Crisp white bow-tie. Black tuxedo with formal tails. Razor-thin wooden baton, and a steely eyed resolve to bring out the very best in gifted musicians.
These are the tools of the trade for Dr. Donald Portnoy, and once again this fall, this world-traveled maestro will lead a year-long quest to delight Etherredge Center audiences by extracting the finest possible performances from members of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra.
“This is a first-class orchestra, as good as any other orchestra in South Carolina or any other state nearby,” Portnoy said. “In Aiken, we’re starting to get more people coming to the orchestra and learning about the orchestra. That’s absolutely wonderful.”
A Labor of Love
The Aiken Symphony Orchestra is a labor of love for Portnoy, who in April 2011 cobbled together a group of musicians to accompany a performance by Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade on the USC Aiken stage. That creative effort, originally called “the Orchestra of the Midlands,” planted the seed for the creation of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra in 2016.
© Heather Sargent
“I brought the Augusta Symphony over to Aiken for years,” said Portnoy, who led the Augusta Symphony for 17 years until 2009. “Every time I came to Aiken I said, ‘This is a very special city.’ The audiences here are so knowledgeable of orchestral music. They’re so appreciative. I’ve always said Aiken is a city that could have its own symphony.”
After floating the idea with members of the Aiken Symphony Guild, whose patronage brought the Augusta Symphony across the river annually for special events, Portnoy and company birthed the Aiken Symphony Orchestra and staged a three concert 2015-2016 season.
“They were very successful. We had good audiences,” he said. “So we decided to offer a full season.”
From Child Prodigy to Juilliard Graduate
Of course, the stage is Portnoy’s natural habitat. Born to Russian immigrants in Philadelphia, he first picked up the violin at age 7. Over time, his talent and unwavering drive coalesced, and Portnoy won a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York. There, he earned his bachelor’s degree in violin performance.
Duty soon called, and Portnoy found himself drafted into the U.S. Marine Corps. He armed himself with his love of music and auditioned for “the President’s Own” Marine Chamber Orchestra, performing at the White House and other high profile functions on the national stage.
“Those were four wonderful years,” Portnoy recalled. “I did a lot of playing. I did a lot of teaching, so it was a good learning experience.”
In 1959, equipped with a master’s degree from Catholic University and a doctorate from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University, Portnoy began his professional teaching career at West Virginia University. It would take almost three decades before he found his way to the University of South Carolina faculty.
South Carolina Wooed Him and Won
West Virginia made a valiant effort of trying to retain Portnoy in the negotiating process, but he was enticed to South Carolina with the Ira McKissick Koger Endowed Chair at the USC Department of Music. In Columbia, Portnoy would grow his reputation as one of America’s finest music directors and conductors.
Portnoy installed the annual Conductor’s Institute he had founded at West Virginia. His professional credentials also include posts as conductor of the United States Chamber Opera, the Pittsburgh Opera and Pittsburgh Civic Symphony, and a long tenure as music director of the Augusta Symphony.
An Impressive Career
In 2015, Portnoy received the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award from the South Carolina Arts Commission, the state’s highest honor for arts achievement.
Among his accomplishments, Portnoy founded the Piccolo Spoleto Festival Orchestra, which performs free concerts each May and June as part of the Charleston arts celebration. For a decade until this past January, he also served as artistic director and conductor of the Brevard Philharmonic in western North Carolina.
Portnoy has scaled back his role at the University of South Carolina. In April, he conducted his final performance with the USC Orchestra to an enthusiastic and appreciative audience at the Koger Center. He will, however, continue to teach violin and conducting classes and maintain the annual Conductor’s Institute.
At that April performance, Portnoy was presented the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor “awarded to citizens of South Carolina for extraordinary lifetime service and achievements of national or statewide significance,” according to the Governor’s Office.
© Heather Sargent
“It’s an exciting thing to be recognized by your state,” he said. “When I left West Virginia to come to South Carolina, the governor there did the same kind of thing and named me a Distinguished West Virginian. I now have two states’ top honor, so I think I’ll just keep those two and not go anywhere else.”
Having hung up his baton at Brevard and Columbia, Portnoy’s love affair with conducting now will continue in his faithful commitment as founder/music director/conductor the Aiken Symphony Orchestra. His return to Aiken comes on the heels of another triumphant overseas tour that saw him guest-conducting and teaching in Italy, Hungary and for three weeks in China.
The globe-trotting Portnoy has become a respected ambassador for the arts in the Palmetto State. “It’s a good feeling for me to say I am a South Carolinian,” Portnoy said. “We have so much to offer. I think I’ve conducted in 24 different countries, so I have a few more to do. But I’m very proud of South Carolina.”
New Season Begins September 16
The 2017 season for the Aiken Symphony Orchestra begins Saturday, September 16, with the orchestra accompanying a concert by famed Polish-American pianist Adam Golka. Billed as “The Fabulous 3rd and 5th,” the performance features Golka on piano for Beethoven’s famed Symphony No. 5, Op. 67 in C minor and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 30 in D minor.
Other guest artists for the 2017 season include up-and-coming operatic soprano Brandie Sutton, Grammy-winning cellist Sara Sant’Ambrogio and violinist Sandy Cameron. Popular pops performances also are scheduled around the Christmas and Valentine’s Day celebrations.
Portnoy, of course, is hoping that the faithful audiences of Aiken will yield sellouts for this second full season of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra and plant the seed for further growth of orchestral music in Aiken.
© Heather Sargent
“My dream and goal is that maybe in the next year or two, we can have our six concerts on Saturday nights and repeat them on Sunday afternoons,” he said. “I’m also hoping that somewhere down the road we can have a chamber orchestra in Aiken.”
For tickets to concerts featuring Maestro Portnoy and the Aiken Symphony Orchestra, visit the website at aikensymphonyorchestra.com or visit the Etherredge Center box office at USC Aiken.
Tony Baughman is a writer, broadcaster, actor and lmmaker who has lived in the Aiken area almost his entire life. His professional experience includes seasons as a writer and editor at the Aiken Standard, as publisher and editor of The Citizen News in Edge eld and as managing editor of the Times-Gazette in southern Ohio. He has hosted popular Oldies and Beach Music radio shows on WKSX 92.7FM, and he has recently served as associate producer for independent lms produced by New Daydream Films of Charlotte, N.C.