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A Night in New York in Charlotte -- Via Miami

Apr 13, 2015

by Joshua Peters

For most, live classical music is the quintessential local culture experience -- that's culture with a big "C." For children, field trips to the symphony or an orchestra concert are something of an emblematic rite of cultural passage. For many adults, the symphony is something we proudly support with a once-a-year visit on an anniversary or special occasion. As for those individuals whose appreciation for classical music reaches beyond a simple annual acknowledgment of their local orchestra's existence, we generally think of them as venerable aristocrats with nothing else to do on a Friday night. No matter how inaccurate that stereotype may be, it's evident that, for live classical music to sustain itself in the current socio-economic atmosphere, it has to innovate.

In recent years, the experimental playground for the Charlotte Symphony has been the KnightSounds series, an eclectic set of concerts with a social bent, held in the Knight Theater. On Friday and Saturday, April 17-18 at 7:30 p.m., the Charlotte Symphony will be performing A Night in New York, and unveiling a set of unique format changes to bring the Big Apple to the Queen City. Music Director Christopher Warren-Green will conduct the concerts, which will include selections from some of Leonard Bernstein's most popular musicals, including West Side Story and On the Town. Charlotte's Phillip Bush, who teaches piano and chamber music at the University of South Carolina's School of Music, will play George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" as well, and the program also includes traditional Jewish klezmer music, featuring longtime CSO clarinetist Gene Kavadlo, plus dancers from Charlotte Ballet.

What makes this concert stand out from past KnightSounds offerings, though, is the "plazacast," which will feature the performance presented simultaneously outside in the Levine Center for the Arts plaza on a 16-by-9 screen with speakers. "The plazacast is just one of the many innovative ways the Charlotte Symphony, especially within our KnightSounds Series, is reaching younger audiences and maintaining relevancy within our growing community," says Bob Stickler, president and CEO of the Charlotte Symphony. Tickets to the live performance inside the Knight Theater are $30 for general admission -- including a complementary drink at the preceding reception -- while the "plazacast" and following set by two local Jazz Arts Initiative ensembles are free to the public.

The Symphony's live "plazacast" is inspired by the stunning success of the New World Symphony in Miami, an orchestra of top-notch young professionals led by the charismatic music director Michael Tilson Thomas. Known for its adventurous programming and hip profile, the New World Symphony took innovation and audience development to new levels when it opened the New World Center, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, and a beautiful a 2.5-acre public park designed by Dutch architectural firm West 8, in 2011. What better way to reach the community than projecting concerts live onto a 7,000-square-foot wall in the middle of that spectacular space? "Wallcasts" (as The New World Symphony calls them) are social events, picnics and excuses to enjoy Miami nightlife. Moreover, they are a concerted effort to bring new audiences -- families, young people, those who may not otherwise attend symphony concerts, and the passing Miami public in general -- together around a shared classical music experience. Free of charge and hugely popular, Wallcasts, says Director of Audience Development Rayna Davis, "see on average 2,300 attendees per event, sometimes as many as 3,500 depending on the programming and the time of year."

That's an impressive statistic considering that as of 2008, according to the League of American Orchestras and New Audience Research Findings, only 9.3 percent of American adults attend live classical music events annually, with that trend on a seemingly unceasing decline from roughly 21 percent in 1982.  

Thankfully, the folks at The New World Symphony are also prepared to share their not-inconsequential Wallcasts research -- in terms of attendance and demographics -- with collaborating classical music organizations. "We are seeing a number of similar developments in programming happening all over the country," says Davis, "the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, the Cincinnati Symphony, most notably the Kennedy Center in D.C. has a wall in their future development plans." So it is no surprise that our own Charlotte Symphony has taken note of this trend and is bringing its own iteration of a Wallcast to Charlotte.
A Night in New York is just the latest alteration to the Symphony's traditional concert experience. Like much of the New World Symphony programming, past KnightSounds events have made similar efforts to reach new audiences through various different programming blueprints. (KnightSounds is sponsored by the Knight Foundation, which is also a major funder of the New World Symphony.) Like the jazz ensembles on these nights, KnightSounds events often bring additional live musical performances to pre- and post-event receptions. The Symphony has also supported local small businesses by incorporating local food trucks in the post-event festivities, or partnered with local galleries like The Light Factoryto show current featured exhibitions. This effort to reach new audiences and more deeply integrate Charlotte arts culture with live classical music has resulted in record attendance numbers.

"The spirit of experimentation," says Miami's Davis, "is demonstrably important, and having the Knight Foundation be supportive of these new initiatives, specifically these more digital initiatives, has been not only impactful for those receiving funding but to classical music in a wider sense across the country."
With greater community/symphony integration happening in cities across the U.S., it's encouraging to see Charlotte doing its part to beat back a seemingly impervious downward trend in symphonic concert attendance. What's even more encouraging is the spirit of experimentation, evident in new and exciting programming coming from the Charlotte Symphony, the New World Symphony and American orchestras everywhere. It's that spirit of experimentation that is cultivating in Charlotte a more robust and well-rounded arts culture, and a classical music organization to be proud of for being a part of the whole community, not just its traditional patrons. 

Article at Charlotte Viewpoint