Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center, home to the renowned National Symphony Orchestra and Washington National Opera, has hosted artists including Ariana DeBose, Bob Dylan and Gladys Knight. On Feb. 20, 2023, students in the College of Charleston Orchestra joined the ranks of Kennedy Center performers as part of the Capital Orchestra Festival.

“I could not have been prouder of our talented students and their fearless leader, Yuriy Bekker,” says School of the Arts Dean Edward Hart ’88. “Seeing majors from all over campus performing on the Kennedy Center stage is a true testament to the success of our liberal arts and sciences education here at the College of Charleston.”

Yuriy Bekker, director of the College’s orchestra, agrees.

“It validates our students’ commitment and hard work. Until this point it was only a dream for the CofC Orchestra to go on a tour or to be recognized nationally,” says Bekker. “It was a great honor, and we experienced an enormous feeling of achievement. Our orchestra played on a very high level at the Kennedy Center, and I think this was the best we ever sounded.”

Bekker, who is also artistic director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and CSO’s principal pops conductor, applied to the Capital Orchestra Festival in the fall 2021 with the touring company, Music Celebration International. After review, MCI invited the orchestra to perform at either the Kennedy Center or Carnegie Hall.

With the altruistic support of Frank Oldham and Peggy Fossi-Oldham, patrons of the College’s orchestra and Department of Music, and others who were inspired to donate to the College’s orchestra, Bekker spent the last year readying his musicians for their momentous performance on Feb. 20, 2023.

The Oldhams say it’s thanks to the foresight and ability of people like Bekker, Hart and Michael O’Brien, chair of the Department of Music, that the students have been propelled to their current level.

“We give because of the salt of the earth faculty in Yuriy Bekker, Michael O’Brien and Dean Edward Hart,” says Fossi-Oldham. “I have never met people like them, who are genuinely concerned about and invested in the students. It’s clear that it’s not just a job to them.”

“The Oldhams have been a true gift to our school,” adds Hart. “They are not only financial supporters but ardent and enthusiastic patrons. They have made it possible for us to dream big!”

college of charleston orchestra

The College of Charleston Orchestra performed at the Kennedy Center during the Capital Orchestra Festival on Feb. 20, 2023. (Photos by Andrew Cade Martin)

For student-musicians Sydney Vitti, a music performance and German double-major, and Haylea Shuman, a music major, these big dreams have swiftly become formative memories.

“The most memorable part of performing for me was at the end of Academic Overture,” says Vitti. “The ending has three notes after a pause, and the pause ended up being filled with applause until the very end of the piece. It made me smile thinking that the audience enjoyed hearing the piece as much as I enjoyed playing it.”

As a part of the festival, students were also able to partake in a master class with former commander and conductor of the United States Air Force Band and Orchestra, Col. Dennis M. Layendecker.

“The CofC Orchestra tour to Washington was a fantastic experience,” says Shuman. “I loved playing at the Kennedy Center because we all felt like true professionals. We got to work with the retired Air Force conductor and play at the Kennedy Center — not many people can say that!”

“Also,” adds Vitti, “it’s pretty surreal realizing you’ve played on the same stage as Count Basie and U2.”

The Oldhams hope that the students understand how impressive it is for them to have played on a world stage. The center was packed and they received two standing ovations.

“Just as we had hoped,” says Fossi-Oldham. “I think the students have gained the passion to continue honing their art and to strive; that will take you far even if you don’t succeed all the time. They’ve proven that they can do quite a lot.”

The College of Charleston Orchestra will continue its trajectory of excellence in artistry, musicianship and music education with a concert on Monday, April 3, 2023, at the Sottile Theatre featuring violin prodigy Sarah Chang. Since her debut with the New York Philharmonic at age eight, Chang has amazed audiences nationally and internationally for over two decades with her technical virtuosity and refined emotional depth. She’ll make her Charleston debut with the CofC Orchestra playing Bruch’s Violin Concerto and a movement of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto alongside Bekker. Tickets can be purchased through the orchestra’s website go.cofc.edu/orchestra.