Cho­rale seeks a new chal­lenge

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN Arts cor­re­spon­dent

On rare oc­ca­sions, a divorce ben­e­fits ev­ery mem­ber of a fam­ily – even when there are more than 150 of them. So all par­ties hope, as the Char­lotte Sym­phony Orches­tra and the cho­rus that joined it a quar­ter­century ago pre­pare to sep­a­rate.

The mu­sic hasn’t stopped: The singers com­plete a run as the Char­lotte Master Cho­rale in Han­del’s “Mes­siah” to­day in Gas­to­nia, then reap­pear as the Char­lotte Sym­phony Cho­rus Dec. 14-23 in “The Magic of Christ­mas.”

This dual iden­tity con­tin­ues through spring 2019, with the

Master Cho­rale giv­ing the lo­cal pre­miere of Kile Smith’s “The Con­so­la­tion of Apollo” in Jan­uary-Fe­bru­ary, re­vert­ing to the Sym­phony Cho­rus for Mozart’s Re­quiem in April, then rid­ing off as the Master Cho­rale for a May per­for­mance at Pic­colo Spo­leto.

And then? It's been agreed that the CSO will sup­port the cho­rale through its 2020-21 sea­son, giv­ing di­min­ish­ing amounts of money and hir­ing the group for in­di­vid­ual gigs. (De­tails have yet to be worked out.)

Cho­rale artis­tic di­rec­tor Ken­ney Pot­ter stays on the sym­phony’s pay­roll through June. Af­ter that, the cho­rale’s board of di­rec­tors has to pay his salary and other op­er­at­ing costs, while Pot­ter plans and usu­ally con­ducts con­certs.

The goal in both cases is lib­er­a­tion. The sym­phony re­duces op­er­at­ing costs and mar­ket­ing de­mands, free­ing up money and time for other pro­grams. The cho­rale is free to pro­gram works – es­pe­cially smaller ones for its cham­ber cho­rus – the CSO wouldn’t do.

That prospect has Pot­ter, who took over lead­er­ship of this cho­rus in 2015, ex­am­in­ing less-ex­plored cor­ners of the choral reper­toire.

“Char­lotte’s a large enough place, with all its church choirs and peo­ple who ap­pre­ci­ate choral mu­sic, that I think there’s a mar­ket for us,” he says. “We can do a big Brahms Re­quiem (which the cho­rale sang in Novem­ber) or small Du­ru­fle motets. My vi­sion is that this will be a des­ti­na­tion for singers and au­di­ences to ex­pe­ri­ence choral mu­sic in a fresh way.”

He points to “Con­so­la­tion of Apollo” as an ex­am­ple. This month brings the 50th an­niver­sary of the Apollo 8 space­flight, the first manned trip to or­bit the moon and re­turn safely to Earth; Smith set mu­sic to the words of its as­tro­nauts and the six­th­cen­tury Ro­man philoso­pher Boethius, who wrote “The Con­so­la­tion of Phi­los­o­phy” while await­ing ex­e­cu­tion.

Pot­ter notes that some singers have grown rest­less. The CSO’s 2017-18 main­stage clas­si­cal sea­son in­cluded no full-length choral piece but “Mes­siah.” (The sym­phony did add four per­for­mances in smaller venues.) The first half of the 2018-19 sea­son brought only short bits: the an­thems “Zadok the Priest” and “I Was Glad” in Oc­to­ber, brief word­less singing for “Home Alone” and the “Deep Field”/ ”Plan­ets” con­cert in Novem­ber, now “Magic of Christ­mas.”

“This or­ga­ni­za­tion is on the rise, and the singers need more work,” he says. “Their po­ten­tial’s ex­tremely high, and a lot of it has not been tapped.”

The group be­gan in 1951 as Ora­to­rio Singers of Char­lotte and op­er­ated in­de­pen­dently un­til join­ing the CSO in 1993. Sym­phony pres­i­dent/CEO Mary Deissler says the new re­la­tion­ship re­flects cur­rent stan­dards in the clas­si­cal mu­sic world: “Most or­ches­tras in our bud­get cat­e­gory have the ar­range­ment we’re switch­ing to. The N.C. Sym­phony has done that for­ever (with the N.C. Master Cho­rale).

“The cho­rus has wider am­bi­tions for con­certs than the sym­phony can pro­duce and man­age, when we’re do­ing over 150 events a year. (For in­stance) we’d agreed to start a cham­ber cho­rus se­ries, which was a strain on our staff; the cho­rus was in­ter­ested in adding to that, and we just didn’t have the band­width for it.”

Now the cho­rale’s 10-per­son board faces the fi­nan­cial tasks. One of them, Robert Stick­ler, has deep roots in the or­ga­ni­za­tion: He served as cho­rus pres­i­dent un­til be­com­ing in­terim sym­phony pres­i­dent in 2012 and tak­ing that job full-time in 2013. He hired Pot­ter in 2015 be­fore leav­ing the CSO the fol­low­ing spring.

“We have a chal­lenge in get­ting the (cho­rale’s) brand out there, mak­ing peo­ple un­der­stand what they are,” he says. “I’m wor­ried about the change of name from the Char­lotte Sym­phony Cho­rus... Most peo­ple have a bud­get for clas­si­cal mu­sic. It would be great if peo­ple ex­panded their giv­ing, be­cause ticket sales don’t cover most of the fixed costs.

“The good news is that vir­tu­ally all the money raised goes to sup­port the art. We don’t have an of­fice. We don’t have a pro­fes­sional staff, other than Ken­ney. The de­vel­op­ment work is be­ing done by a (vol­un­teer) com­mit­tee.”

All par­ties want the cho­rale to re­main the sym­phony’s go-to cho­rus. Deissler plans to in­form the group of her needs well in ad­vance, so the cho­rale can work around the CSO’s less flex­i­ble sched­ule. (For in­stance, the CSO plans to do its own “Mes­siah” next year.) The cho­rale will then sched­ule its own con­certs mostly in churches, which cost less to rent than con­cert halls.

Pot­ter has al­ready tweaked one tra­di­tion: The David­son-based N.C. Baroque Orches­tra will play a smaller-scale “Mes­siah” on pe­riod in­stru­ments such as valve­less trumpets, ac­com­pa­nied by a harp­si­chord and the lute-like the­o­rbo.

On a larger scale, he’s think­ing about works the sym­phony would be un­likely to try: Han­del’s “Is­rael in Egypt,” with de­pic­tions of Old Tes­ta­ment plagues, Dvo­rak’s lovely Sta­bat Mater, even Men­delssohn’s “Die Erste Walpur­gis­nacht,” a vivid de­pic­tion of a witches’ sab­bath.

“We have 125 singers – 32 in the cham­ber cho­rus – and though they don’t all sing ev­ery­thing, they’ll all sing dur­ing the sea­son,” says Pot­ter. “I have to find things that are great to sing and great to hear. Ev­ery mu­si­cian has a bucket list, and mine is a long one.”

COMING UP

The fi­nal per­for­mance of “Mes­siah” will be at 4 p.m. to­day at First Bap­tist Church, 2650 Union Road in Gas­to­nia. Tick­ets are $35 ($15 stu­dents): char­lot­temas­ter­chorale.org.

“Magic of Christ­mas” runs Dec. 14-23 at Knight The­ater, 430 S. Tryon St. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Fri­day-Sun­day, 11 a.m. Dec. 15 and 3 p.m. Dec. 16, 22 and 23. Tick­ets are $19-$219: 704-972-2000 or char­lottesym­phony.org.

This story is part of an Ob­server un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.

JOHN COS­MAS

Ken­ney Pot­ter di­rects the cho­rale, which is sep­a­rat­ing from the Char­lotte Sym­phony.

Cour­tesy Ken­ney Pot­ter

Ken­ney Pot­ter is the cho­rale’s artis­tic di­rec­tor.

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