The Charleston Symphony Orchestra (= CSO) is the largest resident orchestra in South Carolina and plays most of its concerts in downtown Charleston at the newly renovated Gaillard Center. The orchestra’s performance season consists of Masterworks, Pops, and Chamber Music series, along with several special concerts that showcase a broad range of repertoire ranging from some of the most beloved classical works to vibrant new music, choral works, opera, and collaborations with world-renowned composers and artists. Additionally, the CSO is visible in the community in smaller venues, performing smaller chamber ensemble concerts during the year at clubhouses, churches, and private venues. It currently employs 24 full-time musicians. The CSO's mission is to inspire and engage the community through exceptional musical performances and educational programs.
Charlestons rich orchestral heritage began in 1819 with its first, 30-person orchestra. then, the musicians performed intimate concerts for family and friends. In 1936, music lovers Miss Maude Winthrop Gibbon and Mrs. Martha Laurens Patterson founded the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. The first concert was held December 28, 1936 at Hibernian Hall with Mr. Tony Hadgi conducting. During the first season, the CSO provided the music for The Recruiting Officer, the opening night performance at the newly renovated Dock Street Theatre. DuBose Heyward of Porgy and Bess composed a prologue especially for the concert. The CSO remained in the Dock Street Theatre for three years.
In the 1940's and 1950's, the CSO moved to memminger auditorium with artists including Robert Merrill, Eleanor Steber, Blanche Thebom, Jan Pierce and Donald Voorhees performing. The orchestra played a major role in the growing cultural life of the community under the batons of conductors J. Albert Frecht, Tony Hadgi, Don Mills, and Lucien DeGroote.
In the late 1980's, the CSO emerged as a professional organization with a core of full-time, conservatory-trained first chair players. It achieved “Metropolitan” status in the American Symphony Orchestra League, the only orchestra in the state to do so.
In the early 1980's, the CSO moved to Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, and its ensemble groups performed throughout the community, with Pops concerts in parks, aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier, and at the U.S. Customs House.
In 1984, David Stahl, who studied under Leonard Bernstein and was known for his interpretation of Gustav Mahler's work, became Music Director and conductor. For 27 years, he led the orchestra and built the CSO into one of the leading arts organizations in the Southeast until his death on October 24, 2010, of lymphoma. His energy and dedication inspired a generation of enthusiastic audiences for concert masterpieces and popular repertoire. A beloved figure in the Charleston community, Stahl is credited with elevating the CSO's quality and professionalism. On November 21, 2015, the CSO dedicated its conductor's podium to Maestro Stahl.
Today, the CSO makes its home in the newly renovated, acoustically perfect performance hall at the Gaillard Center. Major concert series, including Masterworks, Pops and Chamber Orchestra, offer audiences rich, diverse performances. In addition, they provide an array of educational programs that connect us with students, help them succeed, and inspire a lifelong love of music. Meet our staff and board.
In April 2012, the CSO launched an international search for a new Music Director to replace the late David Stahl. Maestro Ken Lam was appointed Music Director of the CSO in 2014 and began his first full season with the orchestra in September 2015. In addition to conducting the CSO, he regularly conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as their Associate Conductor for Education where he is also Artistic Director of the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestras. In the summer he is Resident Conductor of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina and maintains his connections in his native Hong Kong as Artistic Director of Hong Kong Voices. Since 2011, he has been Associate Professor and Director of Orchestra at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Previously Ken held positions as Assistant Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Principal Conductor of the Hong Kong Chamber Orchestra.
At its February 11, 2012 Masterworks Concert, which featured L.v. Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, the CSO performed the South Carolina premiere of a violin concerto by local composer Edward Hart, and CSO Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker played a priceless 1686 Stradivarius violin. At this concert, the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium was at 99% capacity. This concert became the highest grossing concert in the history of the organization until the recent Masterworks concert on February 26 and 27, 2016, featuring pianist Sandra Wright Shen. From 2010 to 2014, Bekker served as Acting Artistic Director. In 2016, the CSO named Yuriy Bekker Principal Pops Conductor beginning with the 2016/2017 season.
In response to declining access to arts education, the CSO offers a broad array of educational programming to the Charleston tri-county area. The CSO serves K-12 students from Berkeley, Dorchester, and Charleston counties and is particularly dedicated to partnerships with Title I schools that have large concentrations of low-income students. The CSO plays two Young People's Concerts each season, conducts master classes and in-school performances, and hosts the National Young Artist Competition in the spring each year. The CSO has repeat interactions with approximately 20,000 students per season.