Five years ago, Charlotte Concerts was reeling on the ropes, listening to the referee begin the final count.
Yet next month, it will launch a knockout season that opens with the Grammy-winning Emerson String Quartet and ends with heavyweight violinist Joshua Bell and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields chamber orchestra.
Their comeback, says Andrew Grossman, is an absolute miracle story. Hed know: The New York-based agent has booked concerts for this group and a similar one in Asheville for about 40 years, but with one difference: The Asheville series died in 2012.
What kept Charlottes oldest surviving concert presenters from the same fate?
An active board of directors that has more than doubled in size since the lean times. A move to a venue that provides warm acoustics and a connection to a larger potential audience of young people.
Careful planning that let the group finish in the black for fiscal year 2012-13 on a budget of about $300,000.
And maybe sheer tenacity.
When the directors considered folding at the height of the recent recession, there were maybe six people who wanted to go on, says board member-at-large Carolyn McMahon.
They met, and Gail Brinn Wilkins who had been president in the 90s consented to be president again. Shes a hard worker, and she got those few people together. We were determined we werent going to bite the dust: We would build the board up and get the audience back.
One more thing in its favor: Its leaders often stick around a long time. Howard Freese, whom Grossman calls a mastermind who knows just what to program, has been vice president of artist selection for eight years and on that committee for two decades.
By 2008, though, directors started to look more steadily outside the group. Wilkins recruited Anne Bryant, who joined two years ago and ascended to the presidents seat this season. Kathy Brungard, vice president for education, came to the board in 2009.
We have 25 people on our board, and theres diversity of age, race and occupation, says Bryant, who hopes to boost that number to 35 by next year. We have a full development committee to focus on corporate sponsors. Now we have to build (public) awareness.
Looking for a home
Talk to anyone at Charlotte Concerts for more than 15 minutes, and youll hear the phrase the best-kept secret in Charlotte.
But that wasnt always so.
When Carolinas Concert Association opened in 1931 at the old National Guard Armory, it was the only music and dance presenter in Mecklenburg County.
The acclaimed likes of Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubinstein, Yehudi Menuhin and the Boston Pops came through before the Armory burned and the 1954-55 season went up in smoke. (Grady Cole Center sits on that Kings Drive site today.)
The group moved to Ovens Auditorium and stayed there until Belk Theater opened in 1992.
It shifted to Central Piedmont Community Colleges Halton Theater in 2009 and rebranded itself as Charlotte Concerts.
Halton was a good move for us, Bryant says. It can seem more accessible to audiences with (negative) perceptions about going uptown at night. The CPCC box office treats us as one of their own, parking is free, and some of their students come to our concerts.
The unseen educators
If there really is a best-kept secret, its Charlotte Concerts educational arm.
Few people realize the group hosts weekend workshops for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students in orchestra, chorus and band, buying music and T-shirts and paying for conductors.
It opens rehearsals, provides free or subsidized tickets for young people, honors young musicians at each concert, hosts free informances between visiting artists and listeners and even takes players to area schools.
The Eroica Trio met with 100 students at Johnson C. Smith University, and violinist Ray Chen of Sphinx Virtuosi made a whirlwind tour of public and private high schools.
Most crucially, Charlotte Concerts gives instruments to CMS underserved schools. A music director hands Brungard a shopping list, and she searches for discounts. West Charlotte Highs band got $10,000 worth of instruments last season; before that, Northridge Middle School received strings and brass.
Brungard, once a professional violinist, has raised money for all these projects through a Knight Foundation grant, donations and an annual gala.
We try to reach the whole community, even home-schoolers, she says. Our niche in the community has to be more than just presenting music.
Where to go now?
Charlotte has positioned itself as a major host on the circuit.
Grossman calls it one of the jewels in the necklace of national tours and believes major artists, mid-sized and small ones all want to come to Charlotte, (from) big orchestras to ballet companies.
Nobodys talking yet about adding concerts to the season: The group dropped from five annual performances to four in 2010 and went back to five the next year, and the budget wont permit more now.
Brungard hopes to expand educational components. McMahon, who first saw concerts in the Armory days, stresses the need to recruit young audiences.
Bryant shares those desires and reminds the public her group fills a niche: Charlotte Concerts imports people unlikely to perform here for any other reason.
I think audiences look for nationally or internationally known artists, she says. They want to hear whats coming out of the big cities and think, Why cant we see that here? So thats central to our mission.
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