South Carolina's Newest Orchestra is Expanding Rock Hill as a 'Cultural Asset'

Nov 14, 2019

The Rock Hill Symphony Orchestra is South Carolina's newest. And, according to its founders, long overdue.
Credit Provided by the Rock Hill Symphony Orchestra

In 2017, a collection of residents, musicians, and at least one globetrotting conductor realized that Rock Hill was the largest city in the Carolinas that did not have its own symphony orchestra – a “cultural asset” that Bob Thompson says is key to a city on the grow.

Thompson, the development associate for the Rock Hill Symphony Orchestra, says that as the city carves a more distinct identity – i.e., as something other than a suburb of Charlotte – the push to expand Rock Hill’s musical culture scene is a major component.

Now in its second season, the RHSO has already outgrown its original digs at the Rawlins Road Middle School auditorium.  Thanks to some immediate sellouts, the orchestra board moved performances to the larger, more acoustically attuned auditorium at South Pointe High School. Thompson says plans are in the works for a concert hall, but that will take time, effort, and money.

For now, the RHSO’s conductor and music director, David Rudge, says he’s happy with the space at South Pointe. And his ear for a good space should not be underestimated. Rudge is a former assistant conductor for the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, the Columbia Lyric Opera and Ballet, and the South Carolina Philharmonic

But the violinist also been involved with many (many!) other orchestras around the world, and currently also serves as the director of orchestras and the Hillman Opera at the State University of New York in Fredonia. In all that travel, he’s helped build orchestras from humble starts, but he says building one completely from scratch, as he has done in Rock Hill, is extremely rare – they usually start as an offshoot of an existing chamber group or other local arts organization.

What makes a good orchestra, Rudge says, is variety. He considers his role as the RHSO’s director of music as akin to that of a chef.

“Designing a concert is like designing a meal,” Rudge says. “You have an appetizer, perhaps; you have a main course; you might have some exotic food from far away. There’s dessert, which you might not want to eat all the time or you won’t have a balanced diet.”

That approach, he says, has allowed him to “bring in music that’s unknown” or lesser known to concertgoers.

“And also, players,” he adds.

The aim is to keep people coming back because the menu always offers them something new, without straying too far afield and being all of any one thing.

Board members and staff view the orchestra as a member of the community. As such, beyond the

RHSO members take part in school outreach programs like "Strings in Schools" to expose kids to music they might not otherwise hear.
Credit Provided by the Rock Hill Symphony Orchestra

performances, orchestra members are big in community engagement involving music in schools. The RHSO operates a program called “Symphony in Schools,” as part of its educational outreach.

“I don’t have a music background, but one of the things that attracted me to being on the board was the outreach program to the schools,” says Al Leonard, the RHSO’s director of volunteer services and retired principal at South Pointe High School. “I know from experience that there are a lot of students who, if not for opportunities such as this, would not be exposed to this type of music.”

Thompson says that thanks to a grant from the South Carolina Arts Commission – which also helped fund the orchestra at its outset –  there are 10 elementary schools getting the chance to have RHSO musicians come to them with workshops and programs to help music teachers reach a broader, wider, and deeper place in students.

“You just don’t know which lives you might possibly touch,” Leonard says.