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Save the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra

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I'm a serious music lover who rarely attends Charlotte Symphony Orchestra concerts. I don't know if that's the kind of person the CSO is looking for in order to boost its attendance and bank account, but if so, I have some ideas.

Let's back up a minute. You no doubt know that the CSO is in dire straits. The orchestra's allotment from the Arts & Science Council was cut by more than 50 percent, amid justified complaints that CSO's financial management has been abysmal -- as in "no endowment after all these years" abysmal.

In the days of Old Charlotte (i.e., pre-Hugh McColl's retirement), some bigwig, or consortium of bigwigs, would have come to the rescue by now. Those days, though, are history, so now CSO has gone begging and begun a "restructuring plan." I wish them well and I hope they survive, but it's going to take the courage to shake things up at the venerable institution.

How am I qualified to give CSO programming advice? Technically, I'm not, but music in all its diversity is one of the most important things in my life. I've written about music for about 30 years, including extensive reporting on the great CSO labor brouhaha of the 1990s. I've driven long distances to see favorite performers, and attended more concerts than I can count, ranging from the hardest rock to the daintiest classical chamber music and nearly everything in between. Every year that I can afford it, I head to Charleston for the Spoleto Festival's incredible, intimate chamber music concerts. And I once sat so close to Wynton Marsalis at the old Jonathan's jazz club Uptown, the powerful jazz trumpeter accidentally spit on me as he exercised his lips between numbers.

So it's not without some background in music appreciation that I say this: If CSO is interested in getting people like me to attend more concerts, then this is a good time to make some big changes. To employ an over-used corporate term, CSO needs to be "re-invented."

Re-invention was an underlying theme of an Observer op-ed piece last week by Jonathan Martin, CSO's executive director, but it's too early to tell just how much necessary inventiveness and "out of the box" thinking will be brought to bear in terms of the presented "product."

It's not as though I'm unfamiliar with the CSO. My family and I have seen selected members of the orchestra supporting touring Broadway shows and Opera Carolina productions, and I used to take my daughter to Lollipops concerts when she was little. But I probably haven't attended more than three full-orchestra CSO classical performances in the past 10 years. What drove me away? It's hard to say, but a variety of things experienced at CSO concerts probably contributed. First of all -- you're not supposed to talk about this, but this is a time for frankness -- the concerts I've attended were too stuffy and featured too many snooty old coots in the audience who view their attendance as a status symbol and act as though the CSO was their personal property (not to mention that some of them snooze during quiet musical passages). Secondly, I too often felt sedated rather than enthused during rather rote renditions of the 19th century's greatest hits. Plus, the prices were too high, and the concerts too lengthy.

CSO's Martin, in his op-ed piece, wrote, "Our core concert series are succeeding, but we need to add offerings that more people will find compelling." No kidding. If the "core" series -- Classics, Pops and Lollipops -- are succeeding financially, that's good, but I, for one, am just not that interested (although if I still had a small child, I'd keep attending the Lollipops concerts). Something that will certainly never get me to a CSO concert is "Beach music night" or some ersatz Rolling Stones showcase. Those kinds of shows are ridiculous ideas, and I don't care how many other orchestras do the same kind of stupid thing.

Among other things, what I'd like to see, what would get me to pay up -- and from conversations I've had, I know that plenty of others feel the same -- is an ongoing chamber music series along the lines of Spoleto's renowned chamber series, presented in small, intimate venues. Price them reasonably, make them around 60 to 90 minutes long, and include a creative mix of styles and eras, balancing a dose of the classics with more 20th century and contemporary composers. I predict CSO would rake in music lovers like myself who love short, sharp doses of classical music, who are pressed for time, and who aren't millionaires.

I'd also love for the orchestra to have a composer in residence, which would stir the interest of wannabe CSO attendees such as myself. While you're at it, CSO, work with Northwest School of the Arts to encourage young potential composers.

An by all means, use new electronic media, from podcasts and theater simulcasts, to YouTube and social networking sites, to drive new interest in CSO. Be daring. Try new things. It's CSO's best hope, and maybe the only one. I feel the orchestra's talented members would be energized by the changes, and music lovers who crave more diversity in programming would show up in droves.

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