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Facing pandemic losses, Charleston Symphony rethinks organization

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Charleston Symphony plans a significant restructuring as it copes with a million-dollar loss in anticipated revenue caused by the pandemic.

Chief among the changes is elimination of the music director position. Since 2014, that role has been held by conductor Ken Lam. In his position, Lam raised his expert baton over seven seasons of well-attended, favorably received Masterworks concerts and rang in the opening of the renovated Charleston Gaillard Center with Yo-Yo Ma for its opening gala in 2015. Lam's final season will be 2021-22.

“Ken’s engaging presence on stage conducting outstanding performances has been warmly welcomed by patrons over the last seven years," Robert Siedell, president of the Charleston Symphony’s board of directors, said. "The orchestra has never sounded better, and we look forward to celebrating Ken’s final season next year.”

The music director position is traditionally the most public-facing role at a symphony orchestra. While it continues to be so for orchestras across the country, the tenures are typically shorter than they have been at Charleston Symphony. Its model was most notably shaped by longstanding music director David Stahl, who served in that role for 25 years.

The move follows several high-level departure announcements in the Charleston arts scene in the past few months. Among those are Spoleto Festival USA General Director Nigel Redden, Gaillard Management Corp. CEO Stephen Bedard, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art Director and Chief Curator Mark Sloan, and South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth. 

After the symphony's 2021-22 season, the music director role will be filled partly with guest conductors, who will be enlisted for the orchestra's Masterworks program. A newly created position of artistic director will be taken by Yuriy Bekker, Charleston Symphony's concert master and principal pops conductor.

A prominent public face in the orchestra in his own right, Bekker will work closely with the administrative team, musicians and the board's artistic committees to create programming and secure guest conductors for Masterworks concerts. He will also serve as a community ambassador for the orchestra.

Along with a redeveloped leadership strategy, the orchestra's changes include an expanded partnership with the Charleston Gaillard Center, where Charleston Symphony serves as resident orchestra. Prompted by the pandemic and budgetary matters, the model will now reflect a new arrangement, with the orchestra utilizing the Gaillard’s operational structure for support services, including financial services, marketing and ticketing.

“We are excited to take this innovative step with the Charleston Symphony to expand our connection internally," said Michael Smith, executive director of Charleston Symphony, who said this institutionalization will offer more than a temporary fix for the current situation.

"This dynamic partnership will provide long-term and sustainable benefits for the arts community and audience experience. Ultimately, we will be able to better serve our patrons," he said.

According to Smith, the aim is to ensure the organization’s ongoing financial sustainability amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to the pandemic, Charleston Symphony had achieved a decade of balanced budgets after teetering toward bankruptcy and facing the threat of shuttering permanently before then, forcing it to take a temporary hiatus. 

The amended business model also intends to afford more versatility into the organization’s artistic capacity, offering audiences and musicians the opportunity to benefit from multiple guest conductors with differing styles, visions and specialties. 

The organization, which has a $3.5 million operating budget, fell short this year by almost $1 million in revenue, including an approximate $750,000 loss of ticket sales.

"It's been so challenging, but it's also forcing people and relationships to look at each other differently," Smith said.

Now in its 84th season, Charleston Symphony is the largest full-time performing arts organization in South Carolina, presenting Masterworks and Pops series at the recently renovated Gaillard and serving 50,000 audience members annually. In recent years, the organization has expanded its education programs and now invests more than $530,000 each year to reach students throughout the tri-county region.

“With extraordinary support from CSO patrons and tight control of our expenses, we have been able to continue serving our community,” Smith said. “Despite the challenging year, we are incredibly enthusiastic about our future. … I strongly believe that the CSO will be even better positioned to achieve our mission of bringing people together through music."

This season, the orchestra returned to in-person full symphonic performances with live audiences, which were available for subscribers. The orchestra also reached music lovers via the its newly launched Charleston Symphony Virtual Concert Hall. According to Smith, it is one of the few symphonies around the country to offer live performances, which he said were made possible by partnerships with the Gaillard and Medical University of South Carolina, as well as patron support.

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

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