For Mieko Di Sano, music has been a constant part of her life.
She started piano lessons at the age of 4 while her family lived in Japan. The San Jose, Calif., native moved on to the trumpet, and then to the French horn, moving to the University of Michigan and finishing up her doctorate in Los Angeles.
By the time she graduated, she discovered her real passion. Just like how a symphony comes together when musicians of various instruments blend into one force of sound, she found putting all the pieces together in managing musical endeavors to be incredibly rewarding.
Di Sano is putting her skills to task in leading Symphony Orchestra Augusta as its new executive director, putting the pieces of the musical experience together as the enterprise moves into new directions.
“We want to become even more entrenched in the community through engagement, education and just through the aesthetic of the orchestra,” Di Sano said.
As she was pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California, she became involved in teaching music for students in
underserved areas and moved on to the Young Musicians Foundation of Los Angeles in 2004.
“By the time I graduated with my doctorate, I was running all of the programs of the foundation – artistic administration, just sort of out of the needs of the organization, and I was good at organizing things,” Di Sano said. “I had a real vision for what I wanted to do and what I expected from our programs.
“The moment where I decided that the French horn was no longer enough for me was when we put on a stage production of the second act of a Wagner piece – producing work with costumes, a full orchestra, young singers – I just fell in love with the process,” she continued.
She spent one summer managing a festival orchestra in Aspen, Colo., before becoming a DeVos Institute of Arts Management fellow at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. – one of the nation’s premier artistic and cultural institutions.
In the 9-month fellowship, she worked every day, attending classes and lectures to learn more about fields as far ranging as finance, disability and labor law, learning how to manage a large artistic organization.
Augusta, and the South, are completely different animals than California. A recruiter called to see whether Di Sano could be coaxed to lead Symphony Orchestra Augusta, and she had never been in the South before.
“I heard a lot of things, and a lot of people said, ‘oh, the South, I don’t know if you’d be a good fit for that; you’re from California. It’s a different world,’” she recounted.
“But when I came here, I fell in love with the people,” she said. “I fell in love with the town. It’s Southern, but not the stereotype that I expected at all. The pine trees are one of my favorite things, and my husband and I decided to live in downtown Augusta in a great loft – it’s really fun.”
Di Sano is energized by the goings-on in the city – from markets on the river front, to happenings at Augusta Common and parades marching down Broad Street. And of course, for a person with her background, the live music downtown is enriching.
“There’s tons of live music – a lot of classical music, jazz and singer-songwriters,” she said. “Every night of the week you can go out and find live music in town. It’s just wonderful.”
Integrating with the arts community in Augusta is a paramount task. Di Sano has been working with visual and other artists. Despite its distance from a major metropolitan area, Augusta is more cosmopolitan and cultured than some give it credit for, she said.
“From an arts perspective, for a fairly small town, it’s pretty metropolitan,” Di Sano said. “People here are well-traveled and have a cultural sense – it’s just a real pleasure.”
DI SANO COMES ON board with Symphony Orchestra Augusta as it has embarked on a major project – to renovate and restore the historic Miller Theater on Broad Street, to be the orchestra’s home.
She said the project’s total projected cost is $21.5 million with construction and design costing $14.5 million. The opening date is projected for the 2014-2015 orchestra season.
“The board and the committees have done a wonderful job researching with studies and the viability of (the project),” Di Sano said. “The organization is just stellar, and the opportunity to build a concert hall to not only play there but present all other artforms within the space – it’s going to be really wonderful.”
“Nothing like this exists in the entire region,” she said. “The CSRA is craving a rue acoustic concert hall. This hall will just be a jewel to listen to music without amplification – symphonies, acoustic shows, ballet and operas.”
Community support has allowed Symphony Orchestra Augusta to prosper, and Di Sano wants to make sure that the orchestra is tied deeply within the fabric of the community, partnering with artists, educational foundations, schools and other organizations.
“The more we can build relationships and strong bridges, the more we can service this community,” she said.
The orchestra is an important community asset, and Di Sano has high praise for maestro Shizuo Z. Kuwahara’s work and for the orchestra’s many musicians.
“He is not only an artist in the truest sense, but he has a real sense of community and a love of community,” Di Sano said. “He does not just work for his personal satisfaction, but really does this for the community.
“I love working with the artists and creating relationships with people who have devoted their entire lives to creating this art,” she said. “It’s the ultimate team sport – 80 to 100 musicians all performing together synchronized. They are people creating, working together to have this common goal achieved.”
PART OF THE experience of the music is putting it into the context of its times. Symphony Orchestra Augusta sponsored a book club that involved the reading of Confessions of An English Opium Eater -- a work that influenced the Symphonie fantastique written by Hector Berlioz in 1830.
“We can try to expand people’s experience and knowledge about what we’re doing, about the entire experience – when and where the work was created, what the composer was feeling,” Di Sano said.
“Was there war? What kind of literature was written, and what kind of visual art was made? All of that is really important to the music,” she said.
The next performance on Jan. 19 is a major one, Di Sano said – pieces including Wagner’s Overture to Tannhäuser and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, both from the German romantic era of the late 19th century.
“We’ll have about 100 musicians onstage, and it’s just going to be a block of sound that will come at you,” Di Sano said. “This is why you go to hear live music. The music will literally touch you.”
She said the organization is urging the public to read books from the period – Grimm’s Fairy Tales and others.
The orchestra’s Feb. 23 performance, Deliberately Beethoven, is the culmination of a festival of Beethoven during the orchestra’s season. It will start with the orchestra’s performing the Overture to Prometheus – completely from memory rather than sheet music.
“This is one of the visions and expectations from the maestro,” Di Sano said. “Not only will it give an incredible experience to the audience, but it will develop and mature the orchestra.
“One way to get into music is to have it memorized, not worrying about as much as what is in front of you, but connecting with other musicians and the conductor. It’s an extremely rare experience for the audience.”
During the week, the orchestra is partnering with other organizations in Augusta to celebrate Beethoven, including having someone going about town dressed as the man and answering questions about his life and his music.
The week will also include pop-up “guerrilla” concerts around town, Di Sano said.
“It’ll be a really fun experience,” she said. “I’m sure we’ll learn a lot and I hope the public experiences it in a deep way.”