Led by conductor Yuriy Bekker, the Charleston Symphony returns to present the Sunset Serenade, an opening night tradition since 1989 | Photos provided

For Yuriy Bekker, the Charleston Symphony’s opening night performance during Piccolo Spoleto is going to be a touching celebration for the Holy City.

“When Hurricane Hugo came through Charleston [in 1989], the Symphony, a few days later, performed a free concert for the community at the Custom House,” said Bekker, the critically-acclaimed conductor and violinist who will lead the May 30 free performance. “So people haven’t showered [then] because nothing was working and there’s no water, but for one moment, it brought so much peace to folks.” 

He is betting the same magic works this year.

“I hope that this concert, after pandemic pains, brings peace and brings our community together and we’ll celebrate. Celebrate each other. Pay tribute to our heroes. Pay tribute to people in need in Ukraine. With music we have a lot to say and contribute.”

This year, the free concert will feature the Charleston Symphony performing a collection of incredible musical pieces. Audiences will delight in hearing from such acclaimed composers as Georges Bizet, George Gershwin, Antonín Dvorák and John Williams. 

“It’s truly a staple in our community,” Bekker said. “It brings [the] community together and it’s kind of a big foundation of Piccolo Spoleto. It highlights local talent. It will be very much fun to bring everyone together.”

The show will begin with the National Anthem before going into John Williams’ Summon the Heroes. Anyone who watches any Olympics coverage will recognize the big, brassy, epic anthem. 

“I want to dedicate this work to our frontline workers,” said Bekker. “I wanted to dedicate it to the heroes.”

Concert is a Piccolo tradition

Sunset Serenade is a Piccolo Spoleto tradition as old as the festival itself. The history of the annual curtain raiser for the city’s arts celebration dates back to the early 80s. That history came to a halt in 2020, when the festival itself was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sunset Serenade did not return with the festival in 2021 either. Lack of vaccinations and the ongoing pandemic discouraged artists from returning safely. In its place was a small string quartet performance during the Art Walk. 

But now, after a two-year hiatus, Piccolo Spoleto will mount its popular musical opener from the steps of the historic U.S. Custom House. Bekker said he is very excited to see the full Serenade brought back to the festival.

“For some people, it’s the only time they have a chance to see the Symphony,” said Bekker. The idea for the original Serenade concert is attributed to former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. The first editions of the Serenade were late concerts which started at 9 p.m. These early versions were more block parties than the current, more subdued affair. The concert now starts at 8 p.m., and people are encouraged to bring their own chairs for an easy night out.

The Serenade typically draws in hundreds of people, some already subscribers to the Symphony’s seasons, but many of whom will be getting an introduction to the work of Charleston’s premiere classical music company. It drives local Charlestonians and tourists alike to check out the Charleston Symphony throughout the rest of the year.

Audiences will be able to enjoy the Serenade from the steps of the U.S. Customs House, a Charleston landmark

The symphony is made up of a collection of some of the best musicians in the country. Micah Gangwer, Asako Kremer, Alexander Boissonnault, Jan-Marie Christy Joyce, Alexander Agrest, Norbert Lewandowski and Damian Kremer make up the strings section, playing a collection of violin, violas, and cellos. The woodwind section is Jessica Hull-Dambaugh, Regina Helcher-Yost, Zachary Hammond, Kari Kistler, Charles Messersmith, Gretchen Roper and Katherine St. John. On brass are Brandon Nichols, Anne Holmi, Christopher Lindgren, Thomas Joyce, and Antonio Martí. Beth Albert and Ryan Laveille round out the sound as the percussion section. 

Audiences will thrill to works from Ukraine to New Orleans

The Charleston Symphony will be returning later this year to perform music by John Williams to celebrate his 90th birthday with a big October showcase. In addition to its opener, the symphony will give a nod to world events by performing a piece by Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk, a renowned composer who had performed in Charleston with the Charleston Symphony before his death in 2020. 

“It’s a really beautiful and solemn piece, and I wanted to dedicate it to the people of Ukraine,” Bekker said.

Anthonín Dvorák’s New World Symphony will be performed during the Serenade. Dvorák’s work helped legitimize the American, or “New World,” sound in the late 1800s. There will also be pieces from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a show which is no stranger to Charleston audiences. Porgy and Bess was performed during Spoleto Festival USA in 2016. Jason S. McKinney, an acclaimed bass-baritone singer, will join the CSO for these arias, as well as a number of other selections.

The Serenade will also include a medley of New Orleans jazz and will end with Stars and Stripes. Bottom line: It’s a jam-packed fun evening of music for Charleston audiences that’s not to be missed.

Michael Smallwood is contributing arts editor for Charleston City Paper.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.