A night for the orchestra, theater to shine

The portable planetarium filling much of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art lobby was turning viewers' thoughts toward the heavens. Across the way, other people were focused more on creature comfort - lined up for buffet tables of food in the adjacent Knight Theater lobby.

The main attraction - a Charlotte Symphony performance of "The Planets," dovetailing Gustav Holst's music with NASA video of the heavens - hadn't even begun. But Friday night was already on its way to being a success: The opening of the orchestra's new KnightSounds concert series had attracted a sellout crowd.

The Charlotte Symphony has never been big on experimentation. But finally taking the plunge on something new - prodded, of course, by the need to bring in more people and improve its finances - paid off.

Most of the audience was drawn by a combination of attractions the orchestra had never tried: the multimedia concert; the food and drink included in the ticket price; the added attractions of the Discovery Place's portable planetarium beforehand and telescopes outside the theater afterward trained on the sky.

About 150 schoolteachers came for all that plus an enrichment session even earlier in the evening by the Charlotte Teachers Institute. During that, panelists drawn mostly from area college faculties looked at the heavens and the music through the lenses of Greek mythology, NASA science and other specialties. (UNCC's Susan Trammell brought Venus close to home: She pointed out that its surface consists of rolling hills, much like the Piedmont.)

Even before the music began, young Mary Ellis Stevens, accompanied by her dad, had logged a memorable experience in the Discovery Place portable planetarium, where the view zoomed in on the moon.

"It felt like the moon was sinking in on you," she said.

The night's centerpiece, though, was the concert - the orchestra's first performance in the Knight Theater.

The year-old theater still isn't really equipped for an orchestral concert or any music that doesn't use amplification. Because of budget-cutting during construction, the theater lacks a big but basic piece of equipment: an acoustical shell, which moves in to surround the performers and aim sound toward the audience.

So the music wasn't as rich as it might've sounded up the street at the Belk Theater. But Holst's sonic spectacular has enough built-in contrast - and the orchestra, led by Christopher Warren-Green, played vividly enough - that some color and impact still came through.

Holst wrote his music to evoke the planets' astrological attributes - such as Mars' aggression, Venus' serenity or Jupiter's power - rather than their actual appearance. But the photos and computer animations from NASA sometimes fit the music powerfully, especially when Holst's starkly powerful music accompanied images of Mars' rugged surface. WSOC-TV meteorologist Steve Udelson read the narration that introduced each section, and he also helped the solar system strike close to home: The surface of Mars, the narration told us, included iron that makes it similar to clay - and, Udelson interjected, makes it like our yards in Charlotte.

Marcia and Ray Holmstrom of Fort Mill took in the whole experience, from the teachers' session to a peek at Jupiter through a telescope after the concert. Ray Holmstrom summed up his reaction:

"Wonderful. I'd recommend it to anyone."

At a table in the lobby, a few people stopped off after the concert to reserve tickets for the remaining two concerts. That was one positive sign. Another was that "there were so many people (in the audience) I didn't know - people who had never been to hear the orchestra before," said the orchestra's executive director, Jonathan Martin.

"That's just what we wanted."

After mingling with concertgoers afterward, Warren-Green said he, too, was encouraged by the response. The orchestra, he said, can build on this.

"It's just the beginning," Warren-Green said. "We've got to come up with loads of ideas."