USC Aiken Welcomes Conductors from All Over the World

Staff Report From Aiken CEO

Friday, June 29th, 2018

The University of South Carolina Aiken's Etherredge Center hosted the 2018 Conductors Institute of South Carolina, which allowed visiting conductors the opportunity to learn from renowned composers and conductors.

For more than three decades, Aiken Symphony Guild's Dr. Donald Portnoy has directed multi-day and two-week programs for both aspiring and experienced conductors.

"Students of the Conductors Institute receive a no-nonsense tutorial from conductors and composers who have vast experience in the academic, commercial, and professional worlds of music," Portnoy said.

Each day, attendees had "podium time," which gave them the opportunity to conduct professional musicians playing familiar scores. As part of the tailored teaching approach offered through the program, Portnoy invited guest conductors and composers to provide feedback and encouragement to those enrolled in the institute.

"The guest conductors and composers are keenly aware of what it takes to succeed in a tough, competitive field, and they are willing to share their knowledge and expertise," Portnoy said.

This summer, Portnoy offered a 15-day Institute for Fellows and Associates Program. Those with moderate to advanced conductor skills attended the Fellows and Associates Institute. In addition to the guaranteed podium time throughout each day, this program offered a lecture series that included other topics related to the conducting profession, specifically: score reading and interpretations, publicity, and concert management.

For 20 years, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco spent time on a concert platform as a mezzo-soprano soloist with many of America's fine orchestras from Houston and Dallas to Milwaukee and San Francisco. Now, she's on the podium - and in Portnoy's program - in a much different role.

"I came to this program with a unique set of skills; a fully formed musical artist who has spent a lifetime in music, and yet as a conductor, I'm just a baby. I have never conducted a symphony orchestra before this month," she said.

"I began my musical training as a flutist at the Curtis Institute Music and played as a freelancer many years before becoming an international concert and opera singer for 20 years, so orchestra repertoire is not foreign to me, but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to love it this much being at the helm."

Like Mitchell-Velasco, all participants attended an evening lecture series. Conductor Peter Jaffe delivered informative and engaging sessions in score study.

"This is crucial for exploring how aural inspirations translate to the written page and for developing comprehensive approaches toward scores," Maestro Portnoy says.

Jaffe exploreed advanced rhythmic topics, harmonic progressions, notational conventions and interpretive challenges in orchestral repertoire with institute participants.

This year at USC Aiken, 14 conductors from 10 states and 4 foreign countries participated in the Conductors Institute of South Carolina. In addition to Portnoy and Jaffe, guest conductors and composers leading elements of the program for the participants included, USC Aiken's own Dr. Richard Maltz, composer; Victoria Bond, composer and conductor; Neil Casey conductor; Avner Dorman, composer; and Paul Vermel.

"Dr. Portnoy has put together such a unique program, and this incredible opportunity he affords to many people of varying levels of age, experience and ability," said Mitchell-Velasco.

"Many have conducted orchestras and some had not. The wonderful thing is each person received the same amount of concentrated attention and coaching from some of the finest pedagogues available today."

She said she left the institute "feeling inspired, refreshed and renewed."

"I am so grateful to have had such a wonderful time and to have made many new friends both young and old, and to be ready to begin a new adventure and pursue whatever the next era of my musical journey will be."