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Charleston Symphony Restructures in the Wake of COVID-19

Holy City Sinner

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The Charleston Symphony Orchestra (CSO) on Tuesday announced changes to its business model that will ensure the organization’s ongoing financial sustainability in the wake of COVID-19. These changes include an expanded partnership with the Charleston Gaillard Center and a redeveloped artistic leadership strategy, both of which align with the orchestra’s commitment to delivering the highest quality orchestral music to the Lowcountry.

Prior to the pandemic, the CSO achieved a decade of balanced budgets. As a result of losing close to one million dollars of revenue from lost ticket sales due to COVID, the CSO needs to bolster its flexibility and creativity as it emerges from the pandemic.

“The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the performing arts industry,” noted Michael Smith, Executive Director of the Charleston Symphony. “With extraordinary support from CSO patrons and tight control of our expenses, we have been able to continue serving our community.”

In September 2020, through strong partnerships with the Charleston Gaillard Center and Medical University of South Carolina, the CSO was one of few orchestras in the country that returned to in-person full symphonic performances with live audiences, and also launched the Charleston Symphony Virtual Concert Hall.

As resident orchestra of the Charleston Gaillard Center, the CSO has entered into a new agreement that will further strengthen its relationship by utilizing the Gaillard Center’s robust operational structure for support services. This mutually beneficial partnership will allow the CSO and the Gaillard Center to invest increased resources towards mission-related activities, while working more closely in finance, marketing, and patron services.

Stephen Bedard, President and CEO of the Charleston Gaillard Center, stated, “We are thrilled to take this innovative step with the Charleston Symphony to continue to enrich lives throughout the Lowcountry. This dynamic partnership will provide long-term and sustainable benefits for the audience experience. Our organizations will advance together in the ever-changing landscape of the performing arts for the ultimate benefit of all of our patrons.”

The CSO’s amended business model will also build more versatility into the organization’s artistic capacity, replacing the Music Director role partly with dynamic guest conductors for its Masterworks performances. With constantly fluctuating economic environments, this change will create greater financial flexibility for the CSO to continue investing in its future. Additionally, audiences and musicians will benefit from exposure to multiple conductors with differing styles, visions, and specialties. The reputation of the CSO within the network of orchestral musicians, and the reputation of Charleston and its world class performance venue, will present excellent recruiting opportunities for exciting guest conductors.

The new model means the upcoming 2021-2022 season will be the last with Ken Lam serving as Music Director. Lam joined the CSO in 2014, and conducted the orchestra with renowned soloist Yo-Yo Ma, for the Charleston Gaillard Centers Opening Gala in 2015.

“Ken’s engaging presence on stage conducting outstanding performances has been warmly welcomed by patrons over the last seven years. The orchestra has never sounded better, and we look forward to celebrating Ken’s final season next year,” said Robert Siedell, President of the Charleston Symphony’s Board of Directors.

With the redeveloped artistic leadership structure, Yuriy Bekker, Concertmaster and Principal Pops Conductor, will assume the additional role of Artistic Director beginning in the 2022-2023 season. Bekker will work closely with the administrative team, musicians, and the Board Artistic Committees to create outstanding programming and secure guest conductors that inspire both our musicians and our patrons for CSO’s Masterworks performances.

“Despite the challenging year, we are incredibly enthusiastic about our future” Smith concluded. “These changes will ensure the Charleston Symphony is equipped with the necessary resources and flexibility to invest in the organization for the foreseeable future. We are committed to providing audiences with the highest quality orchestral experiences while remaining a financially viable community asset. Over the last thirteen years, Yuriy has become an anchor within the Charleston arts community. I am excited to work with him in this capacity and I know our patrons will share my sentiments. I strongly believe that the CSO will be even better positioned to achieve our mission of bringing people together through music.”

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