Joquita Burka | Office of Creative Services

It was truly a labor — and a gift — of love.

When Lillian “Mickey” Utsey Harder and her husband, Byron, made a $10,000 gift to Clemson, she had no idea how many would benefit from the endowment she was establishing in memory of her parents, Lillian and Robert Utsey.

Harder, who taught music and performing arts at Clemson for 24 years, grew up in a family who loved music. Particularly, she remembers sharing with her parents the enjoyment of chamber music performances at the Dock Street Theatre during Charleston’s Spoleto Festival.

“After my parents died, I wanted to do something to honor them. I struggled with what to do until I woke — literally in the middle of the night — with the idea of the chamber series,” Harder said. “I wanted to do something at Clemson so that I could be involved, and I had two goals for the series. First I wanted to bring in up-and-coming young musicians, and second I knew we had to make the series free.”

It is the “free to all” aspect of the series that sets it so distinctly apart from other chamber music series and has made it a true gift to the Upstate community. By making chamber music accessible to everyone, the Lillian and Robert Utsey Chamber Music Series is growing and educating new generations of music lovers.

While the four annual performances are held in the evening at the Brooks Center, almost all of the musicians agree to a morning performance for schoolchildren. Area schools, particularly from Pickens, Anderson and Oconee counties, bus in students by the hundreds to fill the theater with enthusiastic crowds.

“I’ll never forget the performance of Trio Solisti. At the end of the performance, the students jumped to their feet, applauding and cheering. Who would have thought students would react that way to classical music?” Harder said. “Some of these students get so excited that they bring their parents back that night. I always look around the concert hall and think how happy my parents would be to see these crowds so moved by chamber music.”

Through the years, audiences have been treated to performances by world-renowned pianist Lang Lang, violinist Chee-Yun, flutist Marina Piccinini, the Miami String Quartet, the Shanghai Quartet and an impressive list of other artists who would normally perform in large, urban venues. Artists fall in love with the Brooks Center and the enthusiastic audiences that greet them there.

This year, the Utsey Chamber Music Series celebrates its 25th anniversary and the people who made it all possible. “We are so grateful for the many patrons, concert-goers, students and University personnel who have donated funds, attended concerts and supported the series over the years,” Harder said.

After they made the initial gift, the Harders challenged the community with the promise of another $10,000 in matching funds. Donors met the challenge in just four months, and the Lillian and Robert Utsey Series Chamber Music Endowment was funded. Since that time, almost 800 individuals, families and businesses have supported the endowment — the state’s only funding source strictly dedicated to presenting free chamber music.

The Utsey Series also serves its part in meeting the fundamental mission of Clemson University as a land-grant institution that provides service and outreach to the citizens of South Carolina. The series has been featured on the University’s “Your Day” in 41 interviews. “Today,” explained Harder, “public service and outreach means cultural enrichment as well.”

The Lillian and Robert Utsey Chamber Music Series enjoys a history of more than 125 evening concerts reaching an audience of more than 45,000 and morning performances before 20,000 schoolchildren. Through more than 41 radio interviews on “Your Day” and broadcasts on National Public Radio’s “Performance Today” to an additional 7 million listeners, the Utsey Series clearly serves the public.

Today, if you ask Harder if dedicating more 25 years to the success of the series has been worth it, her answer is quick and sure. “Next to my family, this has been the greatest joy of my life.”