Performing at the Kennedy Center – home of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington National Opera – is something that many professional musicians can only dream of. But on Feb. 20, 2023, members of the College of Charleston Orchestra will make that fantasy a reality when they perform at the Capital Orchestra Festival in Washington, D.C. 

“It’s one of the top platforms for performance in the arts world and, in my opinion, one of the top places to play,” says Yuriy Bekker, director of the College’s orchestra. “This will give the students an amazing experience that they’ll treasure for the rest of their lives.” 

Bekker, artistic director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and CSO’s principal pops conductor, has served as CofC’s orchestra director since 2011. Developing the College’s orchestra program to be able to perform in high caliber festivals and venues has been his long-term goal. Undeterred by the pandemic, he submitted recorded performances of the orchestra to the Capital Orchestra Festival in August of 2021. Festival leaders selected the ensemble in the fall of that year. And, with the philanthropic support of Frank Oldham and Peggy Fossi-Oldham, patrons of the College’s orchestra and Department of Music, Bekker has spent the last 13 months preparing his musicians to step onto the Kennedy Center stage. 

The orchestra will perform three pieces, including “Academic Festival Overture” and “Hungarian Dance,” both by Johannes Brahms, and “Charlestonia,” written in tribute to the Holy City by Charleston native Edmund Thornton Jenkins, an African American composer who found success in Europe in the early 20th century.  

“’Charlestonia’ is a very special work that has deep ties to Charleston,” says Bekker, noting that Jenkins was the son of the Rev. Daniel Jenkins, who founded the Jenkins Orphanage for African American children in 1891 and later directed the renowned Jenkins Orphanage Band. “I wanted to select a piece that will bring Charleston to Washington. When you hear the music, you truly hear the rhythms and sounds of Charleston.” 

members of the cofc orchestra pose with their instruments

The College of Charleston Orchestra, led by Yuriy Bekker (center), includes music majors and non-music majors in the ensemble. (Photo by Catie Cleveland)

For orchestra members Katie Banish and Payton Lee, preparing for their Kennedy Center debut has been both challenging and exhilarating. 

“I’ve been preparing a lot by practicing on my own time, on my own instrument,” says Banish, who is a senior music major with a performance concentration in trumpet. “Also, listening to the pieces has helped me a lot and working with the members of the trumpet section on our part so that we can put it all together. And the Charleston Symphony Orchestra played some of our pieces, also, so I went to those concerts, and that helped me to prepare so I knew what I needed to perfect.” 

“Performing at the Kennedy Center means that I’m taking steps forward in my career with music, and that’s very special to me because that’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little – I’ve always wanted to be in a professional orchestra,” adds Lee, a sophomore music major with a concentration in violin performance. “The Kennedy Center is one of the biggest stages in the world, so performing there is a little bit nerve-racking, but I think that, overall, it makes me think about the fact that I get this opportunity and that just makes me want to practice more, push harder and push myself to be a better musician.”  

Michael O’Brien, chair of the Department of Music, says challenging the orchestra to perform at the Kennedy Center has pushed the student ensemble to aim for a higher level of musicianship and artistry. 

College of Charleston Orchestra Spring concert headlining renowned Grammy Award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, op 35. Conducted by Yuri Bekker and presented by the Department of Music at the Sottile Theatre.

College of Charleston Orchestra spring 2022 concert featuring Grammy Award-winning violinist Augustin Hadelich. (Photo by Heather Moran)

“To perform for an audience, literally on the national stage, is the kind of accountability provided by very few educational experiences at the College, and that’s true for Yuriy as well – his teaching will literally be on display for the world to see and hear,” says O’Brien. “And our students are motivated and work hard for every concert, but I think knowing the stakes are higher for this performance has provided even more motivation. It’s given shape to their whole year.” 

What makes the orchestra’s performance at the festival even more special is that the ensemble is made up of both music and non-music majors, something that School of the Arts Dean Edward Hart says is a testament to the College’s successful blend of a liberal arts education. 

“It’s an orchestra that’s made up of not only music majors, but majors from across campus – you’ve got chemistry majors playing in the violin section,” says Hart, noting the close relationship the School of the Arts has with Charleston Symphony Orchestra and professional musicians such as Bekker. “It’s a very unusual setup and, I think, it is in keeping with our identity as an institution – that, yes, you can come here and be a biology major, but also experience the arts at a very high level. Or you can come here and be a music major and get conservatory-level training, but within the framework of this liberal arts–style environment.” 

In addition to performing, members of the College’s orchestra will participate in a master class through the festival with Col. Dennis M. Layendecker, former commander and conductor of the United States Air Force Band and Orchestra. Students will also tour various museums, including the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as Ford’s Theatre and a stop at the White House. 

“It’s a very inspiring moment for our students,” says Bekker. “They’re thrilled. They’re working hard – they’re committed to this performance.” 

The Capital Orchestra Festival performances, featuring five youth orchestras from across the country, will take place at 2 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2023. Tickets are free, and all alumni and CofC supporters in the Washington, D.C., area are encouraged to attend.