In the top right corner of this month's cover, we ask a simple question. (I'll give you a second to go back and look at it.)
After thinking about it for a while, here's my own answer to that question: yes.
First, I must admit that I do not regularly attend concerts by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. I've been to maybe four over the past dozen years, not counting the summer pops shows. I am planning to go to one or two this season, partly because our story in this issue piqued my curiosity ("Passing the Baton" by Judy Cole, page 98). When I try to imagine a city without a symphony orchestra, my life doesn't look a whole lot different. Something tells me I'm not alone on that front.
Yet the more I pondered it, the more I decided I would like Charlotte a little bit less if it lacked a major symphony orchestra. For one thing, the symphony employs around a hundred musicians. Besides the CSO, many of them play around town at churches, weddings, parties, and other mini concerts. Take away that much music, and Charlotte becomes less beautiful. Take away that many musicians, and Charlotte becomes less interesting. For sure, thousands of people in this city are inspired by live classical music. Their lives would be less full without the CSO. And that's not good for the city, either.
But here's the thing. It's too bad I wouldn't like Charlotte a lot less if there was no Charlotte Symphony Orchestra.
A clarification: Charlotte is not at risk of losing the CSO. But it's clear that things need to change there. As our story details, finances continue to be a struggle, and while they seem to be shoring up internal operations, the programming formula hasn't changed much over the years. There's currently a search for both the executive director and the music director positions, which is probably a good thing. Maybe new leadership will bring some new ideas. Maybe they'll shake up the orchestra and its programming. Maybe they'll find a way to reach the unchurched, so to speak, to compel those of us who don't make the symphony a part of our lives, to do so.
My iPod contains 7,000 songs, and my wife and I try to hit live shows when we're not feeling too old. I even tune in to WDAV once in a while. But I never feel compelled to go to a symphony concert. According to a few of the quotes in our story, the party line at the symphony seems to be "play well, and they will come." That, plus book Johnny Mathis and the like once in a while. That doesn't seem good enough, especially at Blumenthal ticket prices. A $15 club show ticket for an unfamiliar band is manageable. Not so for a $75 symphony ticket.
With the precarious financial situation, the powers that be at the CSO are decidedly risk-averse. I understand that. You have to give the people what they want. But, as we in the magazine business like to say, sometimes the people don't know what they want until you give it to them. If the symphony could convince me that it's dessert and not vegetables, if it could promise me an exciting program of new and old music, perhaps with some multimedia thrown in, I would be there. And I doubt I would be alone.
The CSO has lined up several guest conductors for this season and next. They are more or less auditioning for the music director job. It's an interesting lot. A few have ties to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the most innovative in the land. A couple are very young. One is a self-styled "maverick." This is encouraging. Perhaps more change is on the horizon. Let's hope so. I, for one, think it's important.