To hear Ken Lam, the music director for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, describe it, the newly renovated Gaillard Center is almost like a living thing. He calls the new concert hall honest. He says it doesn’t lie to the performers or the audience. The mark of any good hall, the venue gives everyone a true understanding of the music that fills its space. But like anything that’s spent more than five years in the making, the Gaillard carries with it the burden of expectations — expectations of the city, of the performers, and of all those who funded its creation.

From the time the Gaillard Center opens its doors with an opening dedication by the city Oct. 9 and grand opening gala Oct. 18, Charleston’s premier concert space faces its toughest act. In order to live up to the $142 million price tag, the center must balance its roles as the home of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and the annual Spoleto Festival, while at the same time serving as a major money-maker for the city and attracting world-class touring acts from all over the country.

Now, on the eve of its grand opening, the stage has been set for the Gaillard’s second act.

A big investment

Built in 1968, the original Gaillard building was constructed for the modern-day equivalent of about $40 million, but after more than 40 years, the auditorium had lost its luster. In its place now stands an 1,800-seat performance hall with a ballroom, exhibition space, and city offices. The center has projected its annual economic impact at close to $40 million — a lofty goal for a venue that’s been promised to be many things for many people.

Even as early as 2009, as plans for what would become the new Gaillard were beginning to materialize, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said the new center would be “a tremendous benefit to the community” economically. Half of the project’s funding is being raised by the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation through private donors ­­— a process that may continue for the next 10 years as more funds trickle in. According to tax documents, the nonprofit reported a total revenue of more than $3.2 million from grants and contributions for 2013 — an increase of $1 million over the previous year.

The other $71 million is being financed by the city through various public revenue sources. That amount breaks down into $20 million for accommodations and hospitality taxes and new market tax credits, $32 million in revenues from a tax increment financing district, and the remainder coming from general obligation bonds.


As one of the most expensive municipal projects in Charleston’s 345 years as a city, the promise of the Gaillard Center was a key talking point in the mayor’s final State of the City address in January. Hailing the new hall as an achievement in excellence, Riley said, “It will be one of the finest concert halls in America, and I believe one of the most significant public buildings in the city’s history.”

The hype surrounding the new performance hall has not gone unnoticed by Tom Tomlinson, executive director at the Gaillard. Yet in spite of the monumental task set before him, Tomlinson feels that the center is up to the challenge.

“The city and the Gaillard Performance Hall Foundation have gone together and raised $142 million to make this building happen, and part of its mission is to provide a broad cross-section of arts attractions for the general public; to provide a home for local arts organizations to perform, like the symphony; to provide a really active and involved education program, and we’re doing all three of those things,” says Tomlinson. “And I think we’re doing them really well.”

Packing the schedule

The bulk of the pressure for the new Gaillard Center’s success rests on the back of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The CSO will be spending almost half the year in the center as they fine tune their sound, adjust to the new space, and expand on just what people expect from a symphony.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us,” says Michael Smith, executive director of the symphony. “The symphony has, over these past five years, really started to find our stride, so from a financial and business point of view, things are going quite well. But because of that, it’s caused us to artistically thrive as well. This year we’ve talked about a lot of new things happening and we have the new hall … We want to engage our entire community and acknowledge that there is a wide palette of tastes.”

In addition to Masterworks performances of classical compositions by Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms, the symphony’s Pops lineup includes tributes to the legends of country music and Louie Armstrong, as well as the film scores for The Godfather and the 1931 horror classic Frankenstein.

But this commitment to serving the entire community comes at a price for the Gaillard Center, which must devote a significant chunk of its schedule to accommodate the needs of the symphony.

The 26 weeks reserved for the symphony include performances by the orchestra and joint productions with the Gaillard Center, as well as rehearsals in the main concert hall. As the resident symphony at the Gaillard, the CSO was given first choice of dates at the center for both the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 performance seasons, and this includes rehearsal time.


For the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, getting used to the new concert space will be an ongoing effort, but one that will hopefully pay off in a big way. Lam says that adjustments to the orchestra’s setup and the performance hall will continue through opening night as experts tweak the venue’s acoustics to better suit the overall sound of the orchestra.

“I think it presents a lot of opportunities for the orchestra to get better. Because the hall is designed by very respected acoustiticians and the process is continuing,” Lam says. “That first week, with the gala, the acousticians will be there doing fine tuning. That will then allow us to improve as an orchestra, and this was evident at rehearsal. The musicians would say, ‘Oh my goodness, we can hear ourselves and each other.’ Which seems like a very basic concept if you want to play together, but oftentimes with concert halls, you can only do that to a degree.”

So while the symphony continues to perfect its sound in the new hall, those tasked with managing the Gaillard must do their best to accommodate the musicians

“In the same way that we’re the home for large productions for Spoleto when they perform here in the spring, we are the performance home of the Charleston Symphony. So most if not all of their actual performances will take place at the Gaillard, and that’s part of the reason it was built, to provide a home for great classical music by the Charleston Symphony, as well as touring orchestras,” says Tomlinson. “We have two resident companies, which means they get date priority and a preferential rental rate. And those two organizations are Charleston Symphony and Spoleto. So we have a unique relationship with those two organizations that provides them the first option on the dates that they need, as well as preferential rate structure.”

According to Tomlinson, the symphony will rehearse on the main concert stage and occasionally in the center’s exhibit hall, but he says the focus has more to do with the quality of the overall performances and less to do with the number of dates.

“A symphony orchestra like the Charleston Symphony gains in quality and increases its ability to perform well as it practices or rehearses and performs in the same location,” he says. “Moving it all over town before the final performance in one single location would not be to its artistic advantage. We have to pretty carefully balance what is good for their quality and their future versus our desire or need for additional dates. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of balancing the two.”

According to Smith, the orchestra typically practices on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before concerts taking place during Friday and Saturday evenings. Lam says his musicians will gather on the main stage for about four rehearsals lasting five hours leading up to a public performance, which he says is standard for any major orchestra.

For a point of comparison, the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, the resident organization for the Peace Center for the Performing Arts, has 13 weeks scheduled for this season, booked at least a year in advance, with two or three performances each week. According to the Peace Center’s public relations department, the Greenville Symphony Orchestra will typically load in on a Tuesday and rehearse in the space for the rest of the week, leading up to one performance Saturday evening and one performance Sunday afternoon for their masterworks series, and performances Friday evening, Saturday evening, and Sunday afternoon for their chamber series. The orchestra will then load out on Sunday evenings.

The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in North Carolina, which is home to the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, books its resident companies approximately three years in advance. The hall just began planning for the 2017-2018 season. Matt Burton, general manager for the center, says it’s not uncommon for an orchestra to rehearse at least a couple times in the hall before a performance, but Charlotte’s orchestra will also use local churches and other large venues to practice during some weeks. In all, Burton says the Charlotte Symphony reserves the hall for about 26 partial weeks a season, averaging about 110 days with 52 total performance days. The Charleston Symphony currently has about 29 performance dates scheduled in the Gaillard for this upcoming season with 56 reserved dates including rehearsals.

For Lam, each performance represents a chance to prove to the audience and the community as a whole that the symphony serves a purpose in Charleston. A high-profile project like the Gaillard is more than just a new venue. It’s a spotlight — and an entire city is watching.

“Hopefully, if I do my job right, I’ll give everyone a sense of why we’re doing this,” says Lam. “It’s about setting the right tempo, finding the right balances, and making everything seem inevitable. Those I think are the most important things that a conductor does.”