Turning your back on someone usually is considered impolite, but for Dr. Donald Portnoy, it's just part of his job.
As the Aiken Symphony Orchestra's conductor, he turns his back to the audience every time he steps onto the podium, lifts his baton, and he and the musicians start making beautiful music together.
“When you walk into the hall, you sit down with your program. The lights go down to half. My concertmaster comes out. The orchestra tunes up. The lights go out. I come out. The orchestra stands up. I take a bow. Then I turn around, and no one knows what I do,” said Portnoy, sitting in the empty house in USC Aiken's Etherredge Center, which will be filled for the orchestra's next concert, featuring Brahms and Sibelius, on Oct. 26.
“I mean, really,” he continued. “I do all kinds of things with my hands, with my body, with my face, but the audience never really sees that. You see my arms are moving.”
Portnoy said as long as he can “get up there on the podium and wave my arms” he'll keep doing it.
“I feel good. It's a joy to be able to make music and make people happy,” he said.
The Aiken Symphony Orchestra has been making local music lovers happy since 2015.
Before becoming the Aiken Symphony's conductor and music director, Portnoy conducted the Augusta Symphony and brought the musicians to Aiken for concerts through the support of the Aiken Symphony Guild.
“I always found Aiken a very unusual city. It was different. I found the audiences very receptive. They're very knowledgeable,” Portnoy said. “The people seem to be captivated by the orchestra. They say I've come from a major city and this is as good as anything I've heard. That makes you feel good. It's quality. People will respect quality and come out and support quality.
“I was happy to bring the Augusta Symphony to Aiken, but I always thought Aiken should have its own symphony.”
Once the Aiken Symphony Guild got on the bandwagon, so to speak, with Portnoy, the Aiken Symphony Orchestra formed and performed three concerts its first season. Since then, each successive season has expanded quickly, or in musical terms, at presto tempo.
In its second season, the symphony added three more concerts.
Last December, the symphony, with guest soloists and a chorus, performed G.F. Handel's “Messiah” at St. Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church.
“Well, we sold out 'The Messiah,'” Portnoy said.
The Aiken Symphony will perform “Messiah” again this holiday season in Aiken and has added a performance at Grace United Methodist Church in North Augusta.
Portnoy also added two chamber orchestra concerts to the season this year, and the symphony does a children's educational outreach program that brings in students from all over Aiken and surrounding counties and fills the Etherredge Center.
“So now we have 11 concerts. From three, we're now up to 11,” Portnoy said. “I'm interested in promoting more.”
Future programs could include a pops series featuring popular music such as well-known Broadway tunes.
For the final concert of the 2018-19 season, Portnoy brought in Broadway star Hugh Panaro, who has played the title character in “The Phantom of the Opera” more than 2,000 times.
“Sold out two weeks before the program – sold out every seat,” Portnoy said. “Most orchestras now are doing pops programs in addition to the classical. There's a big audience out there for popular music.”
Portnoy called the orchestra a “big music machine.”
“It can do anything. As long as you put music in front of us, we can play jazz. We can play gospel. Whatever you want, we can play as long as the music is there,” he said. “It's like going into a restaurant. Some people want to get a steak. Others want fish.
“For a good restaurant, you need quality and variety, and that's what we're trying to provide, too. Some people will come out for one kind of music but maybe not for something else. By providing variety, you're giving the community something to enjoy.”
And as the Aiken Symphony's programs have expanded so has its audience.
For most orchestras, ticket sales account for about 40% of the annual budget, Portnoy said.
“We're lucky. We're getting close to 50% of ticket sales covering our budget,” he said.
Portnoy said the symphony is the only professional arts organization in Aiken. All of the musicians are paid professionals, not volunteers, and have been since the orchestra formed. Most of them also play with other orchestras.
“They play not only in the Aiken Orchestra, but if you went to Greenville or Charleston or Hilton Head, you'd see some of the same players,” Portnoy said.
As music director, Portnoy selects the music for each concert. As the conductor, he interprets the music.
“I'm trying to get across to the musicians my concept of what the music should sound like,” he said. “And I spend a lot of time. My wife, Karen, says to me why are you spending time with that symphony. You've done it many times before. But I always look at it and think maybe I've missed something, maybe there's something there that I'll come up with that I haven't before.”
Portnoy grew up in Philadelphia and started playing the violin at age 7. At 17, he started studies at The Juilliard School in New York City. After his four years there, Portnoy received a letter from the president of the United States.
“It said, 'Greetings, you are now in the draft,'” Portnoy said.
To serve his country using his musical talent, Portnoy auditioned for the U.S. Marines orchestra in Washington, D.C., and became a Marine. His main job was playing for President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House.
“It was fabulous,” Portnoy said. “I saw kings and queens – Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. I saw John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson coming in as senators. I saw Richard Nixon as vice president and all the generals and admirals from the second World War.”
Portnoy earned his master's degree in Washington and his doctorate from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
In 1986, Portnoy came to the University of South Carolina in Columbia with an endowed chair and a full professorship to become the director of orchestral studies and teach violin and conducting. He conducted the USC Symphony for 31 years.
Portnoy also brought a program he started in West Virginia, the Conductors Institute, to Columbia. For over 40 years, more than 1,200 young and aspiring conductors have worked with seasoned conductors and composers in the hands-on program that puts them on the podium and the baton in their hands. The institute's participants receive instruction and constructive critiques and get about 15 minutes on the podium every day to conduct a chamber orchestra of strings, woodwinds and brass.
In 2018, Portnoy moved the institute to USCA, and 20 students from California to Maine and from Korea, China, Taiwan and other countries enrolled in the program last summer.
Daily sessions are open to the public, and the student conductors face the musicians and the audience members, who get to see them as the orchestra does, giving music lovers an opportunity to observe their hand gestures, facial expressions and body language.
Although Portnoy is now retired and a USC professor emeritus in the School of Music, he is still teaching.
Three years ago, he started a class about creating an orchestra for USCA's Academy of Lifelong Learning. Last year and this year, the class has focused on the Aiken Symphony's season. Before the symphony's first concert in September, featuring works by Tchaikovsky and Grieg, Portnoy talked about the composers and played some of the music.
“I thought I'd have maybe 30 or 40 people, but had 72 people in my class, which is fabulous because they get to know more about the works and the orchestra,” Portnoy said. “When they come to the concert, they feel a little bit more comfortable.”
An hour before every Aiken Symphony concert, Portnoy presents a program he named “Illuminations” to talk about the evening's program.
“It's standing-room-only,” he said.
In addition to being a resident conductor, Portnoy has traveled the United States and to 24 countries around the world as a violinist and a guest conductor. He has conducted major orchestras in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Buffalo and other major regional orchestras throughout America.
Internationally, he has been a guest conductor in Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Taiwan, South Korea, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and China.
“I have conducted virtually every major orchestra in China from Shanghai to Beijing to a city on the Yalu River across from North Korea,” Portnoy said. “For one week, I looked across at North Korea every day. At night, there were no lights in North Korea.”
Portnoy has a standard answer when asked his favorite composer or composition.
“I say the one that I'm conducting this week,” he said.
He has a similar response for his favorite genre of music.
“I have done everything. I love the classics, of course. When I was in New York, I played lots of jazz and popular music, so whatever you put in front of me – as long as the music is there – I can play it,” Portnoy said. “When I was with the Augusta Symphony, we did a promotion on TV. I came out in tails and said if you listen to my music I'll listen to yours. Then the screen flipped, and I was in a leather jacket with chains holding a guitar. People still remember that.”