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These articles were excerpted from Tapestry, a weekly newsletter that examines the arts and entertainment world in Charlotte and North Carolina.

Charlotte Symphony's new season arguably its most diverse ever, CEO says

David Fisk, president and CEO of the Charlotte Symphony.
Keitaro Harada
David Fisk, president and CEO of the Charlotte Symphony.

The Charlotte Symphony has announced performances for its 2023-24 season, which starts this fall. David Fisk, its president and CEO, says the season is arguably the most diverse in the symphony's history. He spoke with WFAE’s Marshall Terry.

Marshall Terry: So what makes this upcoming season so diverse?

David Fisk: I think it's in the mix of programs that we have across all the series that we're offering, but also within each series as well. And just to give you one example, that's starting with the pop series as well as our traditional holiday pops in December. We've got a wonderful artist coming Regina Carter, fantastic jazz violinist in February. And then on either side of that, we've got a group called The Hot Sardines who do a really eclectic mix of standards and modern-day hits in November, and then the Great Ladies of Swing in April. So that's the kind of thing that I'm talking about within a series. And in the classical series, of course, we've got 12 concerts there to play with. So we can really give a complete overview of great works from early on in the classical repertoire right through the present day.

Terry: I did notice that alongside the more well-known pieces like "Rhapsody in Blue," "Eroica" and "The Planets," you're highlighting some not as well-known African American composers, Florence Price and William Grant Still. What can you tell me about those particular composers?

Fisk: It feels as if we're playing catch up with some great repertoire that's only really now being better known. And shame on us, it should have been a long time ago. Part of that is now there is more of a focus in the area of equity in the presentation of music by a range of composers, not simply the older, white European males that we're all so familiar with. And more of this music is now available, that's been an issue as well. It's become known through recordings, but also there have been editions brought out that make it possible to play the music where the parts might not have existed before. So those are part of the reasons why, and we want to make sure that we are reflecting the communities that we're here to serve, and doing that through the music that we're playing by the conductors we feature, by the composers we feature and the soloists. I'll give you one example of where I think this really comes to work really well. We were an orchestra that was involved in co-commissioning a suite from the composer Jennifer Higdon, who wrote an opera around the story of "Cold Mountain." The suite from the "Cold Mountain" opera is now available for us to be premiering in Charlotte in January. And we're pairing that with a new concerto called "Procession" by a living composer called Missy Mazzoli, that the wonderful violinist Jennifer Koh is going to be playing — and pairing those two pieces by living women composers with two more traditional American works: Samuel Barber's "Second Essay for Orchestra" and Copland's "Billy the Kid." So Americana that will fit together really well, but complementing the past with the present.

Terry: You mentioned Jennifer Higdon there, as I mentioned Florence Price and William Grant Still. It seems like there are not as many composers or performers in the classical world who are women or people of color. Why is that?

Fisk: Oh, they're there. And it's really a matter of taking the time to find the works that work really well for the audiences that we want to attract and presenting them really effectively. We're doing that with balance. So pretty much in every program is a piece [that] folks will recognize, starting with the "Eroica" [by] Beethoven in the first concert and moving through really famous piano concertos by Chopin and Rachmaninoff. You mentioned "Rhapsody in Blue" — that we're pairing with Florence Price's "Piano Concerto in One Movement." So we're still showcasing the traditional masterworks, but we're complementing them now with pieces that I think folks will really enjoy listening to — maybe in most cases, hearing for the first time.

Terry: And I suppose this is one way to do it, but is there a push to bring more diversity like that into classical music?

Fisk: Absolutely. And I think coming out of COVID, we are thinking of fresh, about how we're presenting concerts, and what it is that people want to hear. And I'm certainly finding now in the second year since the pandemic was raging that our audiences are responding really enthusiastically, both to the guests that we're presenting on stage, but also to the more varied mix of repertoire that we're presenting now. Beethoven is timeless and will always be a genius, but you don't want to hear "Beethoven's 5th" time and time and time and time again. It's important to mix it up and that's what we're doing.

Terry: One of the most famous singers in the world, Renee Fleming, will join the symphony for a gala performance in September. Fleming will be doing opera hits and selections from "The Great American Songbook." In addition, she's also presenting a panel discussion on music and how it relates to health and the brain. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Fisk: This is something that we are focusing on more now, as it's become more understood how music can be a very important tool for therapy. Not just with some of the conditions, some of the illnesses that have been associated with hitherto like the treatment of Alzheimer's. But Renee Fleming has taken a real interest in the relationship with music and the brain, and also with the way in which music can help with, say, recovery from long COVID. Which I guess makes sense when you know that people have breathing difficulties coming out of long COVID. And singers, of course, think about breathing all the time and the use of their lungs. So, Renee is getting into this space of trying to promote music and healing and trying to help understand the relationship between music and the brain in particular.

Terry: Many symphonies across the country have struggled financially in recent years, and that was only exacerbated by the pandemic. How is the Charlotte Symphony doing heading into this new season?

Fisk: Without the federal funding that performing arts organizations received during COVID, many of us would not have survived, I'm sure. But thanks to some of those federal programs, we did benefit from grants and forgivable loans that replaced lost money in ticket sales. And so as COVID has eased, it's been incredibly important that audiences should come back — and they have. And we're really grateful for the return of those crowds that are also bringing the return of individual contributions. And we also benefit from strong corporate support, but we're never complacent about this. It's always important for us to balance our budget every year, and we can only do that through that healthy mix of individual patronage, corporations supporting us, foundations and government.


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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.