Musicians, music lovers head for new digs at Memminger

A new year, a new venue.

At the start of Wednesday's Charleston Symphony Orchestra rehearsal at Memminger Auditorium, music director David Stahl told the musicians that playing in this recently renovated space was part of the organization's attempt to save money and improve the concert experience for patrons.

"It's an experiment," he said.

Memminger is not totally unfamiliar to orchestra players. They performed two concerts from the Backstage Pass series there last year. And the CSO has been eyeing the venue for months, ever since its $1.2 million renovation, spearheaded by Spoleto Festival USA, was completed in the Spring.

But this is the first time a Masterworks program will be offered there. And it's the first time Stahl will conduct in the space.

"For me, I think of it as CSO 360," he said, referring both to the full circle taken by the orchestra, which called Memminger home in the 1940s and 1950s, and to the seating configuration, which places patrons all round the players.

"It's a chance for people to see and hear the orchestra not just in a normal concert setting, but from different vantage points," he said. "There will be a much greater intimacy between the performers and the public."

The orchestra will perform Dmitri Shostakovich's ironic, playful and sometimes foreboding Ninth Symphony, written in 1945 after Allied forces defeated the Nazis. Also on the program is Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, an old favorite, featuring Jeffrey Biegel.

Stahl said some patrons will find themselves sitting just a few feet from the piano. Others will be behind the orchestra, with a clear view of the percussion and woodwinds sections, as well as the conductor's face.

While some of the orchestra's patrons like the austere grandeur of the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, home to the Merrill Lynch Masterworks concerts, other music lovers and members of the arts community have been grumbling about the acoustics at the facility for years.

Musicians at Wednesday's rehearsal were cautiously optimistic about the playing at Memminger. Cellist Damian Kremer said he liked the live sound in the hall but worried that people used to the Gaillard would find the change disconcerting.

Tom Bresnick, a double bass player, said some musicians were glad about the move and the flexibility the space offers, while others were reserving their judgment.

"It's change, and change is always difficult for folks," said Ted Legasey, CSO board chairman.

Legasey said recent fundraising efforts have been successful, thanks in large part to a $75,000 matching gift that expires Jan. 31. The gift prompted former donors to give again and drew new donors into the fold, he said.

The orchestra has funded more than half of its annual budget, but must find another $800,000 before the end of the fiscal year in June, Legasey said. "That's a very steep hill, especially given the fact that we went pretty much to the bottom of the well to get through December," he said.