Lawrence Toppman

How did Charlotte Concerts bounce back – and what’s up in ’16-’17? A bargain, for one thing...

The Emerson String Quartet packed Halton Theatre when it played on the Charlotte Concerts slate in 2013.
The Emerson String Quartet packed Halton Theatre when it played on the Charlotte Concerts slate in 2013. Courtesy of Charlotte Concerts

Savvy and stubbornness have kept Charlotte Concerts on its feet, no matter how bad the economy or how fickle the audience.

But last season yielded four concerts instead of five, included lesser-known artists and no orchestra of any kind, and left Halton Theatre half-filled. Even friendly observers must have wondered if the 87-year-old organization was falling apart.

Instead, it fell upward.

Charlotte’s longest-running presenter of music and dance boosted its schedule back to five concerts for the 2016-17 season. It’s hiring such heavyweights as the Emerson String Quartet and pianist Valentina Lisitsa, importing a respected orchestra – the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine – and adding an event unique to the region: “A Musical Showcase,” hosted by former Carolina Panther Jordan Gross, in which middle and high school bands, orchestras and choruses will compete for cash prizes.

And season tickets, which are on sale now, didn’t go up. In fact, you get five shows for the cost of four, with tickets ranging from $135 to $200. Those prices are actually lower than they were for a season of comparable heft in 2013-14.

So ... what happened?

“A combination of wonderful things,” says Pamela Furr, president of the board of directors.

“We re-energized and expanded our board, adding a lot of professionals in their 40s and 50s. We realized younger people want concerts to start earlier, so we switched from 8 to 7:30 p.m. We’re coming uptown for the first time, once to McGlohon Theater and once to Knight Theater. We decided not to schedule shows on weekends, because there’s so much competition for attention.

“Howard Freese did a masterful job of finding times when performers were coming through the Southeast, so we could negotiate (less expensive) contracts with those who wanted to add another show. And we hired a full-time executive director, Diane Lumpkin Peery.” (She has an assistant, so the group funds 1.75 positions.)

Nobody bounces back without a bankroll, of course. Dale Polsky took over the 2016 gala, which raised a record $200,000 – more than 40 percent of the $425,000 budget. Furr says Charlotte Concerts supplies more volunteers than anyone else to the charitable organization Charlotte Wine and Food Weekend; in return, that group gave Charlotte Concerts $100,000 for education programs and informances, where touring artists hold master classes for school kids or meet with young musicians.

Meanwhile, the Leon Levine Foundation issued a challenge grant that Charlotte Concerts supporters matched, making “A Musical Showcase” possible. The first one (it’s intended to be an annual event) will take place March 20 in Belk Theater and will feature nine to 12 bands, orchestras and choruses in direct competition.

In December, a panel of judges will review five-minute videos submitted by music teachers throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system; every ensemble that gets into the finals will get $500, and judges will select winners on the 20th. Gross, a three-time Pro Bowler who has taken up the piano in retirement, will reportedly play a number for the crowd.

Charlotte Concerts has long been student-focused. Among other things, it gives instruments to needy school music programs and pays for private lessons for “dedicated underserved students.” This March concert, the season’s biggest change, gives audiences a chance to see the fruits of those labors.

“Our motto is ‘Music in Motion,’ ” Furr says. “That means we have to move with the times, and we are.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Charlotte Concerts 2016-17

Here’s the upcoming season. Shows are at Halton Theater, except as noted. Subscriptions for $135, $165 and $200 are now available at 704-330-6534 or tix.cpcc.edu.

Valentina Lisitsa, Oct. 6 – This solo pianist became famous on YouTube (where she has nearly 100 million hits) and has since signed a major-label deal with Decca. She’s playing an all-Liszt program two days after this one, so we may hear some Hungarian music.

Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, Oct. 26 – This mix of six strings and two winds will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. Repertoire is hard to guess, though the group likes to play Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.”

Emerson String Quartet, Dec. 8 – The Grammy winners will play Dvorak’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 61; Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3 in E flat minor; and Grieg’s Quartet in G Minor, op. 27.

The Hot Club of San Francisco, Jan. 19, McGlohon Theater – This five-person ensemble plays music you might have heard from a small band in a Paris club in the 1930s; it’s sometimes called “gypsy music” in honor of the master, Django Reinhardt.

The National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, Feb. 8, Knight Theater – Their repertoire goes all over the map, favoring Russians. You might hear Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Khachaturian or Prokofiev.

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