Trying to get the Charlotte Symphony back on its feet is a tough job, but Christopher Warren-Green has signed up for three more years of it.
Warren-Green and the orchestra will announce Tuesday that they’ve extended his contract as music director through summer 2016. The British conductor’s initial, three-year agreement – which he signed when the orchestra’s years-long financial struggle was at its darkest – ends next summer.
“What I wanted to do was send out the message that I am committed to this,” Warren-Green said in an interview.
It’s no accident that the extension comes soon after Jonathan Martin, the orchestra’s executive director, announced he is leaving for the Dallas Symphony. Warren-Green wanted to dispel any “negative light” from the loss, he said.
“I started working with Jonathan on trying to get things shored up for this orchestra,” Warren-Green said. “And I’m going to do it.”
When the orchestra hired Warren-Green in summer 2009, a $1 million cut in its Arts & Science Council funding had cast doubt on its very survival. An emergency fund drive saved it from collapse. Warren-Green began working on plans with the orchestra even before he formally took over in September, 2010.
He helped create the orchestra’s KnightSounds series aimed at classical-music newcomers, and he has served as conductor and center-stage host at most of them. Aiming to make himself known to all the orchestra’s audiences, he has led concerts for the orchestra’s Pops, Summer Pops and Lollipops series as well as the Classics.
Stepping outside the concert hall, Warren-Green has ranged from meet-and-greets with community groups to conducting symphony players in the national anthem at a Carolina Panthers game. To point up how the orchestra wants to serve and improve the community, Warren-Green brought budding string players from east Charlotte’s Winterfield Elementary – where the orchestra helps lead a music program – to play with the orchestra in the Belk Theater.
“He’ll go from tuning a violin for a third-grader at Winterfield Elementary to (speaking at) a retirement community where there are folks who have been subscribers to the symphony for 65 years,” Martin said. “He does it fluently and effortlessly. It’s amazing. It’s inspiring to the musicians and the staff.”
When Martin leaves the orchestra at the end of this week, a board member and former Bank of America executive, Robert Stickler, will serve as interim executive director while the orchestra seeks a permanent one. The search committee will include Warren-Green.
Seeking energetic leader
It’s vital that he and the orchestra’s top administrator be “on the same wavelength,” Warren-Green said.
Therefore, when he took the job, he had it put into the agreement that he’d have a voice in the selection of any new executive director. This time, the orchestra’s board “kindly included me on that anyway,” he said with a laugh, “so I didn’t have to draw attention to the fact that it was in my contract.”
“What I’m really looking for ... is someone with tremendous energy, of course, who is prepared to work with me at really convincing different parts of the community that the orchestra is really worth funding,” Warren-Green said.
While the search goes on, the conductor will have to take on even more of the offstage role of advocate, Martin said. Warren-Green says he’s ready.
“I’m still of the opinion that this community is behind its symphony and wants it to continue,” Warren-Green said. He sees proof in the fact that turnout for Classics and KnightSounds concerts is growing.
But building the financial support is nevertheless “not happening fast enough,” Warren-Green said.
“Let’s get this done,” he said. “I’m prepared to work very hard at it” – including by wooing donors.
“The best time is after concerts,” he said, “when the music has spoken for itself.”
He also has sources of money in mind.
“What we need is for some of the big corporates to come in and help the city keep the arts alive. That’s what I believe we really need.”
The orchestra can enrich the community beyond the music it plays in concert hall and parks, Warren-Green said. It could take the music program pioneered at Winterfield Elementary into other schools – if it had the money.
“I think business people understand this,” Warren-Green said. “You put a little more in, and you get a heck of a lot more out.”