Local Arts

Meet the Charlotte Master Chorale (you may know them already)

Potter conducting the chorus.
Potter conducting the chorus. John Cosmas

On rare occasions, a divorce benefits every member of a family – even when there are more than 150 of them. So all parties hope, as the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and the chorus that joined it a quarter-century ago prepare to separate.

The music hasn’t stopped: The singers perform this weekend as the Charlotte Master Chorale in Handel’s “Messiah” in Charlotte and Gastonia, then reappear as the Charlotte Symphony Chorus next week in “The Magic of Christmas.”

This dual identity continues through spring 2019, with the Master Chorale giving the local premiere of Kile Smith’s “The Consolation of Apollo” in January-February, reverting to the Symphony Chorus for Mozart’s Requiem in April, then riding off as the Master Chorale for a May performance at Piccolo Spoleto.

And then? It's been agreed that the CSO will support the chorale through its 2020-21 season, giving diminishing amounts of money and hiring the group for individual gigs. (Details have yet to be worked out.)

Chorale artistic director Kenney Potter stays on the symphony’s payroll through June. After that, the chorale’s board of directors has to pay his salary and other operating costs, while Potter plans and usually conducts concerts.

KP headshot
Kenney Potter runs the chorus, which will change names. Courtesy Kenney Potter

The goal in both cases is liberation. The symphony reduces operating costs and marketing demands, freeing up money and time for other programs. The chorale is free to program works – especially smaller ones for its chamber chorus – the CSO wouldn’t do.

That prospect has Potter, who took over leadership of this chorus in 2015, examining less-explored corners of the choral repertoire.

“Charlotte’s a large enough place, with all its church choirs and people who appreciate choral music, that I think there’s a market for us,” he says. “We can do a big Brahms Requiem (which the chorale sang in November) or small Durufle motets. My vision is that this will be a destination for singers and audiences to experience choral music in a fresh way.”

He points to “Consolation of Apollo” as an example. This month brings the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 spaceflight, the first manned trip to orbit the moon and return safely to Earth; Smith set music to the words of its astronauts and the sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius, who wrote “The Consolation of Philosophy” while awaiting execution.

Potter notes that some singers have grown restless. The CSO’s 2017-18 mainstage classical season included no full-length choral piece but “Messiah.” (The symphony did add four performances in smaller venues.) The first half of the 2018-19 season brought only short bits: the anthems “Zadok the Priest” and “I Was Glad” in October, brief wordless singing for “Home Alone” and the “Deep Field”/”Planets” concert in November, now “Magic of Christmas.”

“This organization is on the rise, and the singers need more work,” he says. “Their potential’s extremely high, and a lot of it has not been tapped.”

The group began in 1951 as Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and operated independently until joining the CSO in 1993. Symphony president/CEO Mary Deissler says the new relationship reflects current standards in the classical music world: “Most orchestras in our budget category have the arrangement we’re switching to. The N.C. Symphony has done that forever (with the N.C. Master Chorale).

“The chorus has wider ambitions for concerts than the symphony can produce and manage, when we’re doing over 150 events a year. (For instance) we’d agreed to start a chamber chorus series, which was a strain on our staff; the chorus was interested in adding to that, and we just didn’t have the bandwidth for it.”

Now the chorale’s 10-person board faces the financial tasks. One of them, Robert Stickler, has deep roots in the organization: He served as chorus president until becoming interim symphony president in 2012 and taking that job full-time in 2013. He hired Potter in 2015 before leaving the CSO the following spring.

“We have a challenge in getting the (chorale’s) brand out there, making people understand what they are,” he says. “I’m worried about the change of name from the Charlotte Symphony Chorus... Most people have a budget for classical music. It would be great if people expanded their giving, because ticket sales don’t cover most of the fixed costs.

“The good news is that virtually all the money raised goes to support the art. We don’t have an office. We don’t have a professional staff, other than Kenney. The development work is being done by a (volunteer) committee.”

All parties want the chorale to remain the symphony’s go-to chorus. Deissler says she plans to inform the group of her needs well in advance, so the chorale can work around the CSO’s less flexible schedule. (For instance, the CSO plans to do its own “Messiah” next year.) The chorale will then schedule its own concerts mostly in churches, which cost less to rent than concert halls.

Potter has already tweaked one tradition: The Davidson-based N.C. Baroque Orchestra will play a smaller-scale “Messiah” on period instruments such as valveless trumpets, accompanied by a harpsichord and the lute-like theorbo.

On a larger scale, he’s thinking about works the symphony would be unlikely to try: Handel’s “Israel in Egypt,” with depictions of Old Testament plagues, Dvorak’s lovely Stabat Mater, even Mendelssohn’s “Die Erste Walpurgisnacht,” a vivid depiction of a witches’ sabbath.

“We have 125 singers – 32 in the chamber chorus – and though they don’t all sing everything, they’ll all sing during the season,” says Potter. “I have to find things that are great to sing and great to hear. Every musician has a bucket list, and mine is a long one.”

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

Coming up

Messiah” runs Dec. 7-8 at 7:30 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, 501 N. Tryon St. in Charlotte, and Dec. 9 at 4 p.m. at First Baptist Church, 2650 Union Road in Gastonia. Tickets are $35 ($15 students): charlottemasterchorale.org.

Magic of Christmas” runs Dec. 14-23 at Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m. Dec. 15 and 3 p.m. Dec. 16, 22 and 23. Tickets are $19-$219: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.