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A decade of classical music coverage

Not So Classic: We ain't afraid of highbrow music around here

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Most alternative newspapers in America don't even bother with classical music. Yet this humble rag has managed to tune in to just that aspect of the rich and wide-ranging cultural vibe of the city it serves.

Of course, it helps that we're home to one of the finest symphony orchestras in the Southeast, and a ballet company that puts some big-city houses to shame. The College of Charleston is rapidly becoming a major player in the music training arena, and has lately developed truly world-class piano, chamber music, and choral programs. Finally, there's Spoleto Festival USA: probably the western hemisphere's finest and most comprehensive performing arts festival. There's almost always something going on that's worth writing about.

Remember, Charleston was one of our fledgling nation's major arts meccas back in our colonial and antebellum days. And Spoleto, in the 30 years since its founding, has brought that juicy heritage full circle. For a few precious weeks each year, not even New York's classical scene can beat Chucktown's. So, if the CP was to have any hope of cultural credibility in our fair city, no way we could ignore the classics.

Sure, we got off to a slow start. Stephanie Barna, our intrepid editor, found that classical geeks who could also write are rare beasts. In mid-1998, she came up with Nicholas Drake, a feisty character of stubborn opinions. But he knew his classical stuff and could be a very engaging writer (depending on his mood). She also lucked out with S.E. Barcus — now a Cleveland physician — who covered Spoleto's operas with wit and insight. So, even in our early years, we got some credible if somewhat spotty coverage of the local highbrow scene.

By the dawn of the new millennium, our smart and sassy style had earned us quite the respectable readership — and some fresh talents soon popped up in our pages. Local musician Fernando Rivas signed on, and sensitive wordsmith Jonathan Sanchez wasn't far behind. Arts Editor Patrick Sharbaugh became permanent staff in 2003 (the rest of us are freelancers), and he soon added scope and depth to the coverage of Charleston's overall performing arts scene.

Patrick's energy and passion for his subject immediately made a huge difference in perhaps our most important mission: Spoleto. His uncanny ability to be almost everywhere at once and still write about it gave Charleston perhaps its most immediate festival coverage to date when he began "Spoletobuzz," his festival blog, in 2003. But there was still some classical depth and commitment missing.

And so, in 2005, Patrick lured me away from the local competition, with promises of a regular year-round column of my own and all the Spoleto coverage I could handle. And I couldn't resist the chance to ditch my stilted institutional style in favor of the CP's irreverent approach. Well, somebody's gotta take classical music back off the stuffy pedestal it's been marooned on for so long.

So then, how've we done? You, dear readers, are the ultimate judges of that. But there are some other distinct signs of success that we can claim. Patrick recently moved on to new horizons, but his festival blog won this year's national Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "Best Blog" award (for 2006 festival coverage). And that blog (with a little help from yours truly) covered the classical goings-on better than ever before.

That same blog (it got 5,000 hits at the time) was also hailed (and linked) nationally by publications like the New York Times as a paragon of its kind. Thus inspired, we offered three separate blogs this year, adding Jonathan's Party Blog and my own Eargasms music blog (with some inspired help from fellow geek Robert Bondurant). Lo and behold, we chalked up more than a third of a million freaking hits among us! That means discerning artsy-fartsies all over the world went out of their way to tune in to what was going on in Chucktown — according to (blush!) us.

Pardon our humility, but it's fair to say that we just may have made blogging history here: your humble City Paper has shown the world at large how to go about classy coverage of a major international arts festival online. After all, isn't cyberspace the new frontier for our craft? And let's not forget our excruciatingly thorough print coverage, too.

Between Jonathan and me, there's a classical column in almost every issue of the CP these days. I have personally seen to coverage of quite a few local classical events that the "establishment" rag has turned up their nose at. This year, with a little help from my friends, I'll do my best to keep my Eargasms blog going, thus bringing you Charleston's first comprehensive year-round online classical music journal.

So, when it comes to art in general and great music in particular, the City Paper has truly come a long way, baby. Our fledgling fumblings 10 years ago have led us to the very cutting edge of our profession. And we're still not finished.

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