Raising the curtain: Renovated Gaillard Center signals new era in Charleston's performing arts scene

September 26, 2015
The city's bulky old municipal auditorium, built in 1968 for about $6 million, is gone now. It was a product of its time. It served its purpose.

It enabled Charleston residents to see some pretty good concerts. It provided an imperfect home to local ballet companies and to the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. And it helped convince Gian Carlo Menotti to establish Spoleto Festival USA here. Without a big venue like that, the festival never could have flourished.

But now, finally, Charleston has graduated from the merely adequate and enrolled in something its makers repeatedly call "world class." The $142 million Gaillard Center, remade over three years into a state-of-the-art 1,800-seat concert hall, is about to open.

It is the latest and grandest upgrade of the city's performance venues.

Memminger Auditorium was rehabilitated, at a cost of $6 million and reopened in 2008.

The Dock Street Theatre underwent a $19 million overhaul and reopened in 2010.

The Sottile Theatre, too, benefited from a few physical and acoustical improvements in 2013.

Now the biggest performance space of all is complete and ready for its gala opening concert on Oct. 18, featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Charleston Symphony Orchestra.

The gala will be followed by "Sounds of the Holy City: Gospel Meets Jazz," a concert at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 featuring Lowcountry Voices, The Charlton Singleton Quintet, Karen Clark-Sheard and Blanche-Dykes; Brian Wilson of Beach Boys fame on Oct. 20; a show on Oct. 21 called "Gaillard County Unplugged," featuring four fellas Randy Owen from the band Alabama, Richie McDonald from Lonestar, Larry Stewart from Restless Heart and Tracy Lawrence playing their hits with guitars accompaniment; and the extraordinary all-male a cappella group Chanticleer on Oct. 22.

Then comes the third annual Colour of Music Festival, Oct. 21-25, whose three weekend Masterworks concerts will be presented on the Gaillard stage.

The diversity of the Gaillard's opening week programming is a good indication of the staff's overall goals. The team wants to light up the hall most every night, if possible, not just to generate the revenues necessary for keeping an expensive facility up and running, but to provide more bang for the buck to patrons.

The days of the occasional concert are over.

Even now, Gaillard staffers Kevin Carlon, Jason Nichols, Rick Jerue, Sterling DeVries, Kelly Dujmovic and Tom Tomlinson are busy filling in the spring 2016 calendar and fleshing out the 2016-17 season.

Carlon, director of external affairs, has plenty of concert-presenting experience, and he's taking advantage of his connections to book musicians and shows, he said.

Nichols ran the Charleston Concert Association for a quarter-century, merged his organization with the Gaillard Center and became its director of programming.

Jerue and DeVries are working on education outreach and programming, with the intention of fostering key relationships with local businesses, schools, nonprofits and arts organizations. They want to bring schoolchildren from across the tri-county area to the Gaillard for special performances and to bring special performances to the schools.

Dujmovic is working in tandem with her colleagues to book the adjacent 16,000-square-foot exhibition space, which can be subdivided and transformed into a performance space, ballroom or banquet room.

And, Tomlinson is executive director. He runs the whole show.

At the start

The inaugural season organized by the Gaillard includes three distinct series: Masterpiece, Broadway and Dance.

The Masterpiece Series includes performances by Chanticleer (Oct. 22), The National Circus and Acrobats of the People's Republic of China (Nov. 2), Compania Flamenca Jose Porcel (Nov. 9), the Munich Symphony Orchestra (Nov. 14), the Vienna Boys Choir (Dec. 8) and Disney's Fantasia, Live in Concert! (March 4).

The John and Jill Chalsty Broadway Series includes a production of the musical comedy "Bullets Over Broadway" (Nov. 17 and 18), The Broadway Tenors (Jan. 12), "Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles" (March 2) and a new production of "Saturday Night Fever" (March 14).

The Charles and Celeste Patrick Dance Series includes Charlotte Ballet's "Nutcracker" (Dec. 5 and 6), "Moves" by New York City Ballet (March 8 and 9) and Charlotte Ballet's "Little Mermaid" (April 9 and 10).

This programming has been organized by the Gaillard Center itself, whose primary mission is to schedule events in the concert hall and exhibition hall and coordinate with local arts organizations (and others) that want to rent space in the center.

More shows likely will be confirmed soon, such as the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Alton Brown, a Blues festival and perhaps a nationally known comedian. Next month, PBS plans to tape a show called "Songs of the Civil Rights Movement" in the performance hall, to be narrated by Martin Sheen and aired during pledge week in 2016.

And Boeing, which turns 100 next year, plans to set up a big public show under a tent on the Gaillard grounds called "Above and Beyond." The special presentation will tell the history of aeronautics, using the tent, the Gaillard stage and the exhibition hall. It will include an education outreach component and cost the public nothing.

During the first week of March, the Southeastern Wildlife Expo will occupy the Gaillard's exhibition hall, and in May, Spoleto Festival USA will assume control with a blockbuster production of "Porgy & Bess."

Other groups, including local arts organizations, will have opportunities to book the performance hall and exhibition space, and to use the outdoor space on the Calhoun Street side of the building.

Charleston Symphony

Already, the Charleston Symphony Orchestra is holding 55 dates, some for concerts, others for rehearsals. Its season begins Oct. 30 with "Frankenstein Live" at the Gaillard, when the orchestra will accompany the monster movie in real time.

The Chamber Orchestra Series led by Concertmaster Yuriy Bekker has been combined into a now-enlarged Masterworks Series, with all eight performances scheduled for the Gaillard Center. Bekker will conduct three intimate programs, in November, February and March.

One is dedicated to the music composed during the transition between the Classical and Romantic periods and features Charles Messersmith playing Weber's First Clarinet Concerto. Another is all Baroque and opens with Bach's Concerto for Violin and Oboe, featuring Micah Gangwer and brand-new CSO oboist Zachary Hammond. The last offers works by Rossini and Mendelssohn as well as a commissioned piece, a concerto for special guest artists Project Trio, by Adam Schoenberg, who will be in attendance.

The full band will play five Masterworks concerts featuring favorites such as Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 (played on a new Steinway by Daria Rabotkina, Nov. 6 and 7); Mozart's 40th Symphony and Medelssohn's music for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (Nov. 20 and 21); Beethoven's Third Symphony and the Sibelius Violin Concerto (played by Bella Hristova, Jan. 15 and 16); Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 (performed by Sandra Wright Shen) and Brahms' Symphony No. 1 (Feb. 26 and 27); Poulenc's "Gloria" (April 1 and 2); and Brahms' Second Piano Concerto (performed by the College of Charleston's Ran Dank) and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (April 22 and 23).

Its Pops concerts include a Louis Armstrong tribute with Byron Stripling (Jan. 30) and a night of music from Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (April 15 and 16).


The new Gaillard Center will enable well-established organizations such as Spoleto Festival and the Charleston Symphony to do better by taking advantage of a proper concert hall with improved acoustics and all the right equipment backstage.

It also will provide opportunities for newer groups, such as Ballet Evolution and the Colour of Music Festival, to get off on the right foot.

The Gaillard Center staff say they want the venue to be a community asset not only for patrons but for local artists a centerpiece of the city's cultural scene.

Their challenge is to balance that noble goal with the requirement to ensure financial sustainability.

The Post and Courier
By Adam Parker
Photo by Paul Zoeller