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The CSO hangs tough, gets its hands dirty

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The fact that the Charleston Symphony Orchestra board of directors met in the Gaillard Auditorium's Jessamine Room last Monday night for a special come-to-Jesus parlay on the symphony's financial future may or may not have been a deliberate stab at symbolism: Around these parts, Confederate Jasmine blooms in late spring and early summer, which, as it happens, is exactly the same time the CSO's fiscal year turns over. Call it coincidence if you will — more obscure portents have surely been called upon in the board's recent struggle to reclaim its financial footing and avoid a messy public death.

Over on Church Street, Charleston Stage director Julian Wiles is transforming a penny-pinching Scrooge into a giggling philanthropist every night at the Dock Street Theatre. Meanwhile, CSO board members are seeking their own motivating messages to achieve the same result in board rooms across the city.

By all accounts, it's working. New board president Leo Fishman began Monday's proceedings with an upbeat greeting, "Good afternoon, and welcome to this wonderful December meeting." Despite the primary reason for the special gathering — to consider cost-shaving cuts to the season's artistic program that had been postponed since November — the assembled board members were all but dancing in the aisles. Of the $500,000 in "new" money the board had tasked itself with raising before the end of the year, Vice President of Finance Ted Legacey noted that it's pulled together about $350,000. Of that, $175,000 exists in firm cash and pledge commitments. "There's another $75,000 that we can see," Legacey said in one of the evening's most memorable quotes, "and another $100,000 that we can smell."

That's a hundred grand more than the organization needed simply to stay out of ICU but still considerably less than it needs to balance the books by the close of this season, given that the symphony started this year, as it does most, roughly $300,000 in the hole.

Board member Tommy Baker, CEO of Baker Motor Company, gave a jubilant report from "inside the Mayor's campaign," where Riley and Co. are targeting local business owners with a hard sell, pushing the CSO's role in making Charleston a cultural capital and a good place to do business. "What we've seen is resounding," Baker gushed. "The money's coming. The spirit of the business community is there. And we've just begun in downtown Charleston. We've got to go east, we've got to go all over Charleston. It's going to take a while. But it's happening. I feel the spirit!"

But the camp-meeting atmosphere and a rose-colored fog in the room couldn't stave off the evening's touchiest bit of agenda: where to find $80,000 worth of salvageable green in the rest of the season's artistic program.

Board members quickly zoomed in on a January 18 "Rock and Roll Tribute" concert and two of a poorly-attended concert series at Wando High School. Painless enough.

Then they set their crosshairs on the extra musicians needed for February 5's Masterworks Concert, featuring big works by Wagner, Beethoven, and Schoenberg, and hackles went up across the room.

"It's a meat-and-potatoes showoff piece," Music Director David Stahl urged. "It's a great way to show what the orchestra can do. We couldn't do it as planned with just the core orchestra."

The main point in the ensuing discussion was that, like it or not, the CSO needed to make a painful sacrifice, a significant public relations gesture to demonstrate just how committed it is to changing the way it does business.

And then mount a PR campaign to let everyone know just how painful it was.

Stahl, sensing the inevitable, was stoic.

"There seems to be a Normandy type invasion going on here, there's not just one front. We've got a lot of things going on in this effort, and all are equally important. The Beethoven Seventh with just the core would be pushing the envelope, but there's ways to make it happen. If it will send a message, we could do that."

Motion made, seconded, and passed.

God rest ye, merry gentlemen.

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