On a recent Wednesday in the Koger Center’s basement rehearsal space, University of South Carolina symphony orchestra players gathered for practice, one of their last before their season finale show and departure of conductor Donald Portnoy.
Music stands were adjusted, bows were lifted, and then the discordant sounds of an orchestra warming up began.
As he has for the past 31 years, Portnoy took a seat at the front of the room. After a few announcements, he lifted his arms and, with a simple “OK,” the room erupted into Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Act III from “Lohengrin.”
Throughout rehearsal, Portnoy rarely interrupted the playing, save for a few comments: “The clarinets could be a little bit louder” or “Too soon!” to the flutes. He did most of his talking with the conductor’s baton in his right hand. At times it floated lightly up and down, instructing the winds, then jabbed forward quickly to signal the violins to join in, and thrusted forward again for a french horn solo – now!
Sometimes his face crinkled into a grimace at particularly dramatic moments. Other times a smile approached the corners of his lips.
It’s a view of the conductor that audiences don’t usually see. For a performance, Portnoy walks on stage, takes a quick bow and turns his back to the audience.
“And the rest of the show, they can’t see what I’m doing,” he said. “There’s a lot more to it than just waving your hand.”
On Tuesday, April 18, Portnoy will conduct the USC orchestra for the final time before he retires from the position. Since coming to USC in 1986, he has built up the program, striving to run it like a professional orchestra and focusing on bringing top talent to perform with his students. Tuesday’s show, “The Spirit of Romanticism,” will feature world-class violinist Vadim Gluzman, who will perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D.
“(Portnoy) was the one who coalesced what we had in the late ’80s into an orchestra. He was able to build something that is a great pride to the School of Music and the university as well as Columbia,” USC School of Music Dean Tayloe Harding said.
Portnoy was working at the University of West Virginia when he was courted for a job at USC. He turned it down at first, but agreed after the university sent a plane to bring him to an interview and former university president Jim Holderman called him personally. They also allowed him to bring 13 string students with him, which had an immediate, positive impact on the orchestra.
When he arrived and found the orchestra’s performance space unsuitable, Porntoy asked to play at The Township, where the city orchestra performed.
“I was told we didn’t have the budget for that, so I said, ‘OK,’ and started charging something like $4 for shows,” he said. Tickets to performances now go for up to $30. The orchestra also moved to the premeir performance space at the Koger Center when it was built in 1988.
“He has over the course of his career brought a substantial model of what it means to be a good professional musician to students and colleagues alike. We’re going to miss him and Tuesday night is going to be very emotional,” Harding said.
Director of Bands Scott Weiss will take over as interim director, and a permanent replacement is expected to be found by fall of 2018 or 2019, Harding said.
Portnoy grew up in Philadelphia as the son of Russian immigrants and began playing violin at age 7. After high school, he attended Juilliard and was then drafted into the military, where he played in the Marine orchestra for four years. His accolades as a music director and conductor include Columbia University’s Ditson Conductor’s Award (past recipients include Leonard Bernstein and Leopold Stokowski) and the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Award for the Arts, South Carolina’s highest honor in the arts.
His students say he can be strict and traditional, but that’s a good thing.
“As a conductor, he’s a very firm teacher. He expects a lot from us and packs our programming with challenging music,” sophomore violinist Jessica Kinosian said. “In my opinion, that’s very motivational.”
Sophomore upright bassist Logan Lysaght knows to come to rehearsal prepared and familiar with the material, because Portnoy expects nothing less.
“It’s good because that’s what you have to do as a professional musician,” he said.
Portnoy has always maintained that he runs the symphony like a professional orchestra.
“What better way to train them than to have the situation that they’re aspiring to?” he said. “I think you have to be demanding, to a certain degree. Life is demanding.”
While he leaves big shoes to fill for the orchestra, Portnoy is not saying goodbye altogether. He will continue to teach conducting and violin classes and direct the Conductors Institute of South Carolina at USC.
Stepping down from the orchestra will free his time for teaching masters classes abroad (he’ll be in South Korea, China and Prague this summer) and leading the Aiken Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 2016.
“There’s so many things I’d like to do that I haven’t been able to do,” he said.
But no matter what, conducting remains his passion.
“As long as I can stand up and move my arms, that’s what I’d like to do.”
If you go
“The Spirit of Romanticism”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 18. Maestro Portnoy will do a pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m.
Where: Koger Center, 1051 Greene St.
Cost: $30 general public; $25 seniors, USC faculty and staff; $8 students.
Details: kogercenterforthearts.com or 803-251-2222