New SOA executive director hopes week-long festival will inspire Augustans to give classical music a fresh look
Symphony Orchestra Augusta’s new Executive Director Mieko Di Sano wants you to give Beethoven a chance, and she’s giving you a whole week to do it. Starting on Monday, February 18, and running until Saturday, February 23, SOA will be hosting a first of its kind community-wide event called the Composer Festival, this year featuring Beethoven.
Think of it as all Beethoven, all the time. All over the place.
Though the festival was the brainchild of SOA Music Director Shizuo Kuwahara, known throughout the community simply as Z, Di Sano, who took over last August from long-time Executive Director Sandra Self, has been able to put her stamp on the event while getting a crash course in all things Augusta.
“One of the main things we’re facing is how can we keep people interested in the classical genre of music and really get it out of the concert hall and into the public, so to speak,” she says. “We want to try to show people what we feel about classical music as classical musicians.”
She admits that sometimes that can be a challenge.
“Me — I have a doctorate in music and know all about it and all about Beethoven and stuff, but we thought it would be really fun to have one week of the year where we just have festivities surrounding a popular composer that, even if people have never heard classical music before, they would know. And everyone knows the name Beethoven.”
From movies like “Immortal Beloved,” which will kick of the festival at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, February 18, at the Jaguar Student Activities Center Ballroom, to Schroder’s toy piano to those ominous beginning notes of his Fifth Symphony, Beethoven is a living, breathing part of our daily lives, whether we know it or not, and it’s that interconnectivity that Di Sano hopes to exploit.
Professionally speaking, the week-long event also allows SOA to reach out and partner with different local organizations.
“That’s something we’re very interested in doing,” she says. “We don’t live in a vacuum, and some of the other organizations have such creative ideas that we thought we could just get together and have a music filled festival.”
As the largest and most visible of the community’s arts organizations, SOA has always been a leader among the arts groups, and as such it hasn’t always sought out such partnerships. Here, however, partnerships extend to the Harry Jacobs Chamber Music Society, which will present Miles Hoffman and the American Chamber Players at GRU’s Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre on Friday, February 22, at 7:30 p.m., as well the Richmond County Library, GRU, the KROC Center and two local schools, Miss Charlene’s School of the Arts and the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, both of which will be providing visual art displays inspired by the music of Beethoven.
“They’ve been listening to music like Moonlight Sonata and Ode to Joy and their art is going to be inspired by what they’ve been listening to,” says Director of Education and Community Engagement Amy Montgomery.
The artwork will be displayed at the Jabez Hardin Performing Arts Center before the Columbia County Music Series Concert featuring the Perlman, Quint, Bailey Trio on Tuesday, February 19, and at Saturday’s Symphony Series Concert at First Baptist of Augusta, both of which will highlight Beethoven.
Other events include a children’s move, “Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” at 2 p.m. Saturday at the KROC Center auditorium, a special Salon Concert at a private residence and Beethoven-focused Lunch and Learns Tuesday through Friday at 1 p.m. at the Richmond County Library.
For more particulars visit soaugusta.org.
“We’ve already started brainstorming about things we could do next year and what other types of organizations we could partner with in order to expand this even more and make this an even bigger deal,” Di Sano says. “But for our first year, we have a pretty packed in week that we’re pretty excited about, and we’re hoping that everyone in town gets excited, too, and just gives Beethoven a chance.”
It will be hard not to. Besides the movies and concerts and lectures, there will also be an actor dressed as Beethoven who will pop up throughout the area and members of the orchestra will participate in Random Acts of Beethoven — unannounced Beethoven-themed musical performances around the community.
It’s the musical version of breaking the fourth wall — the imaginary boundary between performer and audience — and it’s an important part of Di Sano’s vision for the orchestra, which is striving to reinvent itself as its audience base gets older and smaller.
Di Sano calls it a generational thinking shift, not only in the way people think about art, but in they expect to engage it.
“The way I want an organization to engage me with entertainment and art and everything else is so different from my parents and my grandparents,” she says. “So I want people to experience classical music the way that makes me passionate and want to continue to be involved with classical music.”
That passion comes from being involved in it so intensely — remember, she has a doctorate in music — and from the sense of community that she’s always gotten from being part of an orchestra. It’s a sense of community that has deep roots.
“Across the country, for a hundred years, every town had a symphony orchestra,” she says. “It might just be a community orchestra that gets together and plays at an amateur level, or it might be the New York Philharmonic, but every town had a symphony because it’s a symbol of prosperity and of their pride in their community.”
And what other than symphonic music has the capability of getting 100 people together doing one thing in order to create something larger than themselves?
Di Sano acknowledges that people could be surprised to learn that something perceived to be so prohibitively exclusive was once such a populist cornerstone, but the effort to expand the audience for classical music is certainly nothing new. Ever since Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts aired on TV throughout the 1960s, the classical music establishment has been trying to entice and excite young people.
As part of the 2009 Westobou Festival, SOA itself staged Video Games Live, an energetic, multimedia concert geared toward bringing the burgeoning video game culture into the concert hall. Musically speaking, video games are this generation’s Loony Tunes.
In spite of the breadth of its reach, Di Sano herself experiences the built-in cultural resistance many have to the idea of classical music.
“It’s funny, because with some of my peers, they’re like, ‘Oh, classical music is for old people,’ and I’m like, wait a minute — you’re friends with me, you like me and you like what I like… then why are you against the symphony?’” she says. “It’s all the preconceived notions, and we just need to get past all this.”
Di Sano is far from the blue haired old lady that might be the stereotype of a classical music enthusiast. Young, attractive and cosmopolitan — she came here from Washington, D.C., by way of Aspen and California — she lives downtown, eats with our foodies and has a football signed by coach former USC Coach Pete Carroll prominently displayed in her office at the Sacred Heart Cultural Center.
That’s hardly old school symphony, yet she has an old school symphony commitment to the cause.
“To me, an orchestra is a symbol of community and what people can do together when they come together,” she says. “That’s sort of my life concept or whatever, and that’s how I envision what a symphony means to a community. It’s not about preserving this type of music, which I still think is important — to me, it’s actually alive. I don’t think of it as dead composers and that we have to do this because it’s like a museum piece. No, classical music is performed today. It’s touched. It’s experienced.”
She especially enjoys the physical reaction people have the moment when the orchestra starts to play.
“That’s not even just an orchestra — the live experience in general is just so different, though especially so with an orchestra,” she says. “It’s non-amplified. It’s just the nature of music. It conforms to whatever the building it’s in wants.”
Which brings her to the Miller Theater, the Broad Street venue the orchestra is anxious to start filling with sound. After years of languishing, owner Peter Knox donated it to the symphony, and since accepting it in 2011, the organization has been working to find a way to make it their permanent home.
To make that move work financially, however, the organization will have to rehabilitate the old theater into something that will work for both symphony as well as any number of other uses, since it will need to host more than just symphony events to be cost effective. According to Di Sano, that fits well with her concept of community.
“It’s not going to feel like our home if we’re the only ones in it,” she says. “We want to fill it with community acts and we want to bring in acts that the community wants to see. So yes, it will be our home, but the most exciting piece for us is that we can be so inclusive with our home.”
The first acoustic test uncovered some things that changed the design a bit, so they’ll be holding a second acoustic test with their acoustician later in the month. The plan is to fill the theater with people, bring in as much of the orchestra as they can get as well as a rock band so that they can thoroughly test the acoustics for both amplified and non-amplified music.
Once the acoustic testing is complete, she says they can resume the schematic design and then start working on the construction documents.
Though no timetable has been set, Di Sano makes it obvious that she feels she’s arrived in town at just the right time and that the inaugural Composer Festival is the start of a new way of thinking.
“This festival is one of the first things we’re trying to do as an organization to exemplify that our community is the priority of the symphony,” she says. “After this, we have plenty more stuff in store for how we want to show the community that we are invested in them just as they invest in us.” You Might Also Like: