For Columbia-based orchestra conductor extraordinaire Suzanna Pavlovsky, music is as important as the air she breathes, and she has dedicated her life to sharing its magic with others. Maestra Pavlovsky, more informally known as Suzanna, says of the role of music in her early life, “The piano was at home when I was born. I was poking on the keys when I was 1 and started formal lessons with my mom when I was 4 years old.”
Many of her childhood memories involve accompanying her mother to ballets and orchestral concerts. She distinctly remembers being captivated by a part of these performances often overshadowed by the swirl of energy emanating from the onstage action. “When Mom would take me to see operas or ballets, my eyes often were not on the stage; my eyes were watching the musicians in the orchestra pit,” she says. “I was fascinated by musicians, by lights, by instruments, but most importantly, by the person standing on the podium — the conductor, who happened to be also a female.” These experiences proved formative for the maestra, who has since traveled roughly 10,000 miles in pursuit of her career in orchestral conducting.
As someone who has lived in four different countries, Suzanna’s commitment to promoting and presenting multiculturalism through music is inherently tied to her own experiences of various cultures. Suzanna was born in Uzbekistan, one of the 15 former republics of the USSR. She credits the political shakeup associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s presidency and the ensuing fall of the Iron Curtain as being the window of opportunity, though a “very small window,” for her and her family to immigrate to Israel in 1990. When she arrived in Tel Aviv at age 22, she had already fixed her sights on a career in conducting. “The idea of leading the musicians, being the driving force — the power, if you wish, was always there,” Suzanna says.
As she settled into her new home, Suzanna discovered a bachelor’s program for orchestral conducting offered through Tel Aviv University. Her formal education, coupled with her extracurricular ambitions, served her well as she sought to find, and define, her place in the highly competitive world of musicians. In 1993, while she was a student in the orchestral conducting program, Suzanna competed in a biennial conducting competition held in Israel.
“Very-ambitious-me decided to go for this competition. I was the only female,” she says, very matter-of-factly. She remembers standing in the lineup of nine finalists, all males, the first year she competed and receiving looks from the other contenders that seemed to suggest she was out of her league. These questioning looks did little to prevent Suzanna from winning the competition not only that year, but also in the next competition in 1995.
While Suzanna has met many memorable musicians throughout her career, some, like Mendi Rodan, stand out. Maestro Rodan, a conductor of great fame who had been the music director of the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra, chaired the jury at the 1995 conducting competition. Suzanna remembers being terrified when the conductor, who had a reputation of being characteristically unfriendly with female contestants, called her backstage. However, to her delight, she had fallen into his good graces. She fondly recalls the encouraging, albeit terse, remark he shared with her. “When I approached him, he said, ‘You’re the only one from all the finalists I’ve seen today who has talent. You have to continue your musical education. You have a bright future.’” Suzanna considers Mendi’s encouragement, a response to the talent and ability she demonstrated, to be a blessing to her musical career.
The same year that she won the second competition, Suzanna graduated with a bachelor’s degree, eager to find a job to add to her already robust catalog of achievements. To her disappointment, the well of opportunity in what had become her second home country ran dry. “I graduated, got my degree, and there was nothing to do, nowhere to go in Israel: no jobs, no opportunities.” In a moment when she could have thrown her hands up, she instead turned to one of the two mantras she lives by: “If something didn’t happen, it wasn’t meant to happen because it would not be a good fit for you.”
So it was that she and Dimitry, her husband, ended up in Canada. When they arrived in the land of maple syrup and honey, she was immediately enticed by a conductor position for an orchestra at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto and, after applying, was invited to interview by what she describes as “a very nice committee of three men.” After reviewing her stack of paperwork, diplomas, and awards, the panel determined that, while her education and experience were impressive, this job called for a candidate with a master’s degree. Suzanna saw what could have been a setback as an opportunity and proceeded to complete a two-year orchestral conducting master’s program through Michigan State University in half the usual time. Maria Smoak, who met Suzanna years later in Columbia, observed the same disciplined determination decades later. “Suzanna Pavlovsky is one of the most determined, tenacious, stubborn, and visionary people I have ever met. She does not take ‘no’ for an answer and will find a way to get something done — with or without help.”
When Suzanna resumed her job search in Canada, she experienced a moment of deja vu at the next rung of the career ladder. At this point, employers wanted candidates with doctoral degrees. Once again, she summoned her characteristic determination and reminded herself of the second mantra she lives by: “God will never give you more than you can handle.” When she entered into a doctorate program through Eastman School of Music in upstate New York, she said to herself, “I’m going to get to the level where no one will ever tell me I don’t have enough education.”
Her trajectory was shooting upward with no end in sight. Yet after spending six years in the doctorate program at Eastman, with another five years on the horizon, she came to a crossroads. While the prospect of having the highest degree in her field was alluring, she was tired of the heavy-laden studies in music theory. “Active music making won me over,” she says. A change of scenery was in order.
She found this scenery in the famously hot city of Columbia. Suzanna, Dimitry, and son Nathan made the move from Rochester, New York, to Columbia after she was accepted into the University of South Carolina’s Doctor of Musical Arts program in Orchestral Conducting. When she was graduated in 2010, she had attained the education level desired by many employers in her field but lacked applied experience. It is a conundrum with which many graduates are familiar. “The ‘chicken or egg’ situation is a very powerful metaphor,” she says. At this point, she pivoted.
Nathan had just started high school in a good school system. She would not uproot her family in her quest for a job. “I put myself on the back burner,” Suzanna says. “As a mother, you think of yourself as secondary and think of your family and children as first priority.”
In keeping with the conduct of all true creatives, Suzanna used her idle time to do what she refers to as “a lot of soul searching.” This involved looking around the country at orchestras, communities, and their points of intersection and interaction. It was this period of soul-searching that yielded Ensemble Eclectica and Palmetto Chamber Orchestra, both founded in 2015.
Ensemble Eclectica is an interdisciplinary artistic experience that was created to unify a wide variety of art, artists, and audiences. Maria Smoak, now a board member and treasurer for the group, remembers the conversation that catapulted Ensemble Eclectica into action several years back.
“Suzanna shared her vision,” she says, “and told me she even had a name for it: Ensemble Eclectica. I said it sounded great and asked, ‘So why don’t you do it?’ And she quickly replied, ‘So why don’t you help me?’” For six years now, performances by the ensemble have united vocalists, singers, dancers, instrumentalists, visual artists, and other varieties of artists in a showcase and celebration of cross-cultural community talent. A sample of an Ensemble Eclectica performance includes everything from tangos to Coldplay covers, waltzes to movie screenings, and Rolling Stones renditions to live painters. “These are not ordinary concerts,” Maria says. “They are a celebration of arts.”
Palmetto Chamber Orchestra is the other product of Suzanna’s quest to impart an opportunity for art appreciation for the entire community. This orchestra is composed of a combination of strings educators and talented local musicians who seek to promote strings education and provide cultural enrichment through their performances, directed and conducted by the maestra. Prior to the pandemic, Palmetto Chamber Orchestra was a full-fledged operation, consisting of roughly 26 string musicians who presented up to four performances per year. Although the COVID-19 outbreak has created serious challenges for the once vibrant community orchestra, Suzanna says she is not giving up on it; she feels a sense of responsibility to introduce as many people as possible to quality art.
“It is food for the soul, a collective effort to create beauty in this world,” she says of the power of the orchestra. While the majority of the 2020 - 2021 season was canceled, Suzanna revived the group for a small-scale holiday concert in December 2020. “That was my way to bring arts back to the community,” she says. The concert, titled Columbia Celebrates!, included an orchestral take on Lady Gaga’s smash hit “Bad Romance,” two selections from the rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and a piece from the bell choir at Incarnation Lutheran Church.
Despite the odds with COVID-19 restrictions continuing through 2021, Palmetto Chamber Orchestra continued to provide cultural relief and enjoyment to the community with a reprisal of Columbia Celebrates! this past December. The outcome was unpredictably magnificent, and Palmetto Chamber Orchestra grew into a fully fledged chamber orchestra that now includes winds, brass, and strings with more than 40 members. All of the new musicians who joined in November for the concert are continuing with the group. They most recently prepared a new concert, Happy Birthday, Bach! at Incarnation Lutheran Church in March.
Penny Benton, a supporter of Palmetto Chamber Orchestra and regular performance attendee, says of the impact Suzanna has made via the two community music groups, “She has given an outlet for displaying Columbia’s local talents. Her concerts and performances are a gift not only to the ears but also to the eyes as it is such a pleasure to watch the great talents at work.”
In addition to organizing, managing, and directing all of the operative and performative elements of Palmetto Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Eclectica, Suzanna also teaches music appreciation in an adjunct capacity at Midlands Technical College. However, the two community groups take up the majority of her time and require perhaps the most creativity since they operate on an entirely volunteer basis. “I volunteer my time, my skills, my expertise,” she says. “Collecting lost art forms is how we build community together.”
While she appreciates the theoretical and technical aspects intertwined in the life of a professional musician, the aspect of her career that she savors most is working with people and bringing the fruits of the community’s collective labors to a live audience. Palmetto Chamber Orchestra and Ensemble Eclectica are not only her greatest sources of pride, they are also a demonstration of her commitment to the community. “I do believe that if we live in the community, we do have to contribute,” she says.