Portnoy reflects on achievements before last show

After nearly 19 years taking up the baton with the Augusta Symphony, maestro Donald Portnoy will preside over his final Masterworks performance tonight.


Dr. Portnoy accepted the post as music director and conductor in 1990, taking over from Augusta Symphony founder Harry Jacobs, who established the organization in 1954. During the course of Dr. Portnoy's tenure, he has seen the symphony flourish, increasing its revenue, repertoire and status.

Although he is stepping away from his post (Shizuo Kuwahara will take over in July), Dr. Portnoy said he's not nearly ready to retire.

"I want to build things, just like I've done here," he said Thursday before a rehearsal for his final concert.

He is the conductor at the Brevard Philharmonic, formed in 2005 in Brevard, N.C., and he is involved with the Donald Portnoy Violin Competition, which will debut at the Westobou Festival in September.

"I'm very excited about the competition," he said. "There just aren't that many violin competitions in the United States, and I think this will attract some great young talent."

He will continue to teach at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.

Musical America, a leading orchestral resource, uses a letter grading system for symphonies, with budgets as a gauge. The largest orchestras are given an AA rating. Dr. Portnoy said when he arrived in Augusta the symphony rated a C. Today, he said, it is a solid B, a strong regional symphony.

"That means something," he said. "That registers with people when they look at it. They have a different feel for what is going on."

Dr. Portnoy remembers his initial season as one of firsts. The orchestra performed famous first symphonies and pieces never before played in Augusta and also changed its programming.

"I tried some things," he said. "I started a chamber orchestra, which was successful but really needed some more time. I also suggested a pops series. That was an idea some people loved and others saw as a success."

Dr. Portnoy said the first concerts had a performer budget of $10,000 and drew heavily from local talent. Last year, the budget was close to $100,000, allowing the symphony to attract national acts Don McLean and Three Dog Night.

Dr. Portnoy said his approach to building a successful symphony means gauging what he believes an audience wants and what he responds to as a conductor, musician and music lover.

"When I do a program, it has to say something to me," he said. "There has to be something that clicks. If I'm excited about it, then I can get the orchestra excited about it. If the orchestra is excited about it, then the audience will be excited."

He said his final Masterworks concert will be both grand and sentimental. He's invited old friends to perform: opera singers Carol Sparrow and Randolph Locke and violinist Vadim Gluzman.

"I wanted to bring in people I have known and worked with for a long time," he said. "Vadim, for instance, I have known for 12 years and we've probably done nine concertos together."

The concert will be bookended with grand symphonic pieces. The first is the prelude to Act III of Wagner's Lohengrin and the finale is Pines of Rome by Respighi.

"Oh, Pines ," Dr. Portnoy said. "It's big. In the last movement, what I always envision is the Roman Legion, out in the hills, marching, getting closer and closer. When they get here, when they get to the city, well, that's when all hell breaks loose."

And then, he said with a small shrug, it will be over.

"There will be some sadness," he said. "But not a lot. I'll continue to see a lot of these people all the time. When one steps down as a conductor, it's a lot like stepping down as a professor at a college. There is always an association.

"It's not like I'm going to Alaska," he said with a grin.

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.


WHAT: Portnoy & Friends: The Finale, featuring Vadim Gluzman, Carol Sparrow and Randolph Locke

WHEn/where: 7:30 p.m. today at First Baptist Church of Augusta, 3500 Walton Way

COST: $25-$50

Symphonic notes

- The Augusta Symphony presented 28 performances in its 2008-09 season. In 1990-91 (Dr. Portnoy's first season), it presented 12.

- The symphony employs seven core musicians, seven administrative staff, a music director/conductor and a production manager.

- The symphony's 2009-10 budget is $1.3 million.