Two and a half years after retiring as conductor of the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, Donald Portnoy returns this week as conductor of the Columbia Chamber Orchestra.
The orchestra, which originated at Columbia College but has been dormant since the 1930s, makes its modern debut this week with a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the school’s Cottingham Theater.
Talking with Free Times, Portnoy talked about the chance discovery that brought the orchestra back to life, and his hopes for its future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Free Times: So how did this opportunity come about?
Donald Portnoy: It goes back almost a hundred years. When I came to USC in 1986, I took over the orchestra, I was head of the orchestra department, I held the Ira McKissick Koger Endowed Chair, and I came across a letter that was written in 1936, talking about an orchestra at Columbia College. It was interesting, but I put it away. When you retire, you start looking through all kinds of stuff. I came across this letter again.
This was the gist of it: In 1922, a lady by the name of Madame de Horvath organized an orchestra at Columbia College called the Columbia College Orchestra. That was September 1922, before you and I were born, and she was the director of the violin department at Columbia College. What’s also interesting is she was from Philadelphia and she’s a violinist. Well, I’m from Philadelphia and I’m a violinist.
Had you heard of her before?
No, not at all. Then I read that in 1927 she changed the name to Columbia College and City Orchestra and included some musicians from Columbia who were not students at Columbia College. So, her orchestra might have been, probably was, the first orchestra in South Carolina .
In 1939, people at USC said we could have an orchestra here, and so what they did is they offered her a job and she accepted and took the orchestra herself to USC.
So she is your forerunner in a couple of ways.
Yes, right, she had the first orchestra at USC. Since then, Columbia College has tried all kinds of things, but it never really had an orchestra like it had in 1922 and 1927.
So I went to talk to some people at Columbia College and told them what had transpired. They didn’t know this, because most of them weren’t around in 1922. So we talked about it and we all agreed maybe this would be a great time to start a professional chamber orchestra and have it in residence at the college.
Who comprises the orchestra?
These are all professional musicians from the area. Many of them play in the South Carolina Philharmonic, they play in Charleston, they play in Greenville. It’s a chance to create some more opportunity for them to earn a little extra money.
It’s another avenue for them and it’s another thing for the community to get an orchestra that’s doing something a little different, because the chamber orchestra is not a symphony orchestra. It’s a smaller organization.
For the Messiah, we will have 25 musicians and a chorus and four fabulous soloists who are well-known here in Columbia. We’re doing the Christmas portion of the Messiah and I don’t know if there are any other groups doing that Messiah here in Columbia. Some churches do sing-alongs, but what we’re offering is not a sing-along. It’s a true performance of what Handel had in mind.
Having played it and conducted the Messiah so many times, it’s still gorgeous music with fabulous soloists. It’s a joy to perform that kind of music.
You’re starting with three concerts. After the Messiah, you’ll have a Mozart concert in February and a program of string arrangements in May. What is your long-range goal?
Who knows? You know, I became the conductor of the Augusta Symphony for 18 years. I started with six concerts, then started a pops series, then started a chamber orchestra, started family concerts, started children’s concerts. From a budget of $400,000 when I started, I left there with $1.5 million.
I enjoy building orchestras. We’re starting small and if people enjoy it we’ll give them a good performance, and if they like it, maybe we can expand it. Who knows?
Columbia College has suffered numerous academic cutbacks. What kind of music education program do they have?
They did have a music education degree, but for some reason it was dropped. They’re trying to bring it back. It’s not easy for smaller schools, especially when it’s an all-female school. Maybe if it were co-ed, perhaps they would attract more people, but it’s not. I think they enjoy having something like this on their campus, not only for their own students to come to performances but for the community to come on campus and know that there’s a Columbia College. It’s a win-win for everyone.
What: Columbia Chamber Orchestra: Handel’s Messiah
Where: Cottingham Theatre at Columbia College, 1301 Columbia College Dr.
When: Sunday, Dec. 8, 3 p.m.
Price: $40 (seniors and faculty $35, students $10)