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"Elijah": Why is this concert such a hard sell in Charlotte?

Feb 21, 2017

In the mid-19th century, an orchestra that presented Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah" would have lines at the box office. In England, it was the second hottest choral work after "Messiah." When Boston's Handel and Haydn Society did it in 1848, demand led to eight more performances that spring.

It comes to Belk Theater March 3-4 via the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, four soloists and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero of the Nashville Symphony. And demand is so low the CSO has offered its best deal in decades: four seats for $49.

Mary Deissler, CSO president and CEO, smiles as she talks about it. "You have four quadrants when you book shows," she says. "High cost/high sale, low cost/high sale and so on. The kiss of death is high cost and low sale. Guess where 'Elijah' is."

How did it end up in quadrant four? And if it's there, why do it at all?

Mendelssohn never got the approval rating of Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin, with whom he overlaps. Only one violin concerto, three symphonies and music to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" escaped history's scrap heap for most listeners.

"Elijah" has dramatic moments dead child revived, pillar of fire from heaven but lasts two hours when abridged (as here), has no choral "hits" (like a lot of Handel and Bach) and can be snoozeworthy in clumsy hands.

The answer to question two is that singers get better by performing it, and fans of big fat oratorios get a charge out of it.

So you compensate by lowering income expectations. You offer drastically reduced tickets and contact local churches and choral groups. You add eight singers from area high schools to the adult chorus, possibly attracting classmates to the show.

And you make a sparse audience seem like more of a community, closing the balcony and filling the house from front to back and then from side to side. (Thus patrons don't see so many empty seats.)
"You can't program only things that fill a hall," says Deissler. "We're committed to doing good music people don't always hear."

The Charlotte Symphony will do Felix Mendelssohn's oratorio March 3-4 at 8 p.m. at Belk Theater. Tickets are $12.25-$99. 

By Lawrence Toppman, Charlotte Observer

Original story here.