His talent has taken him on a remarkable journey from his quiet, country home in western Orangeburg County to grand concert halls across the globe.
Internationally acclaimed pianist George Darden worked for more than two decades with the Metropolitan Opera and has made appearances throughout Canada and France and in places such as Hong Kong, Rome, Tel Aviv and Moscow. He has worked with renowned singers Elisabeth Söderström, Renée Fleming, Plácido Domingo and dozens more.
On Sunday, March 29, Darden will perform his final concert in the Carolinas — a benefit for the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center and the Orangeburg County Historical Society — at Stevenson Auditorium. Darden, who will officially rest his professionally performing fingers on Jan. 1, 2010, said he has stopped scheduling engagements and is busy completing contracts around the world.
"This is the opportunity for people to enjoy this kind of music," said Beth Thomas, executive director of the Fine Arts Center. "This kind of performance, this quality — it doesn't happen here. It won't happen again. It's an opportunity for them to take advantage of it. This concert is very exceptional."
In a recent interview announcing plans for "the last concert," Darden recalled a time when Orangeburg was a center of culture in South Carolina.
"What Orangeburg had was absolutely phenomenal," as far classical pianists were concerned, he said. "We had 'em here, more than Charleston, more than Columbia, more than Greenville."
And there was a waiting list for community concerts, he said. But not any more.
"The Community Concert Association was out of New York City, and it was in all the communities across America, and the great artists came to perform, and it was the height of the social scene," Darden said. "When you try to find something like that today, it's very difficult."
It's a trend, he said, that is reflected nationwide.
"The arts were flourishing in this community, and today, to try to find a child who's even studying piano is very difficult," Darden said. "They're not going to sit and be by themselves in a room practicing and developing muscles, in the way an athlete has to do.
"That's not a comment on Orangeburg — that's a comment for all over America."
Abroad, he said emphasis is still placed on classical music and the discipline and care it takes to be a classical musician.
"We (pianists) spend our lives … training our muscles to play, to study old repertoire … we really get down to the nitty-gritty," Darden said. "Most rock people can't even read music. They have never had to study music history, music theory, counterpoint — all of the necessary rudiments of music that's it's expected that we all know. … It's been a lifetime of learning and growing.
"When you go to the great symphony orchestra, you see more gray hairs and bald hairs than you do youngsters."
Thomas said that's exactly what makes Darden's upcoming performance so important.
"That's why we need this concert here, for the historical, cultural aspects of this community," for children to learn to love classical music, she said.
"I don't think this concert is going to change it," Darden said of the trend away from classical music. "This is only a two-hour reflection of what Orangeburg had at one time. … When you listen to classical music, it makes your brain reflect on things — happy, sad, good, bad — and for the performer who is performing, we also are doing that. I have just visions while I am playing of beautiful, pastoral scenes, or, if it's a very difficult piece of music or maybe contemporary, it's a whole other thing. So it's a visual aspect and the imagination, and that's been culled today in youngsters."
Works by the great Polish composer Frédéric Chopin will be highlighted during the first half of the March 29 program, followed by an intermission, with French and Spanish works, a Richard Strauss waltz and selections from Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff closing the two-hour performance.
"This provides an opportunity for two organizations that are very important in the city," said Darden, who has previously performed benefit concerts for The Methodist Oaks, Orangeburg's Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and the concert grand piano refurbishment at Stevenson Auditorium.
"I think this is great for the Orangeburg area that an Orangeburg local with so much talent is willing to share it while promoting the Fine Arts Center and the Orangeburg Historical Society," said Curt Campbell, president of the Historical Society. "George comes from such a historical family that's so important to the area."
Dr. Lawton Salley, a volunteer with the Historical Society, agreed that the concert is particularly meaningful because of Darden's roots in the community.
"This is music we very rarely see live in this community," he said, adding that he hopes to see a packed house at Stevenson Auditorium for the performance. "He's an outstanding performer, an outstanding talent, and it's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed."
Darden was born in Charleston and raised in Orangeburg by his parents, the late Robert and Peggy Darden, with his sister, Emma Lovelace. While he grew up on Dardenella Farms, situated on Hickory Hill Road, Darden said he never cared much for farm life and rebelled against that lifestyle.
"I've literally had to fight in order to have my career," he said, citing Orangeburg's Josephine Shuler, the first state president of the National Federation of Music Clubs, local piano teacher Arnette Culler and Columbia College music teacher Margarette Richards as instrumental figures in his musical development.
Darden said he was 3 years old when he began playing the instrument that would take him around the world. His talent was first realized by his aunt, Emmie Truluck, who played in a celebrated local string trio.
"They would be rehearsing every week, and I would go over there and sit there and listen to them as they would tune up," he said. "All of a sudden, one day, they finished tuning, and I piped up and said, 'But it's not in tune.' And my aunt looked at me, and she noticed that I was always going to the piano, and she started playing notes, and for some reason, I had perfect pitch. And I still have it today."
In October, Darden gave his final performance in Moscow. When he completes his contracts in Austria and Italy, he will officially call it quits and turn to playing music for his own personal enjoyment.
"I want to be able to leave while my fingers are still able to do things," he said. "As musicians, we're trained to memorize everything the composer has put on the page and you retain that, and I could never commit myself to come out and play an entire concert with music. It'd have to be from memory. You reach a certain age when you know your memory is not what it used to be.
"It's been a long road, and to sustain a career half a century, almost, that's saying something. And particularly if you're invited back to some of the same places and countries over and over and over, and that's the glory of doing it. … And you say, 'Oh, what an extraordinary life it was.' And it was something. But if you listen to that little voice inside of you, it starts telling you when it's time.
"I still have to pinch myself, to think that this is happening to me, because I never thought it would happen. … It's just been a phenomenal ride."
If you go …
What: George Darden in concert
When: Sunday, March 29
Where: Stevenson Auditorium, downtown Orangeburg
Program: Frédéric Chopin, Richard Strauss, Sergei Rachmaninoff, with French and Spanish works
Tickets: $15 for adults; $12 for Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center members, seniors and students; $65 and $95 for boxes; $50 (two tickets) for sponsors; $100 (four tickets) for patrons; $150 (six tickets) for benefactors.
Sponsors, patrons and benefactors will receive preferred seating and acknowledgement in the program.
For tickets, call Beth Thomas at the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center at 803-536-4074.
George Darden's final concert in North and South Carolina will benefit two Orangeburg organizations.
In addition to offering classes and workshops for adults and children in a variety of visual and performing arts disciplines, the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center provides subgrants to local artists and arts-producing organizations through a South Carolina Arts Commission grant; sponsors lectures and book signings; hosts the popular Lunch in the Terrace Garden in May and October; showcases local artists' works; presents concerts and recitals featuring local and touring performers; partners with a number of community activities, including the Orangeburg Festival of Roses and The Sights and Sounds of Christmas, and more.
The Orangeburg County Historical Society, situated on Middleton Street across from the Orangeburg Post Office, is home to extensive cemetery, birth, marriage and death records; personal papers or scrapbooks compiled and donated by local families; census records and old city directories and telephone books; records on businesses, banks, schools, civic clubs, fairs and other community institutions; displays, and more. The Historical Society is managed and operated by volunteers and is funded through private donations.
Becoming a master musician
Internationally acclaimed pianist George Darden received his early education at Edisto schools in Cordova and attended Indiana University, where he was a student of Hungarian-born pianist Bela Boszormènyi-Nagy, and Florida State University, where he studied with American composer and pianist Carlisle Floyd, a South Carolina native. He is a graduate of Montreat College and has taught at the University of Houston School of Music, the University of Missouri-Columbia and Tel Aviv's Israel Vocal Arts Institute.
Darden made his solo piano debut with the Savannah Symphony in 1963 and retired in 2006 after 21 years with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where he served as assistant conductor, pianist and coach. Prior to his work with the Met, Darden was associated with the Houston Grand Opera, Texas Opera Theatre, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Michigan Opera Theatre, New Orleans Opera, Greater Miami Opera, Chautauqua Opera, Opera Company of Boston, Augusta Opera, Baltimore Opera, Nevada Opera Company and in Spain at Valencia's Puccini Festival.
Darden has been featured on a number of recordings as well as on radio and television programs around the world. In 2000, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest civilian award for lifetime achievement and service.