Chamber Music Charleston has made performances like available on their website | Photo courtesy Chamber Music Charleston

Even when the pandemic was at its worst, Chamber Music Charleston (CMC) was one of the few arts organizations that never closed. They rehearsed in masks and streamed their performances online. 

“We’ve found that a lot of people, even outside of Charleston — concertgoers that had left Charleston over the years — really love that they can watch our concerts online,” said Sandra Nikolajevs, president and artistic director of CMC. She added the company will continue to maintain a digital archive of concerts.

Nikolajevs founded CMC in 2006 with a five-person board and 13 local musicians. When the company opened in 2006, they served approximately 780 guests across their entire season. The last full season before COVID saw them play before 4,800. Today, CMC live performances and audiences are back. CMC’s March output, particularly two of its upcoming shows, are a little bigger than the typical chamber venues and highlight the company’s focus on education.

To Nikolajevs, education is a key to success — not just for teaching the next generation of musicians, but cultivating a knowledgeable audience. Among the chamber’s student mentors is violinist Francisco Fullana, who plays during the March 20 Ovation Concert Series finale. Fullana is an acclaimed musician and the principal violinist of the Saint Paul (MN) Chamber Orchestra. This year, CMC’s expanded education program includes classical kids concerts like Peter and the Wolf that are brought out as public performances or directly to schools on Johns Island. The company also works with the School of the Arts to coach students in and out of the classroom. A planned upcoming addition is a middle school focus where high school students will mentor junior musicians.

“This year, we’ve really hugely expanded our education programs,” Nikolajevs said. “Having opportunities for music students, really of all ages, to have more access to high-quality instruction and inspiration for classical music.” 

CMC typically performs classical chamber music in a variety of settings. Their intimate concerts are usually performed by a small group of six or fewer musicians. This allows musicians to explain the works they are playing and connect directly with their audiences.

“It’s all about the variety of experiences one can have with classical music,” Nikolajevs said. 

CMC has lately performed at Sottile Theater, The South Carolina Society Hall and James Island County Park. Recently, CMC musicians even played a concert in the Miles Brewton House ballroom, a huge historic home on King Street that housed troops during the Revolutionary and Civil wars. These house concerts have been the company’s foundation since it launched and they’re typically performed before fairly small audiences: the Brewton House concert only seated 36 guests. 

“For chamber music, as opposed to, like, a symphony orchestra where there’s just a big orchestra far away from you onstage, it’s much more of a conversation between the musicians and the audience,” Nikolajevs said. “You see every nuance of expression on their face, and you feel the energy. The audience really contributes to the overall experience.”

Charleston audiences are evidently hungry for this brand of musical styling and Nikolajev sees the interest in chamber music continuing to grow. The Bank of America Chamber Music Series is an annual Spoleto highlight. It was the first sold-out event weeks in advance of the 2021 slate. “Knowing there’s an audience in Charleston really inspired us, 15 years ago, to do it year round,” Nikolajevs said.

On March 18, at 7 p.m., Xavier Foley, an Avery Fisher Career Grant Award recipient and Sphinx Competition prize winner, will lead a masterclass at the West Ashley Theater Center featuring four music students from the Charleston County School of the Arts: cellists Peter O’Malley, Decker Elam and Jade Williams and bassist Devon O’Brien. These students will join Foley in an exploration of J.S. Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello.

Foley will be joined by Fullana and renowned musicians Andrew Armstrong, Timothy O’Malley and Ben Weiss at 3 p.m., March 20, in a grand finale program at the Sottile Theatre. These shows will house hundreds of guests.

The Salon Series Finale will be held from 3-8 p.m., April 10, at Society Hall. The House Concert Series continues in May with shows at the Schneider Residence and the Thomas Bennett House, among others. The season wraps up around the time Spoleto 2022 kicks off.

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