If you’re one of the many people who say they don’t like classical music, consider yourself warned. You’re on Charleston Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Danny Beckley’s list. “Those are my people,” he says. “That’s who I want to reach: the people who don’t think they like this stuff, because they haven’t been exposed to it. That’s what really gets me fired up.”
Under Beckley’s administrative leadership and the artistic leadership of concertmaster and acting artistic director Yuriy Bekker, the CSO is offering bigger, better, and more diverse programming that’s been attracting Charlestonians in droves — even those who used to scoff at the idea of spending an evening listening to classical music. For Bekker, who plans the season’s program, diversity is key. “Some people like oranges, while others like apples, pineapples,” he says. “There are so many different ways we can reach out to audiences and continue building our audiences.”
That’s why the offerings this year include everything from intimate performances devoted to Beethoven to the Magnetic South contemporary composer series, and perennial favorites like Handel’s Messiah. One of the highlights of this season, Bekker says, is the South Carolina premiere of a new work by Philip Glass. “We have this amazing, Grammy-nominated violinist, Robert McDuffie, coming to town who will be playing Glass’ American Four Seasons. Some people get worried when they hear ‘contemporary music,’ but this is a piece that will steal everyone’s heart,” Bekker says. McDuffie and the CSO will perform this violin concerto just a week after the CSO’s concert of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Ástor Pantaleón Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.”
Audiences can get a dose of humor at “Time Machine: Where Are You Haydn?” (get it?) which will feature performances of several pieces by the historic jokester Joseph Haydn. Haydn played many musical tricks on his listeners, but one of the best-known is in the last movement of his String Quartet in E-flat. Near the end of the piece, the music comes to a complete stop, then starts up again, and stops, over and over. Supposedly, Haydn did it to catch anyone who was talking during the music. Fans of peppier, popular music will enjoy the American Song and Dance program, which will feature Cole Porter hits and Gershwin’s masterpiece “Rhapsody in Blue,” accompanied by guest dancers. There’s even a performance that will pair the CSO with aerialists and acrobats performing a Cirque du Soleil-style program. So there you have it: your apples, oranges, and pineapples.
The CSO’s Chamber Orchestra will continue its second season with smaller, intimate performances of masterpieces by composers like Bach, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. The Chamber Orchestra, which performs in the Dock Street Theater, is one of the new ventures that has really paid off, Beckley says. “This series is an entirely new experiment that’s been just wildly successful. We’re over 50 percent capacity in the Dock Street just from subscriptions, which is unheard of for us. We’re adding a night now because we’ve had so much demand.”
The recent free concert in Hampton Park, which is where the CSO inaugurated its new inflatable bandshell, was another one of those experiments, as is the open dress rehearsal for Holst’s The Planets, which will open the CSO’s season. “Research and development is just as important here as it is in any other field, so we try things,” Beckley says. “Not everything works. But we’re not afraid to fail.”
That outlook has allowed the CSO to make some fairly risky moves, like offering new subscribers a 50 percent discount for the 2011-12 season. “We saw our subscriber count go up by half in just on season,” Beckley says. “But what made that a success is that the retention rate is very, very high — we cut that discount and they’re still coming back.” Subscriptions for the Chamber Orchestra series have doubled since last season. Since the Gaillard Auditorium is out of commission, the CSO has had to get creative with the smaller Dock Street and Sottile theaters, which will be their homes for the next three years. “We’re confined a bit by our venue. We’re doing the best we can, but frankly we’re going to be selling out of everything,” he says. To avoid turning too many people away, they’re adding performances where they can, including the open dress rehearsal.
It’s a good problem to have, and one that’s certainly been good for morale. “There is a feeling of ownership from everyone,” says concertmaster Bekker. “Our board, staff, and musicians all want one thing, and that’s success for the symphony.”
Judging by ticket sales, Charleston wants that too. The city’s embraced the orchestra, which has responded in kind by re-envisioning its role as a part of the community. “I think exposure to really great music is what’s lacking in our culture, American culture, and that’s where the symphony orchestra is really critical,” Beckley says. “I didn’t hear big symphonic works beyond Tchaikovsky until I was in high school. And that’s not right — it’s not right that I should have gone that far in my life and not known these things exist.”
To make sure other children don’t suffer the same horrible fate, the CSO recently added its first full-time education coordinator in many years, Stephanie Silvestri. With Silvestri’s help, the CSO has become a Kennedy Center Partner in Education, giving the orchestra access to resources and support for its educational programs. They’re reaching out to kids outside of the classroom as well, with a December production of Hansel and Gretel. Kids will get the chance to play with musical instruments at the “Instrument Petting Zoo” prior to the performance.
“We see the role of the orchestra as offering that exposure to the community, to reach those people who think they don’t like what we do, and give them the opportunity to make an informed decision.” It’s not too surprising that usually, the people who come in saying they don’t like orchestra concerts leave with a completely different opinion. “The thing that excites me most is people saying ‘You know, I didn’t like this stuff, but I just heard this concert and now I’m subscribing,'” he continues. “And that happens a lot.”