SC Philharmonic Excels, But It’s Not All Smooth Sailing

Orchestra At Top of Its Game Artistically, Needs Financial Boost
By Dan Cook
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Since 2007, when the South Carolina Philharmonic hired the young, effervescent music director Morihiko Nakahara, the orchestra has been riding high on a wave of community enthusiasm and positive press.

Or so it seems from the outside.

It’s true that the Philharmonic has made leaps and bounds artistically under Nakahara — just refer to Free Times’ online archives for past reviews documenting the orchestra’s musical growth. And it’s true that Nakahara has freshened the orchestra’s repertoire and brought an engaging personality to the orchestra, both onstage and off. From concertgoers to orchestra management to musicians, the praise for Nakahara’s leadership has been widespread.

“He’s been a true shot in the arm for this organization,” executive director Rhonda Hunsinger says in a video commemorating the group’s 50th anniversary.

But the reality, orchestra leaders say, is that while the Philharmonic is riding high artistically, it is struggling somewhat financially.

The Philharmonic’s budget is typically about $1 million per year. The 2011-12 season found the orchestra facing a $127,585 deficit, according to its tax filings; communications director Jason Rapp clarifies that $110,000 of that amount represents late payments on endowment pledges, and that the cumulative operating deficit was just $14,857. Still, revenue continues to be a concern: The current season has seen a decline in subscription ticket sales.

In some ways, leaders say, the orchestra is a victim of its own success: It’s received such positive attention since Nakahara came on board that most people assume the organization is in great shape.

“Some groups are always out there hat in hand,” says board president Bill Danielson. “We haven’t been one of them.”

But, he adds, “Sometimes we need to be a little more blunt with our message.”

Founded in 1963 after several false starts, the South Carolina Philharmonic is similar in size and approach to other mid-sized orchestras in that it operates on a per-service basis — musicians are not full-time employees, but are paid for each rehearsal and performance. A larger budget could enable the orchestra to do things like establish a small standing ensemble to do consistent community outreach, or to regularly commission works from new composers.

For its 50th anniversary season, it did just that, presenting the world premiere of Red Maple by Joan Tower, a Grammy-winning composer, earlier this season. The Philharmonic was able to pull it off by sharing the cost with several other orchestras. This Saturday’s concert at the Koger Center also features a commissioned work, this one by University of South Carolina composition professor John Fitz Rogers.

It’s refreshing ideas like these that have helped give the Philharmonic its sheen in recent years — but Nakahara fears they’re also partially responsible for the group’s fiscal woes.

“It is possible that the orchestra would be in better financial shape without me,” he says.

It’s also possible that we’ll have a chance to find out whether that’s true: Nakahara’s contract runs out at the end of next season.

“One of the questions you ask yourself is whether you are the right person for the organization at this time,” Nakahara says. “I have not been able to answer that.”

Management clearly wants him to stay. When Nakahara floats the idea that the orchestra might be better off financially without him, executive director Hunsinger, seated a few feet away, is quick to assure him that the costs of his artistic vision are not a burden to be thrown off, but rather a goal to be reached.

Still, if he decides to move on, “We have always said that whether it’s three years or six years or more, we will be happy to have had him here and we will be glad to be a stepping stone in his career,” Hunsinger says.

In the meantime, the goal is to keep the artistic momentum going — and pick up the financial momentum.

One thing the Philharmonic has going for it in that effort is mutual respect among musicians, management and the music director, says board president Danielson.

“I don’t have to worry or hide when I go to a musicians’ function,” he says. “What you will find if you compare us to other orchestras is that we all work well together, we all understand how we affect each other, and we are all on the same team.”

SC Philharmonic
Koger Center: Saturday, Jan. 11 (7:30 p.m.)
Beethoven & Blue Jeans

On the program: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 (featuring soloist Alessio Bax) and John Fitz Rogers’ The Passing Sun.
Tickets: $23 to $53; capitoltickets.com, 251-2222.

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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