For Darko Velichkovski, president of Mississippi Symphony Orchestra (MSO) in Jackson, music is more than just notes and rhythm. It is one of the great mysteries of life, divinely inspired and a vehicle for change.
“The origins of music have been debated since the time of the ancient Greeks,” Velichkovski said. “How can a small child listen to a piece of music and say, ‘That’s a sad song?’ Music is nothing short of a divine miracle. So, when it comes to social, cultural and spiritual change and enlightenment, music is a powerful tool, and I see the symphony as an important instrument to change peoples lives here in Mississippi.”
MSO’s history is something of an inspiration on its own. The group goes back to a concert by a small volunteer orchestra staged in February 1944 at Belhaven. The concert was so well received that an announcement was made that evening that a permanent orchestra was going to be established, and the group accepted its first donation of $100 from an audience member. Originally called the Jackson Symphony Orchestra (the name was changed in 1989), the inaugural concert was held the following October at Hotel Heidelberg on Capitol Street. The symphony, whose budget has grown from $28,000 in 1965 to $1.3 million today, is now our state’s largest and oldest performing arts organization.
“For those people who always want to put Mississippi at the bottom of everything, we ought to throw this in their face,” Velichkovski said. “Other symphonies may have started with the Mississippi Symphony, but most of them did not survive. This is one of the few smaller communities to sustain a symphony. I think it’s an incredible testimony.”
MSO continues to grow. Velichkovski, who is a native of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, a graduate of Julliard School of Music and has been president of MSO for about 18 months, said 1,100 season tickets were sold this season, which is almost over, the highest count in the organization’s 55-year history. He gave a lion’s share of credit to his 10-person staff and a dedicated core of volunteers, especially the Symphony League, a group of 700 women who formed in 1955 to serve as ambassadors. Velichkovski attributed the success to realizing a common mission.
“This is not a ‘9-to-5’ job,” Velichkovski said. “When I came in, I looked for people who shared the dream for the Symphony. I wanted it to become our dream and for them to realize the importance of what we’re doing here.”
To see these visions realized, MSO conducts many educational programs. More than 13,000 children annually attend MSO Children’s Concerts and KinderConcerts, while more children are enrolled in MSO’s string instruction program and are members of one of three Youth Orchestras. And MSO, which consists of a pool of about 70 musicians with 30 serving as the “core” group, is currently in the midst of an African-American church tour.
“We want to reach people as early as we can,” Velichkovski said. “Music is empowering, teaches creativity, discipline, team work and responsibility. Maybe there will be more awareness of this since the Littleton shooting. Music gives kids self-worth and creates adults who want to give something back to the community.”
Funding comes mainly from grants from entities such as the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Arts Alliance of Jackson and Hinds County and private foundations. About 30% is raised via MSO’s annual fundraising campaign. Velichkovski said MSO is in need of additional support, and felt that the business community should see MSO as the potential for economic development and as a marketing tool.
“A business can take out an advertisement that says, ‘XYZ Company, We’re a good business. We love our community.’ How effective is that? However, if you sponsor a concert or an event with the Symphony, it’s a much more effective display of community involvement.
“A lot of our supporters are large companies. A lot of people say that these companies are supporting us because they are large. I think that’s backwards. I think they are large because they support things like the Symphony. It’s a great marketing and PR tool.”
Businesses sponsoring concerts is a traditional form of fund-raising at MSO. Next season offers a new twist, however. Maestro Colman Pearce, conductor of MSO for the past 12 years (and only the third conductor in MSO’s history) is returning to his native Ireland. Five finalists have been selected as candidates to replace Pearce, and each one will lead two concerts each next season as a “field trial.” MSO is offering businesses the opportunity to host one of the candidates and his concerts. The winner will conduct the final two concerts of the season.
Velichkovski said that what he is hoping for in the new conductor is a partner to the vision for MSO.
“My goals for the Symphony are first make everyone aware of our existence, and our importance. Then I want to build a sense of pride for having the Symphony here. And finally, I want business to start changing their marketing strategies and begin utilizing the tremendous power that supporting the arts can bring to a company. “