Orchestra hopes casual concerts hit the right note

Curious about classical music but put off by concert-hall formality? The Charlotte Symphony wants to win you over.

Hoping to expand its audience - and bring in new income to fight its financial troubles - the orchestra will launch a new concert series featuring a casual atmosphere, chitchat from the stage and extra-musical bonuses. With the hourlong, moderately priced concerts, the group joins the ranks of American orchestras trying to loosen up the concertgoing experience.

The location: the new Knight Theater, smaller and cozier than the orchestra's main home up Tryon Street, the Belk Theater. Starting an hour before the concerts, appetizers and cocktails - included in the $30 ticket price - will be served in the lobby. After everyone takes their seats, the conductor or players will tell the audience what's in store.

Then will come the music. As the orchestra plays Gustav Holst's "The Planets" - the sonic showpiece that will open the series Oct. 22 - NASA video will enable the heavenly bodies themselves to appear.

In an hour, the compact concert will be over. But nobody is supposed to go home.

For instance, after getting revved up by Latin American music Feb. 4, concertgoers can step across the street for a salsa-dancing party at the Mint Museum Uptown. To cap off a March 25 concert inspired by the glittering "Firebird" in front of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, music lovers can go inside to see more works by the sculpture's creator, Niki de Saint Phalle.

"You can get outside the box of the traditional concert without dumbing it down in any way whatsoever," the orchestra's new music director, Christopher Warren-Green, said Monday.

Help for the deficit

The orchestra has more in mind than winning converts to classical music. It hopes they'll help cure the financial troubles that have bedeviled it for years.

When the orchestra closes the books on the season that ended in June, the deficit will total "north of $200,000," executive director Jonathan Martin said Monday. While that's the smallest deficit since the troubles began in 2002, it's worse than the orchestra expected.

The orchestra had more season-ticket buyers - and more income from them - than it planned on, Martin said. But sales of single tickets were "uneven." A pops concert featuring the music of ABBA was one disappointment. Corporate contributions lagged. And the $75,000 in donations at the Summer Pops concerts equaled only half of last year's total.

The orchestra has reduced its costs by $1 million a year - with players' salaries among the cuts - and it has raised about $5 million toward a multiyear bridge fund aimed at buying time to expand its fundraising and audience, Martin said. But it faces "a sobering amount of work still to be done."

The audience-building work is where the new series, dubbed Knight Sounds, figures in. It adds the Charlotte Symphony to the growing list of orchestras trying to attract new listeners by revamping the concert format.

Concerts earlier, shorter

Orchestras have found that some potential concertgoers can't fit a two-hour concert starting at 8 p.m. into their family or work schedules. So groups have tinkered with both elements of that - offering shortened versions of their traditional concerts that start earlier.

Introducing newcomers to classical music often figures in. Informal talk from the stage is common. The Chicago Symphony's "Beyond the Score" concerts begin with discussion and an audiovisual presentation about a great work - such as Felix Mendelssohn's "Italian" Symphony - and follow it with a performance.

The Knight Sounds concert will start at 7:30 p.m. and take about an hour. The price - $30 for any seat - falls around the middle of the range for the orchestra's Classics concerts.

Last-minute plans

Research has shown that many concertgoers - especially those in their 30s and 40s - only decide on entertainment at the last minute, Martin said. When they do, they may want to gather friends and sit together. So seating at the Knight Sounds concerts will be general admission, not reserved.

"At the Knight Theater, all the seats are good," Martin said.

The new theater lacks an important piece of equipment: an acoustical shell, which encloses the performers so the sound aims toward the audience. The building's specifications called for one, but it was jettisoned as costs rose.

The orchestra hopes to find sources to pay for one as the season goes on, Martin said. He estimated the cost at around $400,000.

As the orchestra sees how audiences respond to the new series, it may tinker with the formula. But the orchestra has to try new things, Martin said.

"Some of the stuff may not work," he said. "But if we don't try something, we know what's going to happen."