Musical outlets

Margie Fendley (flute) and Jimmy Wilkinson (oboe) rehearse for a Southcoast Symphony Orchestra performance.

For community orchestras, it is not simply a matter of filling the artistic gaps. They exist at least as much for part-time musicians to have an opportunity to perform as for the audiences who appreciate their efforts.

Most of the players have day jobs not directly associated with music, though there are quite a few who teach professionally.

But there are two things they do share with their larger professional brethren such as the Charleston Symphony Orchestra: the challenge of finding adequate funding in a precarious economy and an abiding love of orchestral music.

“Many of our musicians are people who played in college and went off to other careers, but missed performing. This gives them the chance to play again,” says Naomi Nimmo, executive director of the Summerville Community Orchestra, now in its ninth year.

Which means that for some, there may be a slight residue of rust.

“That's why a conductor with special qualifications is needed, and, luckily, we have that in Alexander Agrest, who since 1989 has also been a violist with the CSO. He has the ability and the patience to take musicians of very varying degrees of technique and musicality and come out with one cohesive sound.”

Nimmo, one-time executive director of the Flowertown Players, notes that while the CSO's personnel are paid professionals with the bulwark of a union and contracts, community orchestras such as Summerville's and its colleagues, the Southcoast Symphony in Charleston and the recently established St. James Community Orchestra on James Island, could not possibly afford the cost.

“We'd have to ask so much for tickets it would not be feasible,” she says. “We charge $10 a ticket, and it's free for everyone under 18. The CSO can't do that; they'd go bankrupt.”

Although some of its patrons also attend performances of the CSO, Nimmo says a larger percentage go solely to the Summerville orchestra's concerts.

“Allowing for some overlap, our audience — drawn from Summerville, Moncks Corner, Goose Creek and St. George — tends not to want to drive to downtown Charleston after the workday. And parking is a very important issue for concert-goers, as is location. If you don't have adequate parking, tickets sales can go from 600 to 60.”

There's also the matter of expectations and tastes.

“I love them myself, but based on our surveys, many in our audience would find, say, a grand Mahler symphony too long and too high brow. They tend to gravitate to familiar classics, to pops, Broadway, patriotic music and jazz. We program as much as possible of each in every concert. Our programming is mixed genre.”

Established in 1995, and now under the musical direction of Todd Jenkins (who moonlights as conductor of the Charleston Community Band), the Southcoast Symphony Orchestra is the dean of local groups, composed of professional and amateur musicians from throughout the Lowcountry.

Performing at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, its stated mission is “to provide affordable symphony orchestra concerts to the public and provide a creative outlet for local musicians to share their talents with the community.”

Affordable, as in free. “Our musicians are a diverse group who come from all walks of life, and we welcome musicians of all skill levels,” says Tyler All, Southcoast violinist and board president. “Professional groups hire musicians to play the pieces perfectly, and while we do have high expectations for ourselves, it is not our focus. Ours is on the musicians themselves, whether they are enjoying participating. And we still produce a comparable product.”

Playing music for the public on a larger scale is the main, but not only, draw.

“Everybody in our orchestra is a patron of other local groups,” All says. “But they are also musicians with the desire to perform, and they are attracted to the social environment.”

A small percentage of the Southcoast's personnel are professionals, among them concertmaster Rex Conner, a violinist formerly with the CSO, and Jenkins, who also plays trumpet for the CSO (his wife, Kate is a CSO trombonist). But a much larger number of its members are teachers and band directors.

Like the Summerville group, the Southcoast Symphony generally performs with 40-45 musicians, depending on the program, but frequently collaborates with other groups.

“We are absolutely not in competition with anyone,” says Jenkins, a former band director at Brevard (N.C.) College who teaches trumpet at Wando High School and the Charleston County School of the Arts. “All the people who come to play with us have real jobs during the day and come to the SCSO to unwind. They want to sound good, but they definitely want to have fun doing it.”

There is no paid staff. All, who has a landscaping business, leads a five-person board, all of whose members play in the orchestra.

The annual budget is an austere $20,000, all from donations. Formerly known by the somewhat unwieldy title of the Charleston Metropolitan Civic Orchestra, Southcoast changed its name to reflect its sponsorship by Southcoast Community Bank. It also draws financial support from one of its own musicians, Dr. George Durst, a violinist from Sullivan's Island and, beginning this year, from the Lyndhurst Foundation.

The Summerville Community Orchestra does not have its own performance venue, but rather uses Summerville Baptist Church and, beginning with the 2012-13 season, Northwood Baptist Church.

The local Arts, Business and Civic Coalition has been encouraging the creation of a civic center and performance arts space for Summerville, but that could take at least five years, if it happens at all, Nimmo says.

As always, funding is a key issue.

“In the last two years, major corporations have not been funding arts groups, and we're all going through the same thing,” says Nimmo. “Corporations want more bang for the buck. Which means we have to look to other sources of revenue.

“So we're always looking at other ways to raise money. The standard for a good, well-balanced arts organization is 50 percent earned income (ticket sales) and 50 percent contributions. That's what people hope for.”

But earned income of $50,000 is insufficient now, says Nimmo, who believes the Summerville orchestra must expand.

“With revenue harder to get, you have to cut your budget without cutting production because you'll end up with no product. The best way to do this is to increase earned revenue, and that means putting on more concerts, generally repeat concerts. The musicians do not have to rehearse as often, and so they don't have to learn new music. It takes six weeks on average to learn music for a concert.”

The SCO's annual budget is roughly $50,000 for operating expenses and $25,000 on which donors have placed certain restrictions, such as cash being earmarked for tourism marketing. The latter is derived largely from the town of Summerville's accommodations tax.

Apart from royalties, venue rental and marketing are the SCO's principal expenses, though Nimmo and Agrest also draw modest salaries.

“MeadWestvaco is the SCO's title sponsor for next year,” says Nimmo, who did her MBA thesis on the Oakland Symphony bankruptcy. “We have great foundations like the Donnelley Foundation supporting us as well, and hundreds of individuals who help us.”

Founded in 2003 by Betty Settle, Dean Glace (the SCO's principal trumpeter) and others, in 2005 the orchestra brought Agrest on board.

Nimmo likewise brings considerable expertise to the task, with 30 years' experience in arts administration. She earned a Master in Music from the University of California at Berkeley and the San Francisco Conservatory and an MBA from Golden Gate University.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.