For the Greenville Symphony, it's 60 years and counting

arts music


The nascent Greenville Symphony Orchestra took its first breath in 1948, following a call to musical arms tacked on the bulletin board of Payne's Music Store.

It read: "Please sign name and instrument below if interested in forming a symphony orchestra."

What a difference six decades make.

Executive director Robert "Bob" Howard is happy to list names and instruments as he sits in GSO's newly renovated downtown building, donated in the 1990s by Greenville philanthropists, the late Holly and Arthur Magill.

In addition to providing the GSO a permanent headquarters, the orchestra supporters in the late 1970s set up an endowment with initial donations by the Daniel, Furman, Magill, McDougall, Rothfuss and Roe families. In 1990, the orchestra found a permanent performance space at the Peace Center Concert Hall, where, through the years, the GSO has accompanied numerous world-renowned soloists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma in 2004.

A letter from Ma followed the performance. In it, the cellist praised the GSO and described its permanent conductor, Edvard Tchivzhel, as "simply a master."

The past nine years

They are mostly about Maestro Tchivzhel, the Russian-born American conductor who defected from the Soviet Union in 1992 and has led the GSO for the past nine years.

"Looking at his record, he accomplished remarkable things," says Howard. "When he came, we had a good orchestra. He made it great. And he did it without making radical changes, as some newly hired conductors tend to do."

Like what?

For one, some new conductors require the entire orchestra to re-audition, Howard says. Instead, Tchivzhel patiently molded the talent he had at hand and gained the musicians' trust with the knowledge and training he brought to the podium. There were other improvements.

Among them, he added more rehearsals, hired additional salaried musicians, offered higher pay to per-service musicians and increased the number of performances.

It's in the philosophy

Howard says that he and Tchivzhel were hired the same year, 1999. Howard's background is business and banking.

Tchivzhel received his training at the famed Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Conservatoire, and while still a student, won his country's highest conducting award at the Third Soviet Conductor's Competition in Moscow.

As a direct result of the win, he served as assistant conductor to the legendary Yevgeny Mravinsky, who led the famous Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra for 50 years. Throughout his career, Tchivzhel continued to guest-conduct worldwide.

Howard says, "I asked him what was his philosophy of the orchestra? What did he believe he and I should be working toward?"

Tchivzhel's answer was succinct: "I believe if we play beautiful music, people will come. It's that simple."

Howard says he's got numbers that support the conductor's philosophy.

"The people of Greenville have voted with their feet and their wallets," he says. "I say that based on the fact that ticket sales have more than tripled in the nine years he's been at the GSO helm. Donations to the annual fund have increased 230 percent, and our endowment has increased three-fold, to $6.5 million by mid 2007."

The GSO is better off than many of the nation's orchestras, Howard says. "We don't make news with major financial difficulties."

That fact is greatly helped by the way Tchivzhel crafts each season's program, says Howard. The maestro keeps within budget and knows how to market his orchestra.

The fact that the concerts are repeated — Masterworks twice, chamber concerts three times, has increased attendance, thus ticket sales, without the financial burden of having to create different programs, says Howard.

The Christmas "Holiday at Peace" is now a three-night event, and in addition, a small GSO ensemble performs six concerts at Centre Stage — South Carolina during fall, winter and spring.

"Our biggest challenge in the symphony orchestra business is getting someone in the hall for the first time," says Howard. "Once we get them to attend, they are much more likely to come back."

But, it's a struggle, he admits. "We compete for their busy time, and you do have to overcome their inertia."

Howard says recruiting newcomers is very much a person-to-person effort. Before the start of each performance and during intermission, he roams the Peace Center hall, looking for "fresh faces" — people he hasn't seen at a concert before. He will introduce himself, invite them back and follow up with a letter.

"Music touches people very personally," he says. "The GSO staff must be personal as well."

In addition to active recruitment of audiences, the orchestra has recorded six CDs with Tchivzhel and sold out of the first two.

The GSO's educational outreach program thrives as well: selected members of the orchestra visit all 48 public elementary schools in Greenville County at least once through the school year.

"We rotate the musicians, so the kids don't see the same group," he says, "and vary the music and the instruments."

Once a year, the GSO's Lollipops concerts bring thousands of schoolchildren to the Peace Concert Hall to a morning and midday full concert performance, while the Summer Lollipops series offers children's concerts at varied Greenville County locations.

The GSO's future is bright, says Howard. "We're looking forward to our next six decades."

FIVE IN 60

Five permanent artistic directors have led the GSO in the past 60 years:

  • Robert Cantrick, 1948-1950
  • Pedro San Juan, 1950-1956
  • Peter Rickett 1956-1990
  • David Pollitt, 1990-1997
  • Guest conductors, 1997-1999
  • Edvard Tchivzhel, 1999-present

Ann Hicks