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Defying Gravity

photos by Steve Bracci

A ball will bounce; but less and less. It’s not 

A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience. 

Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls 

So in our hearts from brilliance, 

Settles and is forgot.

It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls 

To shake our gravity up.

                                       —Richard Wilbur

Earlier this summer, I badly needed a gravity-shaker like the one Richard Wilbur describes in the opening lines to his poem “Juggler.” As I drove downtown that afternoon, the falling of things was so obvious to me. I’m a longtime champion of downtown Augusta, where I shop, go to church, eat in restaurants, row on the river, visit museums, walk on the Riverwalk, enjoy plays and concerts. Broad Street has come a long way since I first saw it in 1979—empty, newly abandoned for the malls.

But a music store had just announced it was leaving Broad Street for the suburbs. A couple of widely publicized crimes had frightened some customers away. Gravity and the fall from brilliance were much on my mind as I looked at remnants of a vibrant past, like the Miller Theater, standing silent and purposeless in what used to be the heart of a busy city.

I found the address I was looking for and headed up the stairs. The door to the apartment opened and I was in another world: a huge loft apartment with high ceilings, shining hardwood floors reflecting the light pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out into trees thick with leaves shading Broad Street below. Just beyond, Augusta’s two Jameses—Brown and Oglethorpe—stood in the sun. Welcome to the past reimagined, renovated, scrubbed, loved, alive again.

And welcome to the home of Mieko Di Sano, the new executive director of Symphony Orchestra Augusta. She’s been in Augusta—by way of Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.—for a year and she couldn’t be happier. While others were wringing their hands or pointing fingers over recent events, she and her Broad Street neighbors were having a block party.

The African-American barbers, the white geeks in their tech start-up, the inked and pierced tattoo artists, the record shop owner—they all cooked barbecue together, planted an edible garden, shared music, singing, poetry. “We all banded together to create more than any of us could do alone as a tenant or an entrepreneur,” Di Sano says. “Each was investing in this part of the block, bringing their community together with other communities and cross-pollinating.”

This is the future of the symphony...embracing
the core of the past and bringing it into the 21st century by bringing
it to the people...

Building a new community out of disparate parts is what Di Sano is all about. For her it’s also what a symphony orchestra is all about. She’s known that since she was in junior high in San Jose, Calif., playing French horn in the youth orchestra. “The orchestra is the perfect example of a well-functioning community. Everyone, even the last-stand violin, is there for a reason, doing something really important. You have a sense of belonging to something bigger and greater than you are.”

Could Augusta’s orchestra be a tool for building a sense of community? For reviving a downtown? For bridging the chasm between races and social classes? Could the new executive director of Symphony Orchestra Augusta be a juggler who shakes our gravity up?

Di Sano makes no such claims, but her eyes sparkle as she thinks about the possibilities, of the power of beauty to connect, inspire and renew. And the fact that so many within Augusta’s symphony community share that vision is one of the main things that attracted her to Augusta. They recognize that the arts for too long have been seen as the possession of the privileged. The symphony door stood as a barrier, intimidating those who weren’t sure how to dress or when to clap.

“Arts groups forgot they do this for the community,” Di Sano says. “They thought it was just about the art and,  if you weren’t super knowledgeable or wealthy, then you weren’t important. Art was kept on a pedestal for the initiated.”

She believes the orchestra’s board deliberately took the symphony down from the pedestal when it hired musical director Shizuo Z. Kuwahara as artistic director four years ago. “Z is always approachable and engaging. He doesn’t ever give the impression he’s above anyone else. He makes music for the community, to educate the community, to bring beauty to the community. He wants the symphony to be inclusive, to engage people beyond just the Hill or Columbia County, to anyone who hasn’t been engaged. He and I and the board share the same beliefs.

“This is the future of the symphony: embracing the core of the past and bringing it into the 21st century by bringing it to the people.”
Di Sano comes by her convictions honestly. She dedicated the first part of her life to making music, studying French horn at the University of Michigan. After graduation she apprenticed herself to master teacher Louis Stout of the Chicago Symphony, taking two-hour lessons with
him six days a week and practicing another four hours a day. Then she returned to L.A. for her master’s and doctorate at the University of Southern California.

That’s where her focus began to shift from making music to making music possible. While in grad school she became a youth mentor-artist
for the Young Musicians Foundation, going into elementary schools and teaching lots of instruments. “USC is in the ghetto, south central L.A. There are lots of immigrants, lots of poverty, no accessibility to much of anything.” Eventually she became lead mentor-artist coordinating the brass, then coordinating all the orchestral musicians in the schools. She kept moving up the ranks, now doing the budgets, then managing the youth orchestra, then directing education and outreach. When the artistic administrator of the Young Musicians Foundation left, Di Sano, who had just received her doctorate, was asked to take on that job. Now she was overseeing 14 programs, including mentors, pre-professional and professional orchestras, numerous competitions and scholarship programs. 

One night, as she watched a Young Musicians production of the second act of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, she made a decision: “Knowing I had a hand in all the hard work of making that beautiful production possible, I couldn’t just go back and be a French horn player in the community. I needed to steward the community. I wanted to do it on a professional level. It was important to help these young musicians, yes, but with the state of orchestras, I thought it was more important to steward the art form itself and its viability into the future. I wanted to make its relevance known and felt to our youth. So I decided to leave doing this and figure out how to get to professional level.”

Her first step was being selected to manage the Festival Orchestra at the Aspen Music Festival and School. “That was so wonderful—every day for eight weeks was just filled morning till night with performances, phenomenal people and artists.”

Then she was accepted as a DeVos Fellow at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That was a year-long experience in which she learned how every aspect of the Kennedy Center operated. She worked with the directors of marketing, development, major gifts and the National Symphony Orchestra. She had progressed from an organization with a budget of $1.1 million in Los Angeles, to the $15 million Aspen Festival and now the $200 million Kennedy Center. “They helped me network with recruiters, with executive directors. They said, ‘You’re going to be the next person in these positions.’”

Di Sano knew she wanted to go into orchestra administration, but which path? Operations, production, development, marketing? “I knew I knew all those things, but I’m more of a big picture person. My talent really is as an organizer of others, a harmonizer—a conductor, if you will, on the administrative side of things. So I wanted to be an executive director, to take my thoughts, passions, vision to an organization and build something that way. So I only applied for executive director positions. I didn’t care where it was as long as the organization shared my vision.”

And that’s where Augusta came in. After some preliminary interviews on Skype and a couple of meetings, it was clear that Di Sano and the orchestra shared the same vision of accessibility and engagement. She was invited to come to Augusta for two-and-half days of interviews. Before she went, she got more advice than she wanted. “A lot of people got me really scared about it. The recruiter said, ‘You’re going to the South. It’s very different from California and D.C. and L.A. They speak more slowly, it’s a different pace.’ I just hoped they’d be OK with me.”

Di Sano needn’t have worried. “I took two-and-a-half days for breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings, then spent another couple of days on my own. I fell in love with the whole place. The people were thoughtful and gracious, they had great pride in the community. The organization itself had been so successful in its history and was still financially viable because the community was so supportive of it. And then there was the Miller Theater project—what potential!”

Ah yes, the Miller.

The $14.6 million restoration and refurbishment of the Miller Theater on Broad Street (and the Cullum’s building next door) as a home for Symphony Orchestra Augusta is a huge undertaking for the organization. In 2005 Peter S. Knox IV replaced the leaking roof of the 1940 Art Moderne movie palace, which had sat empty since the 1980s, then he offered it as a gift to anyone who could bring it back to life. Though a proverb warns against looking gift horses in the mouth, the orchestra did just that for more than two-and-a-half years as they conducted a feasibility study. After consultations with architects, engineers, acousticians and other professionals, the board decided the project was doable and accepted the gift.

“We’ll be rejuvenating a piece of Augusta,” Di Sano says. “I’ve heard so many people talk about the Miller from their childhood. They’ll say, ‘My first kiss was at the Miller!’ Well now the grandeur of the Miller will be returned and enhanced. It will again be a center of Augusta’s artistic culture. To watch a building like that crumble, it’s unacceptable. My generation is into recycling—let’s rehab things that already exist. You couldn’t build something like the Miller today.” 

Now the grandeur of the Miller will be
returned and enhanced...again be a
center of Augusta’s artistic culture.

Major gift fundraising for the Miller project is already well underway, more than halfway to the goal; but no appeal will be made to the general public until at least 85 percent of the funds have been raised.

First Baptist Church has been the symphony’s foster home for the past decade. And while the space is beautiful and acoustically appropriate, the symphony needs its own home. The Miller will have 1,300 seats, making it the right size not only for symphony concerts, but also for other performances, from rock to ballet—anything that would draw an audience larger than the Imperial’s 845, but smaller than the Bell’s 2,200. A viable theater district needs different-sized houses; they serve as complements rather than competition, Di Sano says.

Aside from that, audiences will have a more complete experience coming downtown for performances. The restaurants, cafes and bars up and down Broad Street will provide places to socialize before and after concerts. “That ‘before’ and ‘after’ is as important as the experience of the concert itself. The art is still the focal point, but the social aspect surrounding it—anticipating the concert before and talking about it afterwards—enriches the experience.”

...My job now is a can I influence my creative community...
make it relevant as part of our culture...

The Miller complex will provide space not only for a performing arts hall, but also for a music institute, the symphony’s musicians serving as faculty. Di Sano has been inspired by El Sistema, a Venezuelan music program with almost 400,000 students in 125 youth orchestras. More than 70 percent of those kids come from impoverished backgrounds. Their lives and opportunities are transformed by their involvement in music. Programs based on the Venezuelan model are growing in communities all over the United States. Di Sano would love to see something like that in Augusta. One of the institute’s functions would be outreach to inner-city and disadvantaged kids who have traditionally not had access to classical music and serious music instruction. She’d like to reach virtually every kid in Richmond County.

“We could never undertake a program like this alone. We’re going to need a lot of help. But we have so many wonderful after-school programs—the Jessye Norman School, the James Brown Academy of Musik and other after-school programs that don’t even have music. Each one engages kids, each one could become a pod for an El Sistema music program. Perhaps they could come together on a Saturday in a youth orchestra and give a concert right on the Miller stage. Performing on great stages gives kids a sense that anything is possible in life. To give kids access to that is to say, ‘You’re good enough, strong enough, confident enough to play on this professional stage where musicians have trained all their lives to play.’

“And the thing about studying music is it doesn’t mean you have to become a musician afterwards. Music training teaches life skills: discipline (the discipline it takes to learn to play an instrument is huge), work ethic, perseverance, cooperation—even skills like math, counting whole notes, half notes, quarters, eighths. Teaching the kids of Augusta to learn to read music, to play in orchestras…it will change this community. So I really hope we can start something like El Sistema here and the center be the Miller Theater. Not for the symphony, for the community.”

It’s a community that Di Sano and her husband, David, have jumped into with both feet: shopping at the Saturday Market on the River, attending performances of the Augusta Players, the Augusta Ballet, the JAMP! singers from the James Brown School, visiting the Morris Museum, attending Arts in the Heart. These experiences energize her and fire her creativity.

“Playing the French horn taught me that you need total passion for something, then you need to devote all your life to it. The only thing in life is to follow what you’re passionate about. Now my passion, my six-hours-a-day practicing, my work ethic and creativity have been transferred to what I do now. And now I have more flexibility and freedom to be creative as leader of an organization than I ever had as a French horn player. I get to collaborate, get together with Z, talk ideas back and forth.

“My job now is a stewardship: How can I influence my creative community, bring it into the 21st century, make it relevant as part of our culture? Not just as a preserver of past heritage, but as an art form that is alive. There are people composing for symphony orchestras right now. The orchestra is not dead. It’s one of the grandest stages on which a person can show artistry. “

And it’s as good a place as any for a “sky-blue juggler”—or French horn-playing executive director—to shake Augusta’s gravity up.


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