I didn’t expect much when I attended my first CSO concert in 1992 — spoiled rotten as I was after many years in Europe.

But a few minutes into the music, I was hopelessly hooked.

There on the podium was this dynamic presence, whose every flick of the baton, wave, and wiggle drew musical magic from his fantastic players.

Wow, what an orchestra!

Who the heck is this David Stahl guy?

I found out just who the CSO’s music director was in 1995 after joining his orchestra’s chorus. Eight happy seasons with them taught me what a classy conductor could do — with his baton, body language, and facial expressions — also the complaints and corrections, the mini-music lectures and pep-talks: the whole bag of tricks he uses to inspire and craft memorable music.

Stahl got those from his mentor, Leonard Bernstein. It was no surprise to learn of Stahl’s glowing reputation in Europe, where he directs one of Munich’s two opera houses. I wasn’t alone in wondering how long we’d keep him around. But it turns out there’s more than just music binding him to us.

I’d never fully grasped his long-term commitment to Charleston until I spent a pleasant hour with him on the back porch of his spectacular home in Hollywood. We sipped iced tea and strolled his dock, admiring his view of the Intracoastal Waterway, talking about music and his personal priorities.

He married a local lady (Karen), and raised their three kids here. I saw the look on his face as he counted his blessings. This is his heart’s home. He’s here to stay. Even after 25 years, he’s far from finished.

Stahl characterizes the 2007-2008 as a “watershed.” The CSO finished in the black. A new wave of local support remains reasonably intact, but contributions have lately reflected the national economic crisis. So the CSO had to cut back the coming season — hardly the sort of celebration you’d expect in a 25th anniversary.

Three major Masterworks programs have suffered. We’ll miss Mahler’s magnificent third symphony, Shostakovich’s harrowing sixth (we’ll get his ninth instead), and a luscious program of orchestral plums by Wagner, which doesn’t come cheap.
The Backstage Pass series was pared back from five concerts to three. The eclectic “Out of the Box” series has been axed entirely.

Yet all this is not necessarily bad news. Janet Newcomb, appointed last year as executive director, told me the organization is in a rebuilding stage. It had been overspending on the artistic side for years, she says. Money woes were largely due to a panicky, shotgun approach to fund-raising. Performance standards inevitably slipped due to past seasons’ frantic, exhausting performance pace.

With cutbacks, Newcomb was able to slow things down. (Stahl, at last weekend’s season opener, compared his “humble beginnings” to the orchestra’s push to begin, financially speaking, anew.) She hired a development director, who’s in the process of building a more permanent and stable network of supporters. The expectation is a better balance of resources and final product, stressing quality over quantity while boosting educational efforts.

And there’s still much to look forward to in the months ahead. The Masterworks series remains top-drawer. It includes Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra plus symphonies by Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn. Jean-Yves Thibaudet performs Gershwin’s piano concerto and Jeffrey Biegel plays Rachmaninoff’s No. 2.

Resident conductor Scott Terrell tells me he’s excited about his three Backstage Pass events. These early-evening programs are full of fascinating orchestral gems. Likewise, the McCrady’s Pops feature swing chanteuse Dee Daniels and Tango-meister Pablo Ziegler. More eclectic events will include a WWII-era radio program reconstruction by a group called Five by Design — plus Phantoms of the Orchestra, a Halloween howler featuring an encore appearance from the Magic Circle Mime troupe.

David Stahl couldn’t be more passionate about his ongoing musical mission right here in the city and state he has made his home. We’re incredibly blessed for it.

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