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A Note Of Hope

October 20, 2009

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    October 20, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

A Note Of Hope

It debuted in 1931, when Charlotte was a smaller, simpler town. It survived the privations of the Great Depression and World War II. Over decades of treating Charlotte audiences to some of classical music's illustrious names, it was fazed only once - by a 1950s fire that forced it to cancel a season.

Through all that, last season was nearly Carolinas Concert Association's finale.
Its audiences had been shrinking, and then the recession put on a new squeeze. Part of the board of directors thought the only responsible course was to shut down.
But a core of longtime backers wouldn't let the group die.
"To close something after 79 years," says the group's president, Gail Brinn Wilkins, "just wasn't in the picture for me."

So they launch their season Friday in a revamped form with a new name: Charlotte Concerts.
After putting on concerts at the 2,100-seat Belk Theater since it was new - and before that, at Ovens Auditorium beginning when it was new - the group will use CPCC's Halton Theater for four of its five concerts. Besides having good acoustics, Halton is smaller than Belk, so it suits an organization that's regrouping.

When Wilkins and a few other veterans set to work last spring to recast
the group, she turned to CPCC early on. The result is a partnership that will also benefit the school and its students, says Scott Bauer, director of CPCC's arts and communication division.
Bauer, a new member of the group's board, says he has witnessed the veterans' commitment.
"They truly believe in this," Bauer says. "Too often, organizations get tired. I think this is a revived organization."

It started with Nelson Eddy
When the group was established in 1931, the founding of the Charlotte Symphony was a year away - and for another 40 years or so, the Charlotte Symphony was part-amateur. Opera Carolina didn't appear until 1948.

It began as part of a cross-country chain of concert series spearheaded by one of the country's biggest stables of musicians, New York-based Columbia Artists Management. Columbia gained outlets for its clients. Music lovers in far-flung towns gained a chance to hear artists who might never have come near them otherwise.

Charlotte's opening concert featured baritone Nelson Eddy, who returned twice as he rose to superstardom in Hollywood. The fee for his first visit: $300.

Not everyone who followed was such a household name. But the list of luminaries grew to include pianists from Arthur Rubinstein to Van Cliburn to Murray Perahia; singers from Jussi Bjoerling to Leontyne Price to Thomas Hampson; and violinists from Jascha Heifetz to Itzhak Perlman to Joshua Bell. Orchestras from Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York and London have stopped off on their tours.

Boom and near bust
In the group's heyday, "They were hot tickets," recalls Kassie Minor, a longtime music lover who isn't connected to the revamping.

The lineups were long so popular that the group didn't even deal in single tickets: By the time season tickets were sold, nothing was left. Minor's parents got their aisle seats on Row K at Ovens Auditorium only after the previous holder died, she said. Minor eventually inherited them.
Until the 1990s, when the group hired its first paid staffer, volunteers did all the work, from booking the performers to raising donations to selling and distributing tickets. Board members would compete to see who could sell the most.

"Everybody was enthusiastic about what we were doing," says Carolyn MacMahon, who has served on the board for most of the past 25 years.

"We just had a good time. We would have campaign meetings and get everybody revved up. We had friends on the board. We did a lot of things together, and we enjoyed what we did."
Besides putting on concerts, the group took on educational work. It provided scholarships for music students and helped supply schools with instruments.

But in Charlotte, as in many other cities, changes in the music world and in the community eventually began working against the group.

In the past few years, "what we've been struck with is the immensity of change," said Howard Freese, another longtime member of the group's board. He pointed to:
Competition from professional sports, touring Broadway shows and other entertainment options.
The Belk Theater's crowded schedule, which makes it hard to match dates when the hall is available to dates when performers are.

"An enormous increase" in performers' fees, especially for big-name orchestras.
Meanwhile, ticket sales - especially for season tickets - declined, Freese says. As the recession bore down on cultural groups, "we started having trouble, too - serious trouble."
That's why some board members began discussing a shutdown last season. They wanted the group to stop while it could pay off its bills with the money it had in the bank.
But to Wilkins and another contingent, "the idea of closing an organization of this age with what we have to bring," she says, "just didn't fit."

They lobbied for a chance to recast the group. In a vote last March, the board gave the OK.
Wilkins and company went to work. They looked for new board members to pitch in. They enlisted the Luquire George Andrews ad agency - whose founder, Steve Luquire, was once a board member - to help design fresh graphics, a new name and Web site.
Even before the big change, the group had checked out CPCC's Halton Theater as a possible home. The benefits to Charlotte Concerts go beyond the use of the Halton. CPCC's box office will handle most of the ticket sales, Wilkins said, and the school will co-sponsor a concert by the Empire Brass.

The school will get a payoff too, administrator Bauer said. Its music students will gain access to professional performers - such as the members of this Friday's group, the Perlman/Schmidt/Bailey Trio. The group will work with young musicians in a session earlier Friday.

And the hundreds of students who take music-appreciation classes can attend concerts right on their campus.

Young performers, new fans
The group drew in other collaborators, too. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center agreed to collaborate on a concert at the Knight Theater by a set of piano-playing siblings, The 5 Browns. The Ethos Consortium, a Charlotte-based professional orchestra and choir, said it would perform a March concert - in part celebrating J.S. Bach's birthday.

When Wilkins and company set to work, she said, she thought they might at most be able to put on one concert this season. But by summer, when the Ethos Consortium joined in, the schedule had reached five events - the same as typical seasons of the past.

But that also presented a new challenge: a late start on ticket sales. The brochures only went out at the start of August - less than three months before the first concert.

So the group's supporters are hard at work selling tickets and seeking sponsors.
Wilkins hopes the roster of young, engaging performers - such as Friday's trio - will entice newcomers to classical music. Freese pointed to the fact that the Halton is not only an appealing theater, but it adjoins burgeoning Elizabeth Avenue, where nearby restaurants make for a handy night on the town.

Arranging all this has taken "a lot of legwork," Wilkins says. But they haven't taken it as far as those long-ago volunteers who used to hold ticket-selling contests.
Then she corrects herself.

"Not true," she says. "At the last board meeting, I gave a bottle of wine to the person who sold the most."

By Steven Brown
The Charlotte Observer

To read the original article, visit the Charlotte Observer.