Christopher Warren-Green may face the toughest job any Englishman has encountered in Charlotte since Gen. Cornwallis complained about landing in a hornet's nest.
Warren-Green on Friday conducts his first concert as the Charlotte Symphony's leader. For seven years, the orchestra has struggled with financial troubles: Deficits that have led to pay cuts, layoffs and the shrinkage of musical options.
You can almost hear the hornets circling. Nevertheless:
"I feel like a kid in a candy shop," Warren-Green says.
He's convinced that Charlotte, with a bit of persuasion, will come through for the orchestra.
"I have nothing to back that up," he says. "It's just the feeling I have about Charlotte."
Turning that feeling into reality is Warren-Green's new job. The orchestra didn't hire him to be a mere conductor. It wants him to become its public relations standard-bearer - in hopes the attention he attracts will turn into listeners in seats and donations in the coffers.
The arrival of Warren-Green, 55, puts in place one of the last pieces in a revamping the orchestra began in early 2007 - before the recession made a revival even tougher.
The downturn hit arts groups across the country. It finished off some that were already ailing, including South Carolina's Charleston Symphony and opera companies in Baltimore, Orlando and Hartford, Conn. In Charlotte, the orchestra took another blow in May 2009 when the Arts & Science Council cut its support by $1 million.
Mere days after that, the orchestra offered Warren-Green the job of music director. Despite the troubles, he agreed to come in and try to conquer Charlotte.
Cornwallis could leave his family safely behind in England. But Warren-Green - at the orchestra's urging - brought his wife and youngest child from England and made Charlotte home. They sold their 500-year-old cottage outside London and bought a house in south Charlotte.
"The guy moved here," says a longtime orchestra member, French horn player Frank Portone. He explains why that's big: Not since Leo Driehuys transplanted his family from Holland in 1977 - and went on to lead the orchestra for 16 years - has the group had a chief who put down stakes here.
"I see an advocate for the orchestra that I haven't seen since Leo Driehuys," Portone says. "I see someone who has a vision for the orchestra - a far-reaching vision, not just, 'Let's clean up a few (musical) issues.' I see someone who is a really fine musician. I see someone who is dedicated to Charlotte."
After he took the job, Warren-Green wrote a commentary for the Observer about why he said yes. He pointed to an experience he had while guest-conducting in Brazil. After a concert, he met a boy who had been a street criminal until a youth-orchestra program turned him around.
"He no longer robbed buses," Warren-Green wrote. "He wanted only to play the saxophone. ... Whether in Brazil or London or right here in Charlotte, music has the ability to transform lives."
'Important for her children'
Warren-Green's other prime examples of that come from his own life.
His mother, he says, grew up in a coal mining town in Wales. When she was young, the work in the mines was already taking a toll on her father's health. Even though there was no money to spare, her mother wanted her and her brother to have music lessons. So her mother - Warren-Green's grandmother - went to a music store and picked out a piano.
"She then went out scrubbing other people's door stoops to earn the money to pay for it," Warren-Green says. "It was the most demeaning work you could do. ... She knew how important this was for her children."
The outcome: Warren-Green's mother became an elementary-school music teacher, and her brother became a violinist in London theaters.
Warren-Green, as a youngster, picked up the violin, too. This time, nobody had to scrub doorsteps.
"In those days, any school would give you a violin and a teacher," Warren-Green says. "You didn't have to pay for it. My family were not wealthy. My mother couldn't afford these things. But I took to the violin. ... It became my life and my world from that moment."
That's "why I'm so interested in the fact that we have these wonderful youth orchestras (affiliated with the Charlotte Symphony). And I want to get involved with them as much as I can help. Dare I say it? They're almost more important than the symphony itself."
A knack for promotion
Warren-Green's talents got him into the Royal Academy of Music in London. By his early 20s, he was the first-chair violinist of the Philharmonia Orchestra, one of London's handful of internationally known ensembles. On the side, he gradually built a conducting career.
Today, he neither plays the violin nor owns one. But he notes that his wife - Rosemary Furniss, a violinist - may be trying to lure him back. She sometimes leaves her violin on the piano in their new home.
For more than 20 years, Warren-Green has led the London Chamber Orchestra, a part-time group that plays about two dozen concerts a season. Though it's a smaller operation than the Charlotte Symphony - with a budget equaling roughly $800,000 a year, compared to the Charlotte's $8 million-plus - it's similar in an important way. Unlike most British orchestras, it asks for no government funding. So Warren-Green and its other leaders have to drum up donations.
"It's a lot of money to find every year," says Ian Pressland, the managing director. When the orchestra invites potential backers to after-concert receptions or other events, Warren-Green pitches in.
"He knows what it takes to keep an orchestra on the road," Pressland says. "Even though he's just done a concert that has really taken it out of him, he will still take the time to come to the reception afterward and spend an hour or so going around and talking to people."
Warren-Green also "has a real knack" for promoting the orchestra in public, Pressland says. He's comfortable talking about music on the radio. He even took part in a TV contest show called "Maestro," in which nonmusician celebrities competed as would-be conductors. Warren-Green was one of the coaches.
"He has a very high profile," Pressland says, and it benefits the orchestra. "He's key as a musician, and he's key as an ambassador."
The Charlotte Symphony will put him to work in both capacities.
Despite its woes, the orchestra plays many roles in the community. In addition to its concerts at the Belk Theater, it draws listeners by the thousands to outdoor summer concerts across the region.
It administers the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra, whose ensembles give hundreds of students a vehicle for learning and performing. The grownup musicians, on their own, teach music, play in churches or other settings - and pay mortgages and buy groceries the same as people in other lines of work.
The coming season will give Warren-Green a workout. Besides leading seven programs in the Classics series, he'll conduct for the Pops, Lollipops and Summer Pops. He's spearheading the new, less-formal Knight Sounds series, which will use the smaller Knight Theater.
He'll also be the orchestra's face outside the concert hall. On Oct. 10, he'll take players to Bank of America Stadium to play the National Anthem before the Panthers-Bears game. He also will talk to civic groups about how the orchestra enhances the community. The orchestra declined to reveal Warren-Green's salary.
He already has gone into action cultivating friends. A couple of weeks ago, Warren-Green sat down at the telephone for a round of thank-you calls to key donors. The people on the other end of the line were delighted, says Jonathan Martin, orchestra executive director. They'd never experienced such a thing. Neither had Martin.
"I've been in this business 30 years," Martin said. "I have never worked with a music director who jumped so eagerly into that kind of work."
To Warren-Green, whether you're talking about directing concerts, polishing the orchestra, wooing new audiences or bonding with donors, "it's all one thing."
"If we achieve artistic excellence, the money will come. If we don't achieve excellence, it won't come."