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Hendrick and Handel

by Darryl Spencer

June 6,2007

For ten days recently my south Mecklenburg community became a ghost town. Walking my dog on these pleasant evenings, I saw unlit houses, smelled no barbecue grills, heard no banter from guys watching ESPN in open garages.

They weren’t at the Graham museum or at a Panthers or Bobcats game, or a Tiger-Michael rematch, or a symphony concert at Southpark; they were at the races. In my native Kentucky, racing means horses. Charlotte racing involves altered automobiles racing around a 1.5-mile track for…hours.

Lowe’s Motor Speedway has 167,000 seats, most occupied for the races. The Blumenthal Center’s largest venue holds 2,100. Yet the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is struggling with debt – an amount that any local megabank – or Rick Hendrick – or even a NASCAR driver – could eliminate without personal sacrifice. Are 50 times more Charlotteans devotees of NASCAR than of Nielsen? Alarmed by what such statistics imply about the arts in Charlotte, I began reading NASCAR news. Yesterday there were concerns that NASCAR racing could be as “genuine” as…pro wrestling.

North Carolina public schools have electives in arts, but it is likely that students graduate with familiarity with NASCAR drivers’ stats but no idea of any composers other than “the 3 B’s” (I wouldn’t bet on Brahms). May I be forgiven if I doubt that at home they hear much music other than rap or country? College students who like serious music confess their love for it – then ask me not to tell.

After 25 years in SC, I imagined that if South Carolina had a musical life, in North Carolina it would be better. (To be fair, I lived in Charleston). Charlotte has triple the population of metropolitan Charleston and a hundred times the wealth. Charleston has no industry, no corporate headquarters. Its geography makes building performance halls extremely expensive. Yet Charleston makes a mint from its annual Spoleto Festival. This year’s 31st Festival stages operas by Weill (sponsor: BMW) and Gluck (NBSC), Ravel’s Mother Goose, the premiere of a work by Phillip Glass, Verdi’s Requiem – and those sell-out Bank of America Chamber Music programs. “The brave new world of contemporary music” presents Stockhausen, Dusapin and Globokar. Other sponsors include American Express, Merrill Lynch, Delta Airlines, Wachovia and Carolina First.

I’m not concerned about attracting hordes of music-lovers “from off,” as Spoleto does, but about “a real cultural life” for us. Don’t Charlotteans want better music – even for their kids? Not even the occupants of the $1M mansions near me in Ballantyne?

A major theatrical group closed in early 2005, just before I moved here, for lack of revenues. Arts groups have difficulty getting started, finding funds, staying alive. The Blumenthal and a subscription series present touring musicals and concerts. But the CSO is in debt – enough to cancel the contracts of some full-time performers. The CSO is doing what most American orchestras think expedient nowadays: as reported in a recent New Yorker, they “play Beethoven” for “audiences [that] are eighty-five years old.” Next year’s CSO program trumpets Beethoven…Tchaikovsky …Mozart…the New World Symphony. “Edgier” works include The Firebird and Carmina Burana – both nearing a century mark. Stravinsky’s, Dvorak’s, and Orff’s scarily unfamiliar names don’t appear in the ads. Is this how to attract a young audience?  The CSO Pops’ “Best of American Popular Music” features Manhattan Transfer, Natalie Cole, Johnny Mathis, and the Kingston Trio; the newest of these started in 1975. When the L.A. Philharmonic opened a pops series with a new British group, “subscribers fled en masse,” the New Yorker reported, “but the empty seats were filled by new, much younger listeners.”

We won’t instantly convert parents who don’t understand – or wonder why they should – the appeal of better music. We’d have trouble getting tax-phobic Carolinians to add music appreciation courses to curricula. But without future audiences, good live music will vanish. We could try selling cheap seats to students or anyone under 19; advertising those seats at schools with eye-catching posters; transporting students in school buses; downplaying the “value” of such music and emphasizing its excitement and joys; and integrating pop performers the kids know into orchestra performances. Corporations that sponsor those Spoleto events must underwrite ones here. Charlotte should show the world a face besides those of NASCAR and the Panthers.

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