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Play that Classical Music, White Boy

Charlotte composers cook up new ways to smash stereotypes

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Friday, Sept. 30, 2005. You're weighing your entertainment options. Let's see: There's Comedy Central star Carlos Mencia doing his button-pushing stand-up routine at the Comedy Zone. There's that hip, Pacific Northwest indie-pop band the Decemberists at the Orange Peel in Asheville. And what about the new Tim Burton movie opening at theaters from the Regal Starlight in University City all the way down to Phillips Place in South Park?

Or. . . How about the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra performing German composer Richard Strauss' "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme"? Woo-hoo! Get the party started!

The way the classical music world markets events, it's no wonder symphony performances don't look like good options for most folks. There's something about paying up to $50 for tickets to hang with a snobby white-bread crowd that just doesn't seem appealing. Surely, there are other things to do on a Friday night. Like maybe watch paint dry?

Orchestras across the country, including Charlotte's orchestras, are trying to overcome that stereotype, but they're having a hard time doing it. Young people, blue-collar workers and minorities tend to see classical music as the domain of the affluent. According to the American Symphony Orchestra League, which looked at 1,200 orchestras across the country, the number of attendees at classical music concerts since 1993 dropped from 30.7 million to 27.7 million, even as the total number of concerts increased from 27,000 to 37,000. In response to the dwindling numbers, many of Charlotte's classical music organizations are implementing outreach programs and social clubs. And they're bringing in contemporary composers in hopes of attracting larger and more diverse audiences.

But is it too little too late?

"We're all looking to diversify," said Elda Franklin, principal violinist and education advisor for the Charlotte Civic Orchestra. "Orchestras are learning how to market what they have to offer and are becoming more open to new ideas in programming. Nearly all groups that sponsor live events are having to learn how to compete in a world where you can download Beethoven or any symphony off the Internet for 99 cents."

One upcoming event the CCO hopes will attract a more diverse audience is "Mosaico Mexicana," a concert based on the contemporary work of Latin American composer Arturo Rodriguez. The concert, which will be accompanied by performances from the Carolinas Latin Dance Company, is part of the Civic Orchestra's Latin American Outreach program. It was funded by a grant from Crossroads Carolinas, a project of the Foundation for the Carolinas. The orchestra also will perform "Afro-American Symphony," by the ground-breaking Mississippi-born oboist and composer William-Grant Still.

The concert is just one part of CCO's outreach efforts, which also includes a program called Composer in the Schools, in which local composer David Crowe helps disadvantaged middle school students create an original composition for the orchestra's final concert of the season.

Franklin admitted classical music is seen by many as elitist, but she said educational outreach programs are beginning to connect with kids and their families. "We're making an effort to reach into the community," she said. "We can hopefully draw the parents in through their children and their experiences in school."

So how is it that the classical world has failed so dismally to attract all strata of society? Franklin blames society itself, pointing to exceptions to the stereotype.

"I think it's largely a matter of cultural conditioning and education, since there are many non-white musicians who play and listen to classical music. Think of all the young Asian and African-American musicians, such as Andre Watts, who have achieved outstanding careers as performers of classical music," she said.

"I see more and more African-American girls and boys signing up for orchestra in the schools," Franklin added, "so I have to believe that the lines between classical music and popular music are beginning to break down."

Albert Moehring, executive director and conductor of the Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra, puts the onus on the minority and economic groups who see classical as an outsider art. The music, he said, "is just not part of their culture, and that's the biggest problem. It's difficult to get them interested when they don't see the benefit of it for their lives."

Moehring said the Philharmonic does not have specific outreach programs, but that the orchestra focuses on diversity year round, including incorporating the music of minorities such as African-American composer Scott Joplin. "We have a program of inclusion throughout the year," he said. "We have a ticket donation program where we give 10 percent back to the community, and minorities are automatically a part of that, including Hispanics and blacks."

Who says classical music is an elitist art anyway? Not Charlotte Symphony Orchestra resident conductor Alan Yamamoto.

"Everything that has to do with art of any kind begins with education," said Yamamoto. "It isn't necessarily the institution of symphony orchestras that has or has not failed the public. It may not have been our job to educate decades ago. That job has become necessary as schools and parents have placed less emphasis on the arts."

In any case, Yamamoto said he is not interested in finding out where the blame lies -- "I'm interested in how to make things better given the current cultural climate. Our orchestra is trying to survive in a less-than-attentive cultural climate, and that is an international condition."

Last year Yamamoto developed a program called Opus X: Young Professionals for the Charlotte Symphony, which targets professional people 25 to 45; "traditionally the people who don't go to concerts," he said. "And that's mainly because they didn't have enough exposure in elementary school."

In an attempt to expose more children to classical music, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra has several programs in the Equity Plus schools, where classical music is integrated into the core curriculum. The CSO also spotlights more contemporary composers, including David Crowe, whose multi-media work "Mill Village: A Piedmont Rhapsody" explores the history of the mills and its people.

With ever-expanding entertainment options and a decline in arts and music education, classical music organizations have their work cut out for them. A 10-year research project by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation studied 15 cities, including Charlotte. The study showed that only 2 to 4 percent of adults regularly attended classical music concerts. How can the classical music community lure the remaining 96 percent to performances?

"The South is the South, and even though it's a friendly community, people live in certain worlds," said Yamamoto. "I don't expect them to come to us, we have to go out and get them. We have to find a way to continue to do high-class music, but present it in a way that people want to come out and see it."

The Charlotte Civic Orchestra will perform "Mosaico Mexicana" at the First United Methodist Church, 501 N. Tryon St., on Oct. 2, at 3pm. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and $22 for immediate families.

The Charlotte Symphony Chamber Ensemble will perform composer David Crowe's "Mill Village: A Piedmont Rhapsody" at the Levine Museum of the New South Sunday, Oct. 9, at 2pm.

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