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Listening pays off for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra

A Promising Year



The Charleston Symphony Orchestra's Concertmaster and Artistic Advisor Yuriy Bekker has seen the CSO through some of its toughest times since joining in 2006. But when the company suspended operations last year, he accepted a position with the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra. "Orlando rescued me when I was in a very tough position," Bekker says.

When the CSO started making its slow comeback, so did Bekker. "I have always believed in the Charleston Symphony and I have so many close ties here ... so when the CSO came back, I was committed to a place I call home and decided not to audition to stay in Orlando."

Having returned to Charleston and assumed a leadership role among the musicians, he's optimistic about the orchestra's current direction. "There is this certain feeling of ownership from the musicians, the board, and members of our community," Bekker says. "Everyone is involved and everyone is working very hard behind the scenes — musicians, staff, and board. It is so exciting to see everyone so involved from all angles, all around. Nobody's taking a nap right now. We need to keep this momentum going."

It's been a year since Daniel Beckley took the reins as executive director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, signaling a fresh start for the struggling 75-year-old organization. Since then the CSO has followed through with many of the changes suggested by the community during last year's Future of Symphonic Music forums, including hiring new staff and electing board members, restructuring the orchestra, collaborating with other local arts organizations, and branching out with a more diverse range of concerts.

And it seems to have paid off. The CSO recently announced record-breaking ticket sales — they have more subscribers and subscription dollars per concert than they've had since the 1990s. And whereas last year internal tensions caused a major rift between the musicians and board members, their relations seem to be back on track. By all outward appearances, the CSO is well on its way to becoming a modern, sustainable symphony.

Beckley, who had served on the board and performed as a guest bass trombonist with the CSO before being promoted, has stayed busy since taking up his post. He says his main goals have been increasing revenue, strengthening ties between the musicians and the community, and building the administrative staff. Over the past year, the CSO has taken on a new development director, marketing director, finance manager, operations manager, and production manager. He says they're looking to hire a director of education as well as a music director.

The CSO has also seen some major changes at the board level, and Beckley credits George Stevens, the executive director of the Coastal Community Foundation, for helping to identify and attract new members, including Board President John H. Warren, who was elected in January. The organization has adopted a new segmentation approach to board leadership, which focuses fundraising and volunteer support into smaller factions: Masterworks, Pops, Chamber, and education. This allows for more of a focus on a specific series from board members as well as musicians and community members. "The musicians have been much more involved in the running of the orchestra, which has broken previous barriers between labor and management," Beckley says.

While staff and board members have been working behind the scenes, the musicians themselves have been incredibly active, performing in everything from major symphonic Masterworks extravaganzas to intimate chamber ensembles. Plans are in the works for a contemporary music series in 2012 along with more educational outreach initiatives. One reason they've been able to stay so busy is because the core group is now made up of just 24 members — down from 46 in 2008. "Because of the restructuring, we've been able to program exciting concerts featuring right-sized ensembles for the repertoire being performed, as well as bringing in big-name guest artists and conductors," Beckley says. Out-of-town artists are hired for larger productions, and Beckley says there are no plans to expand the core anytime soon, something Bekker has mixed feelings about.

"Of course as a musician, I would like a bigger core. I really want to have more colleagues," Bekker says. "But at the same time, I also understand that we have to have an orchestra that our community is able to support in order to survive."

Clarinetist Charlie Messersmith has been performing with the CSO since 1994; he started out playing as an extra, went full-time in 1998, and won the principal clarinet job in 2005. While he's a full-time member of the orchestra, he helps make ends meet by teaching (at Charleston Southern University, the College of Charleston, and private lessons) and performing elsewhere (with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, Celebrity Cruise Lines' Symphonic Voyages, and other freelance work). "The core is very small now, yes, and although that's an unfortunate thing, it has bonded us closer together as well," Messersmith says. "With fewer full-time musicians on stage, when we do larger productions, it takes longer before the sound gels like it should, but it always gets there."

Messersmith credits Beckley for his strong leadership, which has led to more active involvement from the board and support from the community. Messersmith says he's "cautiously optimistic" about the future. "I think the management is moving in the right direction for the first time in years," he says. "It feels great to be a part of that. Danny Beckley has brought a lot of very influential and passionate people on board, and that is very exciting.

"[Beckley] has really grabbed the wheel of this ship and changed its course dramatically," Messersmith adds. "I think that's obvious when you look at the increasing numbers of ticket sales and also the donors coming back to the orchestra. That shows a lot of trust in the organization."

Messersmith's positive attitude, which seems to carry throughout the organization, is a far cry from where the CSO stood just a year ago. "There's a renewed sense of energy, instead of a sense of urgency just to survive like last year," Messersmith says. "At this time last year we were grieving the loss of our music director David Stahl, on top of having to cope with the reduction of the core through the letting go of our friends and colleagues. At the same time, we were seeing a lot of changes in leadership and heard a lot of promises from Danny [Beckley] and other board members. So far they have been true to their word, and their vision seems to be coming into focus. It's really exciting."

While things are looking up, Beckley says fundraising is still a challenge, with 64 percent of the CSO's budget coming from community support. Yet there's reason for hope.

"Ticket sales are going through the roof, we are performing to full houses, new and returning donors are coming on board every week, the Galliard Auditorium is going to be renovated, and there is talk of beginning a search for a new music director," Messersmith says. "It all has created a buzz that's hard to miss when we're at work now."

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