Donald Portnoy says it is "unusual" for a small town to have its own orchestra – but Aiken does.

Portnoy was instrumental in the creation of the Aiken Symphony Orchestra and serves as its current conductor. The orchestra's 2019-2020 season kicked off this weekend with the performance of "Tchaikovsky – The Russian Genius" at the Etherredge Center on Saturday night.

Portnoy previously was the conductor of the Augusta Symphony Orchestra, but thought an orchestra in Aiken could stand on its own.

"There was always that thought in the back of my head that this is a unique community," Portnoy said. "... We tried it the first year and did three concerts, and they took off. It wasn't a smash, but it was good."

The ASO was first formed in 2015. It is a nonprofit organization that employs musicians from all across the state and region.

"It improves the quality of life, without a doubt," Portnoy said. "You have people who have retired... who have come from major cities. Every major city has a professional orchestra. It's just something that people enjoy." 

Dan Allen, who sits on the orchestra's board of directors and is a past president of the organization, said the quality of ASO is on par with much bigger orchestras – in large part thanks to Portnoy.

"Because of his experience and his skill, we've had an enormous amount of people tell us, 'Wow, this is equal to a number of big-city orchestras we've been in,'" Allen said.

The symphony's board president, Thomas Herlong, said he was "blown away" the first time he attended the orchestra. 

"For all of us who ever went through taking a piano lesson or trying to learn an instrument, and then you go and you realize what the people on that stage put themselves through individually to have the level of talent that they have… what they produce is absolutely a work of beauty," Herlong said. "... To be able to experience that talent in a community this size, it is a true value."

The orchestra has grown rapidly since its creation. It now boasts about 12 performances per concert season, including youth-oriented programs such as a children's orchestra and an upcoming family-oriented Hogwarts Halloween Performance that will play John Williams' iconic score from the popular "Harry Potter" movies – and costumes are encouraged for those who attend.

"Who knows what kid will hear an orchestra for the first time, and – who knows what might happen?" Portnoy said.

Orchestras don't just play classical music. Portnoy said they can perform pretty much any genre, including pop songs, so long as they have the funds to "rent" the music for a performance.

The maestro is also a violinist. He started lessons when he was 7 years old, but his relationship with music wasn't love at first sight.

"I really didn't want to play," Portnoy said. "My parents gave me a violin and lessons. To be honest... it wasn't until junior high school that the fire caught a little bit."

Portnoy, who is from Philadelphia, went on to attend the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. He has enjoyed a long and successful career in music, conducting orchestras at the University of South Carolina, West Virginia University, the Pittsburgh Civic Orchestra. He has performed in 24 different countries and was awarded the South Carolina Order of the Palmetto, the highest honor that can be given in the state.

Portnoy is also involved with education and is a major advocate for implementing a strings program in Aiken County Public Schools.

The Aiken Symphony Orchestra is a nonprofit organization, so roughly half of its funds come from ticket sales. Allen said the rest of the funding comes from donations and advertising.

"You have to go reach out to the community to get financial support to stay viable," Allen said. "But we've not had a problem."

To learn more about the Aiken Symphony Orchestra, including a performance schedule, visit aikensymphonyorcehstra.com.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.