The Charlotte Symphony's free summer concerts at SouthPark are a local institution, and this year's series will show how much the concertgoers really value them: Reversing a long tradition, the orchestra will charge admission in hopes of escaping years of financial trouble.
At the first SouthPark concert June 12, a fence will ring Symphony Park behind the mall, and the orchestra will sell tickets at three gates. Adults will pay $10. Children 18 and younger will get in free.
"This is something we've got to do," said former Gov. Jim Martin, chair of the orchestra's board of directors.
"The last several years have been a real stretch for us," Martin said. "We've got to find a way to cover expenses."
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One of the United States' most venerable ensembles - the Philadelphia Orchestra - recently filed for bankruptcy protection, he noted. Charlotte's orchestra wants to avoid that.
The Charlotte Symphony has been fighting deficits since the 2002-03 season. One of the main financial drags has been the Summer Pops - about a month of free concerts at SouthPark and other venues across Mecklenburg County.
In recent years, the concerts have cost about $500,000 a year, said Jonathan Martin, the orchestra's executive director. Yet sponsorships and donations have typically covered only 20 percent of the expenses.
The orchestra's last attempt to wring more income from SouthPark came in 2009, after its troubles were intensified by a $1 million cut in its funding from the Arts & Science Council. The orchestra instituted a $5 suggested donation, and concertgoers gave about $147,000 that summer. But donations dropped to half that in 2010.
"Relying on passing the hat is not ... a sustainable business model," Jonathan Martin said.
The Summer Pops concerts in Matthews - where the series opens June 10 - and other Mecklenburg locations will remain free, said Meg Whalen, the orchestra's public relations director. Sponsors help pay for those.
Across the United States
The Charlotte Symphony has been playing free summer concerts since 1983. It brought the series to SouthPark in 1994. When Symphony Park behind the mall was completed in 2002, the concerts settled there.
In the 2008-09 season - the most recent to be tallied - 165 U.S. orchestras played 288 free summer concerts, according to the League of American Orchestras. Free July Fourth concerts are a key part of the tradition.
But many orchestras also charge admission for summer concerts. The Atlanta Symphony and the Raleigh-based North Carolina Symphony are two Southeastern orchestras that sell tickets at their summer venues.
At SouthPark, besides the $10 single tickets, the orchestra will offer five-concert passes for $25. The orchestra's leaders think the prices are modest, Jonathan Martin said, considering that tickets for the orchestra's regular-season pops concerts average around $35.
"We hope the symphony's supporters will see this is reasonable, and come out and enjoy themselves," Jim Martin said.
At any outdoor concert, weather is an issue. If a storm breaks out either before a concert begins or before the orchestra plays half of it, ticketholders will get vouchers good for $10 off any Charlotte Symphony ticket - even for an indoor concert after the summer. If the orchestra plays at least half the concert, there won't be refunds.
The SouthPark series will open on June 12 with a concert led by Christopher Warren-Green, who took over as the orchestra's music director last fall.
The new setup with a fence and gates will mark the end of a SouthPark tradition that some concertgoers follow insistently and others hate: Concertgoers won't be able to go earlier in the day with a blanket to claim spots, because the park will be closed until 4 p.m.
Because of the ticket charge, the orchestra will stop asking for donations at SouthPark. The plastic buckets that used to be passed around by volunteers are now being used as drums in a percussion class at Winterfield Elementary School in east Charlotte.