State of the Art

Charlotte Concerts cuts back for 2015-16. That’s too bad.

The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra played well before a smallish audience in Halton Theater earlier this year.
The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra played well before a smallish audience in Halton Theater earlier this year. Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra

The most exciting Charlotte concert I’ve seen in 2015 took place on April 17, when pianist Inon Barnatan and cellist Alicia Weilerstein met on the Halton Theater stage. They knocked Schubert and Rachmaninov out of the park with passion and precision – yet perhaps half the hall was full.

That explains why Charlotte Concerts, which presented that extraordinary evening, has scaled back for 2015-16. Season subscriptions can be had now for the upcoming season, but veteran concertgoers will be surprised at the lineup.

No symphony orchestras. No big bands. No ballet company. Just a jazz quintet, a classical quintet, a jazz singer with her combo and an a cappella group of a dozen guys.

Well, not “just,” because Chanticleer and Diane Schuur are among the top names in their fields. But the year offers no one on the fill-the-house level of Joshua Bell. The season has also been pared back from five concerts to four.

I’m most excited about the quintets: Turtle Island Jazz Quartet and pianist Cyrus Chestnut on Oct. 9, then American Chamber Players on April 15. Chanticleer (Jan. 31) has been to Charlotte at least half a dozen times – Charlotte Concerts brought the 12-voice choir here in 2010 – and Diane Schuur (Feb. 26) has also been here five times, though apparently not since 2003.

Charlotte Concerts has been around for 85 years, which makes it the oldest presenting arts organization in the region. It operates under a financial handicap every year: The group can’t fund a full-time marketing or publicity person, and it has a small budget for advertising. So it tends to appeal to people who already know about it or jazz/classical devotees who stumble across it. Concerts don’t get repeated, so word of mouth can’t help the next day.

The company does more than bring musicians (or, occasionally, dancers). It has hosted weekend workshops for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students in orchestra, chorus and band, buying music and T-shirts and paying for conductors.

It opens rehearsals, provides free or subsidized tickets for young people, honors young musicians at each concert, hosts free “informances” between visiting artists and listeners and even takes players to area schools. It has given instruments to CMS schools, donating up to $10,000 worth a few years ago.

But the season before last had rough patches financially: For instance, pianist Vadym Kholodenko (winner of the Van Cliburn competition) played beautifully for a middling audience. And crowds dwindled last season: Neither Barnatan/Weilerstein nor the swingin’ Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra played to a sizable crowd.

Charlotte audiences have generally been lazy, shying away from unfamiliar musical performers and repertoire – stuff that’s not even risky, merely new. That puts Charlotte Concerts in a Catch 22: Performers who might sell more tickets cost a lot more to import and become an expensive gamble.

I don’t get to as many of these concerts as I’d like, because I have so many work-related claims on my time. But I can honestly say I’ve never seen a dud performance among the ones I attended. I just wish there were fewer empty seats around me when I go.