What’s in a name? A lot, if that name happens to be Charleston.
And for the past few decades, composer Edward Hart has been reluctant to attach the name of Charleston to his compositions, even though many are about or inspired by the region.
“I wanted to wait until after I was 50,” said Hart. "I didn't want to be some young guy claiming to be able to represent Charleston, but once you've had certain amount of mileage on you, you can do that."
An elegant, reflective man, Hart has a resting pensive face, which is framed by wavy hair that is both salt-and-pepper and boyish. And he frequently wears a slim bow tie.
Now in his mid-50s, Hart has rounded his self-decreed mark, and can lay artistic claim to his cherished city. After all, he and his own have been around town long enough. In fact, some of his ancestors first arrived in Charleston in the 1670s.
And here Hart has remained. But for a stint in Columbia to earn a doctorate of music at the University of South Carolina, he has spent most of his life on the peninsula. In childhood days, he fished off The Battery.
"The Charleston of my childhood was about packs of wild children with no shoes on," he said. Hart lives on the peninsula, where he can cycle to his job at the College of Charleston, his alma mater. There, he is a professor of music and chair of the Department of Music.
His compositions have a tad more wanderlust than he seems to, and have been performed the world over. They include concertos for violin, piano and guitar, as well as works for chamber music and choral music. Many have been performed by ensembles in places like Mexico, Uruguay, Ukraine and Austria, as well as throughout the United States.
However, the cultural world has come directly to his doorstep since his early days. At the age of 13, he performed as a chorister in "Martin's Lie," which was written and directed by legendary Spoleto festival founder and composer Gian Carlo Menotti.
Past work performed
Hart's reluctance to name-check his hometown bears out in the title of the work he created for Charleston Symphony a few years back. This season, “Under an Indigo Sky” is part of the "Mozart in the Lowcountry" program, the orchestra’s opening concert for the 2019-20 season on Sept. 27 and 28.
It’s also true that the indigo sky in the work blankets two other parts of South Carolina, geographically organized in three movements. The first focuses on the Midlands, with post-rainstorm rushing rivers. The second movement slows down, as second movements tend to, thus capturing the Lowcountry languor. The final third movement picks up once more in the brisker Upstate.
I press him on that slower second movement, which often settles into the soul of the work. Does it confer a similar status on his hometown of Charleston?
Ever polite, he demurs on assigning any pecking order.
Here’s what he will confirm. Hart originally brought the concept to David Stahl, the longtime, beloved musical director and conductor of Charleston Symphony. He had been moved to create a violin concerto expressly to avail of the talents of the orchestra's concertmaster, violinist Yuriy Bekker.
"Yuriy and I became fast friends when he moved here in 2007," said Hart. But after Stahl retired, the orchestra was temporarily suspended due to financial challenges. However, Hart continued to work on it.
"This piece was written during the dark time," he said, as there was at that time no assurance that the orchestra would come back. "It was really written on faith."
That faith prevailed, and the violin concerto was performed in 2012 when the orchestra started up once more.
New work for Charleston
Fast forward eight years. Hart and Charleston Symphony find themselves in a similar place, having both arrived at the maturity and expertise to together embrace the name Charleston.
And embrace it they will at the culmination of the season when Hart debuts his first Charleston-named work, “A Charleston Concerto,” his first so-titled homegrown work. In it, he artistically explores his city’s richness and complexity.
Those are qualities he recognized growing up in Charleston, a childhood he characterizes as golden, and one that has deeply influenced him as a composer.
"Part of the time was spent in this wild but beautifully decaying urban environment," said Hart. "And the other half was spent with my old man in a johnboat in the salt marsh, fishing and shrimping and all that."
In "A Charleston Concerto," he also weaves into the work various strains of the city's cultural legacy, including Gullah spirituals, to explore its past, present and future in three movements.
What's more, the work will be performed by the internationally renowned Shanghai Quartet, bringing a global luster that Hart finds particularly fitting for this centuries-running port city, which has long enchanted travelers and artists the world over.
As part of the "Charleston and the New World" program that takes place on April 17 and 18, "A Charleston Concerto," a work for string quartet and orchestra, will be performed alongside Dvoràk’s “New World Symphony” as well as "Charlestonia," the work of renowned Charleston composer Edmund Thornton Jenkins that debuted in London in 1919.
Hart, who had suggested including Jenkins on the program, makes note of his abiding love of a city, which offered the African American composer such little opportunity that he was compelled to move to Europe to make and advance his music.
New moment for symphony
It also could be argued that this season's debut of Hart's newly commissioned work, along with associated projects, are contributing to a significant moment for the Charleston Symphony.
First, it is the fifth season in which the orchestra has performed in Gaillard Center, a concert hall with exceptional acoustics that lend greatly to the sound of the orchestra.
"For any orchestra, the auditorium is actually part of the instrument," said music director Ken Lam. "It is actually really, really good." Lam is also marking his fifth season with Charleston Symphony, having started the year the Gaillard opened.
"I'm part of this new chapter at the orchestra," said Lam.
In that time, he has seen the musicians, who come from all corners of the world, grow into an orchestra that rivals those in bigger cities with far bigger budgets, some as much as 40 times the budget of Charleston.
"But they're not 40 times better than Charleston," said Lam. "Charleston Symphony plays exceedingly well."
Such acoustic excellence also primes the orchestra for live recordings. The April concert featuring Hart's work was selected for a professional recording by Parma Recordings.
"One of my missions is to let people outside of Charleston know what a really great orchestra we have," said Lam. "What can be more Charleston than having a Charleston composer write works for Charleston Symphony?"
Equally important to Lam is the organization's relationship with its community.
"A symphony orchestra does not exist in a vacuum," said Lam, citing youth programs, a partnership with the Mt. Zion AME Church choir, as well as the annual free Piccolo Spoleto concert at the U.S. Customhouse. "We need a community with which to communicate."
Lam attributes some of the vitality to a longstanding artistic partnership with the College of Charleston, which includes collaborations and concerts. Hart has been selected by the orchestra as this year's artist-in-residence, thus furthering that partnership, given his role in the College's music department.
All of this sound and buzz around Charleston Symphony bodes well for this season and the seasons to come. Within the Gaillard's shrimp-colored walls — and with a composer who immersed himself in the shrimp that inspired the hue — the outlook is particularly rosy for Charleston's orchestra.
"All of this is part of our mission," said Lam, "which is to be the orchestra for Charleston."