Changing its tune

The Arts

August 3, 2020

Charlotte Symphony Orchestra brings the music straight to you — wherever you are.  

by Page Leggett

When Charlotte Symphony Orchestra cellist Alan Black built a pavilion in his backyard, he thought it could be the ideal spot for al fresco concerts. But he wasn’t thinking of chamber music. He sometimes performs with Barnaby Bright, an indie-folk duo from Kansas, and he liked the idea of playing a backyard concert with them. 

Then COVID-19 happened.

When the CSO was no longer able to perform on their home turf, Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Black began performing on his home turf. “I’d never used the pavilion for concerts,” he says, “but suddenly it seemed perfect.” 

Black, in his 28th season as CSO’s principal cellist, called some of his colleagues with his idea to perform together, spaced six feet or more apart, film it and share it on social media with music-starved fans. 

“Everybody wanted to be part of it,” he says. “We miss playing together. We miss each other. We miss performing. So, these are always happy reunions.”

Since launching the series in June, Black has tried to involve as many musicians as he can while still allowing everyone adequate space. “Winds in the Woods” featured a flutist, oboist, clarinetist, bassoonist and French horn player. Four cellists, including Black, performed “Cellissimo!” A brass concert featuring trumpet, horn and trombone was scheduled for late July.  

Originally planned through the end of July, Black says the virtual concerts will probably continue until CSO is permitted to return to the stage and perform in front of a live audience.

It’s a labor of love for those involved. They’re outdoors. It’s hot. And taping can take two-and-half hours. “We do multiple takes,” Black says. “We want this to be as high quality as possible.” Bob Rydel, who plays the French horn with the CSO, serves as cinematographer and cameraman. And it’s all done pro bono.

Safe at home

The al fresco series isn’t the only thing the symphony is doing to keep audiences entertained. “We quickly pivoted to figure out how we could bring music to our fans,” says Deirdre Roddin, the CSO’s director of communications. Roddin had to quickly pivot herself: She came to the CSO from the New York Philharmonic in early February, just before the world turned upside down. 

A three-week mini-series was scheduled to take place this month at the Sarah Belk Gambrell Center at Queens University. Like so much else, plans were canceled due to the ongoing pandemic. 

#CSOatHome is how the Symphony has branded its new online content. From the CSO website, you can access video performances of some of the best-loved music from the classical canon. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 was filmed in February. Other selections include Mozart’s Symphony 41 and Dvorˇák’s Symphony 7.

You can also tune in to WDAV 89.9 every Friday evening to hear archival concerts, including Holst’s “The Planets,” Mendelssohn’s “Scottish Symphony” and Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2.” 

On the Symphony’s “CSOatHome” page, you’ll find lots of CSO offerings, from “A Symphony A Part” (individual members of the CSO performing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony from wherever they were sheltering in place) to the musicians performing individually in their homes. 

Season subscribers got an extra dose of fun — remote “happy hours,” involving a pre-concert talk by resident conductor Christopher James Lees and a cocktail lesson from a local mixologist. 

‘Music is part of us’

Until the pandemic forced Black to stay home, he used to be all over the place. When not practicing or performing with the CSO, he might be teaching at Davidson College, where he’s artistic director of the college’s concert series. He founded Chamber Music at St. Peter’s (at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in uptown Charlotte) in 1996 and serves as a coach and performer with the Chapel Hill Chamber Music Workshop for Adults. He’s appeared on stage with vocalist Bobby McFerrin, fiddler Mark O’Connor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. 

Incidentally, Black performs on a 1995 Moes & Moes cello originally built for and owned by Ma. “It’s a great instrument,” he says. “It’s changed my life.” 

So has COVID, as it’s changed everyone’s life. Black is looking for a silver lining. “If there’s something good that could come from this horrible time, it may be that people realize how much they miss live performances,” he says “I think people are yearning for that connection. For now, I hope we’re filling a void.”  SP

Your living room can be a concert hall: Follow the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra virtually until it’s safe to gather in public again. CSO al Fresco concerts are offered online via Facebook and YouTube each Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. The next day, they’re available on the CSO website. Find out about all virtual offerings at

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