, Ken Lam; it has a new concert hall, the Gaillard Center; it has a full-time director of education and community engagement, Janice Crews; and perhaps most importantly, it has a core group of motivated musicians who participate in the decision-making process and feel invested in the symphony’s future.

Each of these improvements brings a particular set of challenges. What can Lam do to raise the musical bar? How can the CSO fill 1,000 more seats per concert? How best should the musicians engage school children?

In an extended interview last week, Lam, Crews and Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker discussed these challenges and described the programming for the 2016-17 season. Programming, it turns out, is an essential tool — perhaps the key — for unlocking the door that leads to the next 80 years.

The CSO is making two big changes for the upcoming season. It’s introducing a new chamber music series and its naming Bekker artistic director of the Pops series. It’s also got plans to bolster the Magnetic South series, which features contemporary classical music.

The Pops series will consist of four concerts: Cirque de la Symphonie, which combines music and acrobatics; “Holiday Pops”; a Valentine’s Day show featuring Tony DeSare singing songs of Frank Sinatra; and pianist Ellis Hall, who will present music from Motown and beyond.

Lam said pops concerts work best when both the guest performers and the conductor exude charisma. That’s why Bekker is taking over. He’s a talented conductor with good programming sense, he’s known and respected in the community, and he has his finger on the pulse of the CSO’s patrons.

Bekker said the season is nicely arranged to allow him to conduct and play violin, both as concertmaster and as soloist.

The Masterworks series has eight concerts, including two featuring the CSO Chorus singing Brahms’ German Requiem and Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 1 in C Major. The opening Masterworks concert includes a performance of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic Symphony No. 5 as well as works by three French composers. The Masterworks closer features Mahler’s grandiose Symphony No. 5 along with Micah McLaurin playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor.

In between, the symphony will perform Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (no. 6), Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto (featuring Bekker as soloist), pianist Andre Watts playing the Grieg concerto and more.

The gala season opener stars Leon Fleischer performing Ravel’s Piano Concert for Left Hand and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9. The CSO also will present its second New Year’s Eve gala concert.

The new chamber music series, to be held at the Gaillard Center, will include three concerts. The esteemed Canadian Brass will perform, joined by CSO brass players; the Shanghai Quartet will offer a program that includes the Mendelssohn Octet, performed with the CSO’s four principal string players; and mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick, a Metropolitan Opera regular, will return to Charleston for a program of Bach featuring, once again, the CSO Chorus.

The CSO is extending its reach not only through ambitious concert programs but with beefed-up education outreach. With Crews taking the lead, symphony players and staff are bringing the music to the schools, and bringing the students to the Gaillard.

Crews and her colleagues have met with teachers to discuss and design curriculum elements and consider what works and what doesn’t in the classroom.

Musicians spend many hours on education outreach, and they do so with a high level of commitment, Crews said.

It’s all a result of high morale and a collective determination to advance the cause of the CSO, Lam said.

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