As Charlotte Symphony Orchestra celebrates 90 years, expect longtime music director Christopher Warren-Green to wrap up his final season with fanfare.
by Michael J. Solender
As Christopher Warren-Green comes into his 12th and final season as Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s music director, he reflects on a tenure that soars with high notes, marking the connective power of music in the community. Remarkably, one of his most memorable moments came in the aftermath of one of our city’s most tragic incidents.
In late September 2016, less than 48 hours before the symphony was scheduled to host Symphony on Tap, a free community concert, the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott led to extensive civil unrest and a citywide state-of-emergency declaration by public officials.
“I received a call that evening from our CEO,” Warren-Green recalls. “He told me we needed to cancel the forthcoming performance. I said, ‘Don’t cancel it. Get the staff to ring everybody in the orchestra on my behalf and ask them if we can just completely change the program and do a concert for peace.’ Not one member of the orchestra turned me down.”
Just 36 hours later, Warren-Green led the CSO in presenting One Charlotte: A Performance for Peace, a free lunchtime event at Knight Theater. In a completely revamped and unrehearsed program, the orchestra delivered an emotional and enthusiastic concert featuring works by Dvorak, John Rosamond Johnson, Edward Elgar and a stirring Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland narrated by Rev. Clifford Jones, senior minister of Charlotte’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. Charlotte’s WDAV radio station broadcast the performance live, and community leaders including former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl came and spoke.
“As the city’s orchestra, we have a moral imperative to provide an opportunity for reflection and community,” Warren-Green said during that time. “Music cares beyond pain. The symphony is really for the community, to help people think with their heart and know music really can make the world a better place.”
It’s moments like these that the Charlotte community will recall with joy and wonder as Warren-Green lifts his baton on Oct. 15, when CSO opens its 90th season with a program featuring Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Warren-Green, 66, is retiring to spend more time at home in England. The 2021-2022 season will likely be bittersweet for the maestro who’s built many strong relationships here, established considerable outreach programs and leaves a legacy with far-reaching community impact.
“Maestro’s legacy will be evidenced in many ways,” says David Fisk, who became CEO of Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in August 2020. “The quality of what he’s built over the last decade in the musicians that he’s chosen, and in the way in which he has built the quality of the ensemble of the orchestra, to a point where even after all the restrictions of Covid, even after not being able to play together, they can still come back and play like a great team. That really, I think, is evidence of how his legacy is built.”
Another lasting contribution of Warren-Green’s is his commitment to providing musical education to local youth, many without means, access and exposure to instruments, instruction or classical music. CSO’s Project Harmony provides free instruments, ensemble music training and homework help to Charlotte students. The program is inspired by the Venezuelan music program El Sistema, which uses music to effect social change.
“Christopher has been as keen as anybody to lead our work in education,” Fisk says. “Project Harmony and the Charlotte Symphony Youth [Orchestras] act as a bridge for kids who are just beginning to learn an instrument to have a chance to play together.”
Education and outreach run in the Warren-Green family, as Christopher’s wife, renowned violinist Rosemary Furniss, has also made her mark in Charlotte through teaching and development work at Winterfield Elementary, a Title I school.
“[CSO outreach] started in Winterfield school when a young teacher brought her violin into the class,” Warren-Green says. “A lot of the kids then started wanting to be taught the violin. And she thought, ‘Well, I can’t cope with teaching all of them. I can’t get the violins — I can’t afford it.’ But she knew where to go, because Charlotte, guess what, has a symphony. And that’s when things took off with Rosemary. I have no doubt in my mind that the Charlotte Symphony will continue [to] push the boundaries [of this outreach], without us, further and further.”
Since joining CSO, Warren-Green has divided his time between Charlotte and London, where the U.K. native has led the London Chamber Orchestra as music director since 1988. Career highlights include conducting the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra, where Warren-Green was a one-time concertmaster, for the Service of Prayer and Dedication celebrating the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in 1981. To mark the occasion of the queen’s 80th birthday in 2006, he conducted a private concert for the entire royal family at Kew Palace.
Warren-Green’s international reputation as a musician’s conductor and musical director has helped Charlotte Symphony Orchestra attract top talent. During his tenure, he’s appointed 40 musicians to the orchestra, an achievement he believes has made a lasting impression. “Because of the career I’ve had,” Warren-Green says, “I’ve appointed people of an international standard. By doing so, I think I’ve improved the orchestra itself. I was very lucky because my predecessor, Christof Perick, had done fantastic work with the orchestra. I had a good ground to base that on. Anyone succeeding me now with the Charlotte Symphony will inherit a very fine orchestra.”
Musical highlights over the last decade have been numerous, including:
• Bringing Gustav Mahler to Charlotte with Mahler’s Second Symphony, performed in May 2017. (Mahler returns this season with the Ninth Symphony in January 2022.)
• The 2018 Rite of Spring collaboration with Charlotte Ballet. (There will be an encore collaboration of this classic work with Charlotte Ballet Oct. 7-9.)
• The 2020 performance of Si Otsedoha (We’re Still Here) with students of Cherokee Middle and High Schools. The work musically documents the past, present and future of the Cherokee people who have lived in western North Carolina for several thousand years.
In celebration of the orchestra’s 90thanniversary, CSO’s programming bears Warren-Green’s signature style. “This season is one that is Christopher’s,” Fisk says. “He very much designed it. We wanted to celebrate what he wanted to accomplish in his last year … And then we fitted the rest of the season around the pillars of the work that is his.”
The 90th anniversary celebration concert in March will feature Gustav Holst’s Walt Whitman Overture, Malcolm Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances and two works by Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Dona Nobis Pacem, a traditional canon. Plenty of popular music is slated to complement the classical performances during the season, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, Kings of Soul, A Very Thorgy Christmas, andconcert performances of Jurassic Park and Home Alone.
When Warren-Green was asked to reflect upon the evolution of the Charlotte arts and cultural community over his tenure, he was wistful. “I think the Charlotte community has always cherished the arts,” he says. “It’s why we have a wonderful ballet company and a very fine opera company. I find a more enthusiastic audience in our concerts than there used to be. And they’ve always been incredibly enthusiastic, but they seem to be more so now, and incredibly supportive. … I want to make sure that I am leaving a legacy of artistic excellence, and I’ll always have a fondness for my time here.” SP