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A peek behind the curtain with General Manager John Clapp

 John Clapp at Summer Pops. Photo by Michael Harding, Genesis Photography Group

As a former musician in the Charlotte Symphony, John Clapp is uniquely qualified for his current role as General Manager. A liaison between management and the musicians at the CSO, John has his hands in every aspect of planning each season. We sat down with him to learn more about what it takes to program a season, how he feels about planning during a pandemic, and what his hopes are for the future of the CSO.

You've had a pretty long history with the Charlotte Symphony. What was your path to General Manager?
Yes! My history with the CSO goes back about 20 years. I played bassoon and contrabassoon in the Orchestra - it was my first gig right out of Juilliard. Then I played in Grand Rapids Michigan for many years. It gives me a unique perspective; I've learned so much from being on both sides, and having to represent issues from both points of view. It's really given me an understanding that is unique and it helps me find the common ground.

What made you decide to come back to Charlotte after all those years?
The General Manager position was such a great opportunity for me; and the city itself enticed me to come back - it just felt alive! I remember coming back to see a concert and there were people everywhere - downtown wasn't like this before - the place was jumping, with a lot of young people around. It was a major transformation, and I remember hoping that it was reflecting on the orchestra as well, because this is what you want to see - people excited to be out. 

So much of your job is planning for the future, how far ahead are you working now?
Well, we're always planning about 18-24 months ahead. All of the 2020-21 season is finished and 2021-22 is in the draft stage - the calendar is pretty much done, but still in pencil, so I can change it a few more times. And, believe it or not, the 2022-23 calendar is in the initial layout stage.

Charlotte Symphony in performance. Photo by Michael Harding, Genesis Photography Group

Wow! How do you even start to pull together all of the various considerations that are part of a season?
I typically begin by looking at the musicians' calendar - where they need vacation weeks and major holidays. I try to create an ideal schedule first, and then many versions of that schedule depending on different variables, including availability of concert halls, guest conductors, artists, and what Christopher Warren-Green is passionate about conducting. I also work across all departments to create a season that is true to our core values and sellable. 

It sounds like it would be difficult to juggle all of those calendars and priorities at once!
Well, I have a secret weapon - it's a photographic memory. It's really helped me both in my musical career and in my management. I don't have to look at the calendar - if I've seen it, and worked on it, I know where it is. 

So, basically you have a superpower. What would you love to see for the future of the CSO?
I think that some of our biggest successes have come when we dare to take something that people are used to seeing and do it differently. Take our Rite of Spring collaboration with the Ballet. Some people loved it and some hated it, but it was impactful. I remember seeing those kids - not too long after Trayvon Martin was killed - and they came out on stage with those hoodies on and people just put their heads down, crying. I'd like to see more collaborations like that. For years I've been trying to bridge the world of hip hop and classical - there are so many similarities that people just don't understand. I have some things in the works, but I'm not ready to divulge just yet!

Rite of Spring: Reinvented with the Charlotte Ballet. Photo by Jeff Cravotta

I would imagine that COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into some of your plans for the future.
[Laughs] Yeah, COVID-19 has thrown us for a loop, but I feel like our team is really well-prepared and can handle anything. I've been so pleased with how everyone has come together to really figure out how to get us through this thing. From our board members to the musicians and staff, there's been a lot of cooperation. What's so hard with COVID-19 is that the future is unchartered - we just don't know what's going to happen month to month. But we still have future seasons to plan, and we're working though many versions of what summer and fall will look like. I'm confident that when the time comes, we'll be ready to welcome folks back into the concert hall. 

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