The Charlotte Symphony wanted to express its gratitude to three couples whose big donations kept it going in an emergency. So it arranged a thank-you fit for a king.
"It's not every day that you get a phone call inviting you to a concert and dinner at Buckingham Palace," Sandra Levine said.
The orchestra's music director, Christopher Warren-Green, used connections in his native England to arrange for Sandra and Leon Levine, Jane and Hugh McColl Jr., and Meredith and C.D. "Dick" Spangler Jr. to attend a concert and dinner at the palace Jan. 27.
"It was just a magical evening," Sandra Levine said.
The three couples - along with Warren-Green and his wife, Rosemary Furniss - were among about 200 people at the event, which was mainly a benefit for London's Royal Opera House. The evening included performances by singers and dancers from the Royal Opera, then a dinner in the palace's 165-foot-long Picture Gallery.
At the opening reception, the Charlotte group met Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall.
"That was one of the high points," Sandra Levine said. "Both of them were very engaging and very charming - easy to talk with."
Hugh McColl described the prince as "a very nice guy" and the duchess - Camilla Parker-Bowles - as "a very attractive woman with great social skills."
The Levines, McColls and Spanglers came to the Charlotte Symphony's aid in summer 2009.
The orchestra, hit by a $1million cut from the Arts & Science Council after years of deficits, needed help fast. It launched a drive to raise more than $5 million. The Levines made a $500,000 challenge grant. The McColls and Spanglers each pledged $1 million.
For their London trip, the couples covered their own expenses, the orchestra said. The gift was the palace invitation.
"It was my way of thanking them for what they've done for the symphony," Warren-Green said.
Although Warren-Green was among the guests this time, he has conducted for a series of royal occasions since 1980, when he was the first-chair violinist of London's Philharmonia Orchestra and a budding conductor.
In recent years he has led a private concert for the royal family marking Queen Elizabeth II's 80th birthday; a concert for the prince's 60th birthday; and a prayer service celebrating the prince and duchess' wedding.
The Charlotte group learned that "Christopher Warren-Green is well appreciated by the royal family," said businessman and former UNC president Dick Spangler. "It seems that they recognize his strengths just as the Charlotte Symphony and our patrons do."
After the reception, the guests moved on to a palace ballroom.
"We saw a delightful performance," McColl said, "a combination of ballet and opera and theater, all rolled into one."
The focus was on Tchaikovsky's life and music. Actors read from letters between the composer and a patron of his. Excerpts from "Swan Lake" and other works wove into that, featuring performers from the royal opera and ballet.
Seeing all that in a palace ballroom was "intimate and beautiful and very touching," Sandra Levine said.
After the performance, everyone had dinner in the palace Picture Gallery, where the guests were surrounded by paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and other masters.
"They have some gigantic paintings," McColl said. "Every room in the palace is gorgeous - huge, really. We had a great time."
The former Bank of America CEO had one other observation.
"It's funny the impressions that you get," McColl said. "I guess it's how you get photographed. I thought (Prince Charles) was much taller than he is. He's more average height."
The trip gave the Charlotte group a taste of philanthropy, British-style.
Individual members of the royal family serve as patrons of cultural groups and charities. Besides lending the prestige of their names, they sometimes open royal residences for fundraisers - and may attend as an extra draw.
"I think we could learn something from that," McColl said.
Prince Charles is the patron of the Royal Opera House, the prime beneficiary of the January dinner. The Duchess of Cornwall is the patron of the London Chamber Orchestra, which had a smaller presence at the benefit. Warren-Green has led the chamber orchestra for two decades.
The Charlotte Symphony drive that the couples aided is still going on. Sandra Levine, whose husband, Leon, founded the Family Dollar discount chain, noted that buying a ticket to the orchestra covers only part of its expenses. She hopes people who enjoy its concerts will make whatever donation they can.
"Here in Charlotte, we're lucky to have the quality of arts and performances that we have," McColl said. "We need to continue to work hard on keeping them and seeing that they get adequately funded.
"In these hard times, that's difficult. But I think it will be done."