On a High Note

April 2017
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel

The Long Bay Symphony thrives in its 29th season

On a Sunday evening this past January, as millions of Americans were tuning in to watch the NFL showcase its conference championship playoff games that sent the winners to the Super Bowl, another display of patriotic passion was taking place here on the Grand Strand. This event, however, did not feature the names of Roethlisberger or Brady or Rodgers, but instead the likes of Tchaikovsky and Copland and Sibelius, for The Long Bay Symphony was performing a concert entitled, appropriately, Nationalistic Fervor—complete with a pre-concert orchestral rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The night was a special night for the symphony. Besides being the opening concert of its 29th season, this was the first performance in the Myrtle Beach High Performing Arts Center since the building sustained structural damage during Hurricane Matthew. There was also the business of unveiling the new conductor’s podium—a legacy gift donated by one of the symphony’s longtime patrons, Peter Perog.

And there was the music itself—selected and arranged by the conductor who would step up to the podium, and who has been leading the symphony as Music Director for 21 years, Dr. Charles Evans.

“When planning a season and what music you offer the public,” he says, “you have to take into account many things. First and foremost is balancing the idea of presenting this—which is one of the fine arts, but in an atmosphere where there’s a certain degree of recognizable music that people can automatically relate to.”

This formula might best account for how Evans, over his long tenure, has successfully built The Long Bay Symphony from a community orchestra, one that practiced sporadically, into a professional regional orchestra, one considered to be a Grand Strand cultural gem. And yet Evans continues to be relatable. On this night, for instance, as he took the new podium for the first time, he did not immediately launch into the opening piece on the program, the Overture to the opera The Bartered Bride, but instead had the orchestra play “Happy Birthday” to Nan Hudson, who helped start The Long Bay Symphony Youth Orchestra and who was turning 91.

The gesture was well-received by the hundreds in attendance, a moment that briefly removed the proverbial wall between performer and audience. It was a moment, you might say, of formal informality. For there certainly remained the handsome aesthetics of a professional orchestra on stage—the musicians in their black-and-white formal wear, the wood-grained violas and cellos and violins, the shiny brass of the trumpets and horns. And then the first triumphant notes of the music.

“The best thing for me,” Evans says, “is when I see people’s visceral reaction to an acoustic orchestra. In this day and age, when we’re so accustomed to everything being digital and modified in some way, the notion of sitting there and watching 70 or 75 musicians with no mic-ing, just acoustically making this sound, it’s very powerful. I think it’s an overwhelming thing that a lot of people haven’t had the chance to do.”

Indeed, for every regular concertgoer like a Peter Perog or a Nan Hudson, there are thousands of Grand Stranders who have never even heard of The Long Bay Symphony. It’s a problem orchestras all over the nation face—an aging audience and limited resources. But it’s a problem that The Long Bay Symphony willingly acknowledges and feels uniquely positioned to address.

“I’ve always been struck by the great amount of potential in this area,” says Evans. “I could see, and I still see, that you have the area growing so much, with people moving here who already enjoy orchestras from wherever they come from—mainly in the Northeast, but from other places throughout the country. And when they come here and they find out they have a professional orchestra, that really surprises them.”

Jane Williams, who took over in the fall of 2015 as Executive Director, agrees and cites her own story as an example.

“I came from Columbia, and I would go to the Philharmonic there. Of course, I’ve been to New York and heard people play, and when I came down here and attended one of the concerts, I said this is just as good as anything I’ve heard anywhere. I was just amazed, and I loved the symphony, and I just thought it was something important for the community to have.”

Part of the importance, she argues, can also be economic: “When high-ranking officials are moving here, they want to know there’s culture for their families. We can’t just rely on attraction. We have to have something for people who live here year-round, and the symphony is something special.”

The most important way to spread the word is through education. That’s why, in addition to offering to the public a pre-concert lecture on each performance, Dr. Evans also leads The Long Bay Youth Symphony—an orchestra comprised of musicians, from seventh grade to college undergraduates, who will be the next generation of professional symphonic musicians.

But the symphony also enhances its profile by having renowned soloists, such as the violinist Yoo Jin Jang did for the Nationalistic Fervor concert. Before the second selection—the wonderfully haunting “Havanaise” by Camille Saint-Saëns—Jang stepped out in a stunning red dress and delivered a masterful performance. And for the third piece of the night, before intermission, the orchestra played Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” with state senator Luke Rankin narrating Lincoln’s timeless words, beginning “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”

Evans likens such collaboration between soloist and orchestra to “dancing”—a delicate intimacy that requires serious rehearsal, but is rewarding in the end.

“By the time I get on stage, most of my work is done,” he says. “By that time I just have fun, I think. It’s just like being up there to enjoy the process and get everyone unified.”

The Long Bay Symphony musicians—most of whom have graduate degrees in music and all of whom live in or within driving distance of the Grand Strand—agree with the sentiment.

Lynn Auman, who has played violin in the symphony for 18 years and the instrument itself for 55 years, says, “Anytime you are able to work with a group of people on a consistent basis and everybody has a common goal at the end of that rehearsal period—to produce a wonderful concert—the camaraderie you come away with, and the feeling of giving something of very high quality and value to those in the audience, is very satisfying.”

The violist Jennifer Murphy says, “It’s very exciting to be in the moment. When the lights go down, and the people get quiet, and the lights start shining on us, you kind of think to yourself, ‘This is amazing to be in this position at this moment.’”

Their hope is that all their hard work will entertain as well as broaden the minds of those in attendance. And they all know that they need to increase that attendance by getting the word out, building on the 29-year foundation.

Lynn Auman says it best: “I’m proud that this community, so well known for its golf courses and beaches and all the other wonderful things in the tourism industry, allows for people, if they so choose, to attend a pops concert or a classical concert in a place so diverse and full of energy. We are not lacking in any respect culturally.”

And the Nationalistic Fervor concert, she says, is a great example “to remind ourselves we’re not in a little shoebox here. The talent that has come forward over the generations from all countries, and it emphasizes the expression we’ve heard forever: Music is a universal language.”