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Tracing the Charleston Symphony Orchestra back to its early 20th-century roots
Audiences of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra thrill to the works of composers with names such as Gershwin, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. However, there are other monikers—Gibbon, Patterson, Wichmann, De Groote—not so familiar, yet key to making the CSO the force in our city’s cultural life that it is today.
By the time of the American Revolution, Charleston was the site of St. Cecilia Society concerts, the best music series then available in the country. But after the Civil War, the Holy City was silent and wouldn’t find its voice again until the Charleston Renaissance began after World War I.
In 1919, four gifted women began an orchestra. Maud Winthrop Gibbon, who studied the cello in New York, had returned to town and founded the Charleston Musical Society, with singers and instrumentalists presenting concerts on Sunday afternoons. Joining forces with her were church organist Mrs. Martha Laurens Patterson; Miss Marie Baker, who taught violin at Ashley Hall; and the school’s principal, Dr. Mary V. McBee. In this era when women got the vote, it’s interesting to note that Patterson was the first conductor of what eventually evolved into the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. In 1925, Theodore Wichmann founded a second orchestral organization, the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of Charleston. Wichmann served for decades as the instrumental music director of the public schools, and many of his students went on to become members of his orchestra or Gibbon’s.
Unfortunately, the theme of financial upheavals has been recurrent in the city’s musical history. The Charleston Musical Society floundered in the Depression, with Gibbon leaving town. Upon her 1936 return, she and Patterson founded a string symphony.
With hard work (Gibbon not only played the cello, but printed handbills and used her Rutledge Avenue home as headquarters), the string symphony became a full orchestra, which gave its first concert on December 7, 1942. This same year saw the demise of Wichmann’s orchestra, when its volunteer members were called to fulfill civilian and military duties.
Performing in the Dock Street Theatre, Memminger Auditorium, then Gaillard Auditorium, the orchestra was conducted by the likes of J. Albert Fracht, Tony Hadgi, and Don Mills. Many Charlestonians remember Belgium-born Lucien De Groote, who assumed the baton in the early ’60s and moved the organization from all-volunteer to fully professional, with conservatory-trained musicians paid for their services. De Groote retired in 1982, and two years later, David Stahl became music director and conductor, leading the CSO until his death in 2010.
Today, Yuriy Bekker serves as concertmaster, with the Lowcountry hoping for the future success of an organization with such poignant opening movements.
Photographs courtesy of charleston symphony orchestra