Staples of your symphony: Alex Agrest

  • Thursday, August 22, 2013

Alex Agrest displays his music stand and grand piano inside of his Charleston home. MICHAEL QUIRK/JOURNAL SCENE

Nobody could have guessed that a simple message on an answering machine could change the course of music in Summerville.
Alexander Agrest was on his way home to Charleston from a 2005 ski trip when he took notice of the size and potential of Summerville, a city he had lived just miles from for 15 years. He moved to Charleston in 1990 after a year in New York City where he was staying with a friend after leaving Russia a year prior.
“I thought about it a lot on the ride home and there was a message on my home phone saying they wanted to gauge my interest in working with the orchestra in Summerville.”
Agrest was already a core member of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, for whom he played violin and viola, but said he “wanted my own baby.”  
In February 2005 he became the music director of the Summerville Community Orchestra. The first shows were free and scarcely attended but are now routinely sold out. The chance to reach people in the community who have never experienced an orchestra is valuable to Agrest.
“They will come up to me and say they were never interested in symphony before but they are going to come back,” he said. “It has everything: music, a story, acting, singing, everything.”
Agrest’s dream is to be able to fund lessons for local youth who do not have the ability to pay for lessons. He said kids can learn in groups but need individual lessons to fully reach their potential.
“It has been my dream project for years and I always talk about it,” he said. “I can’t stop it because my heart is bleeding when I see a good kid who doesn’t have the right help.”
He also believes that kids who have an afterschool activity like the orchestra are less likely to engage in criminal behavior.
“If you make sure your kids are busy with the good things then they won’t need to go to the bad stuff,” he said. “Kids who do the bad stuff are just looking for something to do because they don’t have any of the good stuff in their lives.”
Agrest and his wife Rozolita have two children of their own, a son Mikhail and a daughter Eliza. Mikhail is a world-traveling conductor who learned under his father’s music teacher, Ilya Munsin and is based out of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Eliza is a pediatrician in Goose Creek.
Agrest started playing music when he was 4 years old by playing the piano by ear. When he was six, he was taken to perform at a local school’s concert and was inspired by what he heard from the strings. At 13 he was sent to the Special Music School for Gifted Children in Leningrad that trains children for careers in professional music. He believes while learning the notes and timing is important, inspiration is the key to being a good musician.
“I can teach a monkey how to make a clean, smooth sound, but I can’t teach a monkey how to play music.”
His advice for those trying to learn the violin is to get out of the way of their bow and let it play the music. For others simply interested in listening to the professionals perform, he encourages them to attend a performance whether it is their first or their hundredth.
“Come and learn the experience that opens up a whole new universe for you,” he said. “It might not happen the first time but you will have a taste of something new. We capture the souls of the people.”
The Summerville Community Orchestra’s next performance will be Sept. 10 at Azalea Park. Patriotic music will be performed commemorating the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedies.

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