The Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra is comprised of about 50 percent newcomers and 50 percent returning players, configured anew each year through a rigorous audition process. This is likely the most competitive festival in the country for young orchestra musicians, and many of the players who get in are conservatory-trained students kicking off their professional careers, according to John Kennedy, the festival’s director of orchestral activities.
This year, as always, the orchestra players have many opportunities to perform. They take the stage in two big concerts that feature the orchestra: the Classical Showcase concert at the Dock Street Theatre on May 28, a program of Classical and neo-Classical works conducted by Michelle Rofrano; and a traditional concert hall performance at the Gaillard Center on June 1, for which Evan Rogister will conduct works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
Orchestra members also are involved in the Music in Time series of contemporary classical music. They get to play music by Britta Brystrom, Stephen Prutsman, Steve Reich, and Georg Friedrich Haas, thanks to Kennedy’s carefully curated programs.
That’s not all. The young players will join the Westminster Choir and Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus in a June 4 performance of Bach’s St. John Passion at the Gaillard Center, and they fill the Gaillard’s pit, bringing Richard Strauss’ “Salome” to life four times over the course of the festival.
The orchestra this year consists of 94 players with an average age of 25 or 26, according to Kennedy. They come from Europe, China, Taiwan, Korea, Venezuela, Columbia, Chile and the United States.
Because the contributions of the orchestra players are so varied, it can take months for festival organizers to craft the complicated schedule. Ultimately, each musician has a unique workload.
“The orchestra, in many respects, is the backbone of the festival,” Kennedy said. “They arrive weeks before the festival even begins to begin rehearsing the opera productions we’re doing — so this year, 'Salome,' which is an enormous opera with over 80 players.”
“Salome” conductor Steven Sloane said the orchestra is well prepared for the extreme demands of Strauss’ score.
“It’s a great piece because it celebrates the Spoleto orchestra, which is a fantastic group of young players who will really be given a chance to show what they can deliver, not only virtuosity, but in terms of musical and dramatic depth,” Sloane said.
The demands on the players are high, requiring artistic, emotional and physical stamina.
“They bring this incredible enthusiasm, willingness to work, dedication to really busting their butts off,” Kennedy said. “It’s good, young, positive energy and I feel like that’s the kind of energy the festival itself has.”
Mary Walrath is a Goldring arts journalist at Syracuse University.