Selecting the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra

Jun 7, 2019

Charleston native Shannon Fitzhenry plays the violin in the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra
Credit Victoria Hansen

They are sure signs of Spoleto in downtown Charleston; instrument toting musicians and scorching heat.  Among the jostling violin cases, is Shannon Fitzhenry.  She’s back for her second year with the annual Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, one of 92 musicians chosen to play.

“The goal is to get up in time to warm up before rehearsal,” she laughs.  The Charleston native grew up with Spoleto, but admits she didn't fully appreciate it until she  moved away to study music at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Maryland.

“I started hearing more about Spoleto from non-Charlestonians and realized I really needed  to go back and experience the festival.”  So, like hundreds of other musicians, she auditioned with Spoleto Festival USA  Orchestra director and conductor John Kennedy.  He’s been hand picking its members for nine years.

“Our festival is the only one where the music director travels around and personally selects who will play in the orchestra,” says Kennedy.  His quest for the very best takes him to at least ten cities, interviewing 50 people a day, roughly 400 to 500 musicians each year.

Director and conductor John Kennedy with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra
Credit Julia Lynn

“I’m looking for people who play beautifully and with commitment,” Kennedy says.  “I’m much more interested in people who take risks and are more interested in being expressive than in being correct."

24 year-old Fitzhenry remembers her first audition with Kennedy in New York.  “He’s sitting there wanting you to play your best,” she says.  “It’s very nice to audition in that kind of environment, rather than looking for mistakes or people to eliminate.”

Fitzhenry rehearses three to six hours a day for Spoleto performances.  It’s hard work, but she’s passionate about music.  She got her first violin when she was just 2 years-old.  Now playing is her job.  She substitutes for the Baltimore and Charleston Symphony orchestras.

“There’s a certain point where it’s not fun all the time,” Fitzhenry says.  “It’s work and dedication.” 

She offers this advice to young musicians.

“What I would say to people who hit that point where maybe they’re discouraged in their lessons and they just don’t feel the passion.  Just power through and realize that it’s so much more,” Fitzpatrick says.  “What you put into it is what you get out of it.”