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Former Charlotte Symphony Violinist Denied Green Card

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The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s reputation is at the center of a violinist’s application for an EB-1 green card. These green cards are awarded to professionals with “extraordinary ability” in a specialized field. Distinguished academics and artists, for example, or top international business executives.

Russian violinist Elina Lev argues she qualifies for one. Lev was the Charlotte Symphony’s assistant concertmaster for four years until 2013. She says she meets the requirements  as someone with extraordinary ability who performed a critical role for a distinguished organization.

But Immigration Services denied her application because it says the Charlotte Symphony isn’t distinguished enough. The Charlotte Observer reported on the dispute this week. The Symphony’s President and CEO, Bob Stickler, says Immigration Services got it wrong.

STICKLER: The [Charlotte] Symphony was helping her with whatever she needed. Our music director [Christopher Warren Green] wrote a letter on her behalf, and we got the League of American Orchestras to also write a letter. The league noted that this was the first time they’ve been asked to address the question of whether a U.S. orchestra of our size has a distinguished reputation.

MCFADYEN: So even the League of Orchestras hasn’t heard of this sort of thing happening before?

STICKLER: Not to an orchestra of our size.

MCFADYEN: And when you say “an orchestra of our size,” what do you mean?

STICKLER: The League has levels; there are seven levels of orchestras, and we’re in Level 2, which are regional orchestras, such as Jacksonville, Kansas City, Phoenix, cities like that. The Level 1 [orchestras] are Chicago, New York, Boston, levels like that.

MCFADYEN: What is the Symphony’s reaction to the ruling?

STICKLER: Well, my reaction was, “I don’t know what their definition of ‘distinguished’ is.” To say that we’re not a distinguished orchestra would be news to Itzhak Perlman, who played with us this past season, James Galway who’s going to play with us next season, Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma. These are the superstars of classical music around the world, and they’ve all played with us. It would also be news to our music director, Christopher Warren Green, who was selected to lead the music for the last royal wedding at Westminster [Abbey]. So, I looked at that and I said, “this decision was made by somebody who didn’t know what they were talking about.”

MCFADYEN: Is there a concern that this could affect a musician’s concern to come and play here?

STICKLER: I don’t think so. I think that everybody, especially in the industry, understands that this was a decision made by somebody who doesn’t know American orchestras.

At a Level 2 orchestra we are salaried musicians, unlike smaller orchestras where they tend to get paid per service that they provide (a service being a rehearsal or performance). And second, we have 62 [musicians], which is a good sized number of full-time musicians.

MCFADYEN: Alright, Bob Stickler, thank you very much.


The Charlotte Symphony is one of 21 symphonies classified as Level 2 by the League of American Orchestras. Elina Lev is now with the Level 1 San Francisco Symphony, which meets the government’s standards as a “distinguished” organization. Her attorney says Lev is still waiting to hear whether her application will be reopened.