In the midst of a pivotal transition and a difficult funding drought, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra looked to one of its own last week to take on the role of interim executive director. Long-time harpist Kathleen Wilson will serve in the leadership role while the CSO board ponders a permanent replacement for outgoing Executive Director Jan Newcomb, who retired in April.

A dire economic situation mired the orchestra long before the broader economic crisis revealed itself, but the recession heightened the drama. The board put off announcing next year’s schedule and threatened bankruptcy if the musicians didn’t agree to concessions, including salary cuts and lost jobs. In late March, the musicians agreed to an eight-week furlough and a reduced core of players — now numbering less than 40 and made one smaller by Wilson’s transition.

With a few days under her belt, Wilson says her transition has been aided by her knowledge of the industry in general and the local orchestra in particular — she’s been the principal harpist for 22 years.

That said, her responsibilities would seem daunting, regardless of the perilous situation the orchestra finds itself in. According to the release announcing her appointment, Wilson will “oversee all aspects of management and operations, including concert production, contracts, marketing, public relations, community relations, budget preparation, financial controls, human resources, staff supervision, fund-raising, development, planning, and board operations.”

Wilson says she’s ready for the “unbelievable challenge.”

“I tend to thrive on things like that,” she says. And we have reason to believe her.

As a marathon swimmer, Wilson has tackled the top challenges in the world, including the English Channel, Manhattan Island Channel, and the San Pedro Channel.

She’s faced even dicier political waters. As a member of the Charleston City Council since 2006, Wilson represents James Island residents as the city does its own hand-wringing in the tough economic times. Wilson has taken stands in favor of public swimming and other recreation programs and the arts.

And while she’ll be trying to prove herself for the permanent spot leading the orchestra, Wilson will also be organizing a reelection campaign in advance of city elections this November.

Asked to comment on Wilson’s appointment, one orchestra member refused, but hoped for the best. Anxiety between the business side and the artistic side of the orchestra was evident throughout the negotiations over emergency concessions, with performers noting the staff could do more to promote shows and schedule extra performances to drive up interest in the organization.

The response from the CSO leadership was understandably more excited.

“Kathleen has a deep knowledge of the CSO, a passion for the mission of the orchestra, proven performance as a community leader, and the proven ability to get things done,” said CSO board President Ted Legasey.

“Kathleen’s development as an emerging leader has been underway for some time,” commented Music Director David Stahl. “I believe her passion and commitment to the orchestra will ensure both its artistic and financial success.”

Wilson says her first task will be finding key staff leaders to fill vacant positions in development and marketing. Meanwhile, she’ll be preparing for an upcoming season that’s more important than ever.

“This organization deserves to succeed,” she says.