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July 2003
For the Love of Music
By Heather Head

Live popular and classical music, disappearing acts, model trains, chorus lines, and ballerinas, all for about the cost of a movie and popcorn. And that’s only the beginning of what the Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra brings to the Queen City. Says Maestro Albert E. Moehring, founder and director, the orchestra offers a livelihood for musicians, educational opportunities for children, and cultural opportunities for students, foster families, orphanages, battered women, and many others, through their ticket donation program. And now they hope to bring more national recognition to Charlotte by offering quality public television programming.

            In 1990, Moehring and his wife, Pat, undertook a mission to bring family-oriented musical entertainment to Charlotte at affordable prices. They started as an all-amateur orchestra, with Moehring conducting and Pat at the piano. The Moehrings still play those roles, but the orchestra has come a long way – now fully professional, it was voted “Charlotte’s Best Entertainment” for two years by Charlotte’s Best magazine, and has been publicly commended by former mayor Richard Vinroot and twice by Mayor Pat McCrory, who calls the orchestra “a tremendous asset to our city.” Moehring himself received the Charlotte Spirit Award from the Mint Museum/Royal & Sun Alliance in 2000 for his work with the orchestra. The Philharmonic plays to packed audiences and receives corporate assistance from numerous large and small companies in Charlotte.

            According to Moehring, the orchestra’s rise from amateur status to sold-out professional entertainment comes from a combination of quality, accessibility, community commitment, and downright fun. Quality starts with the orchestra’s ability to attract musicians from all over the Carolinas.

 

Hitting the High Notes

            “Our musicians drive from as far away as two hours to play with us,” says Moehring. “They really want to be here.” The orchestra pays them only for the time that they actually spend in rehearsal or performance, so they have to be extremely motivated to make the long drive. They come because it’s fun, and it’s fun because Moehring designed it that way and because his own enthusiasm is infectious. It’s hard to find a picture of him where he’s not grinning ear to ear.

            Orchestra members live in North Carolina cities such as Hickory, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem, and parts of South Carolina including Columbia and Greenville. By drawing on talent from multiple cities, the orchestra is able to bring to Charlotte some of the best musicians the Carolinas have to offer.

            The orchestra’s leadership then combines this immense pool of talent with a great selection of entertainment. Events range from patriotic galas to Victorian dinners. Musical selections range from classical to popular. Past performances have featured the 75-member orchestra and 100-voice chorus in concert with popular artists such as Natalie Cole, John Tesh and Yanni, as well as child prodigies, ballet companies, ballroom dancers, chorus lines, and a diversity of other performers.

            The upcoming season promises to follow with more ballet, a mime, a magician, vocal talent, and an interactive concert for children—all together with the orchestra’s own prodigious talent and a varied musical offering. The season kicks off on September 7, 2003, with a performance by Daniel Rodriguez, the singing New York City police officer dubbed “America’s Tenor” when his talent was discovered during post-Sept. 11 memorial services.

 

Playing to the Middle Register

            From the very inception of the orchestra, the Moehrings knew that they didn’t want to cater only to the “top 1%” economic bracket, as many strictly classical music orchestras do. Instead, they wanted to bring good quality entertainment to families and individuals in the middle bracket. To do so, they committed to two principles. First, the entertainment would be family-oriented and include enough variety to attract all types of people. Second, the tickets would be affordable. After all, since ticket revenue generally only covers 25 to 30 percent of budget, most orchestras have to work hard at fundraising to cover the rest – so, reasoned the Moehrings, “Why not work a little harder and keep the ticket cost low?”

            The Philharmonic’s commitment to family-oriented entertainment is also two-fold. Most importantly, the material is never objectionable, even for the sake of art. “Whether you’ve got a three-year-old preschooler or an 80-year-old grandmother, you can bring them to a concert,” says Moehring. He chuckles, “There’s nothing to worry about.” Also, the variety of entertainment always provides something for everyone – a Beethoven symphony might be followed by a theme from Annie, and concerts may include some ballet, a performance by a child prodigy, or a pop celebrity appearance. As Moehring says, “The goal is for everyone to be glad they came and to leave the concert hall whistling a tune.”

            This year, the orchestra is adding two children’s concerts in November and May called “Popcorn Pops” that will feature model trains and performances designed to capture the imaginations of children. Tickets are only $10. The New Year’s concert will feature an illusionist who plans to make the Maestro, resplendent in sequined tailcoat, disappear into thin air while the orchestra goes on playing.

            But the orchestra’s accessibility goes beyond even these two principles. The Maestro never spends intermission behind the scenes – he enters the lobby, breathless and grinning, to greet guests and answer questions. Likewise, many of the performers come into the lobby to sign autographs and chat with patrons.

 

Bringing Forth the Music

            Moehring’s community focus includes yet another aspect of accessibility. The Philharmonic makes concerts and events available to many who otherwise might never have such an opportunity. For every Philharmonic event, 10 percent of ticket revenue is donated to community organizations such as battered women’s shelters, Hope Haven, Community in Schools, and many others.

            Mary Ellen Randall, director of marketing and development for Youth Homes, Inc., shares the response from one of her organization’s newly licensed foster mothers who attended a concert thanks to the 10 percent donation program. The woman described her own first encounter with classical music: “I was born into a poor family and attended my first concert on a field trip with my class. That one experience opened up a world of opportunity that I never before knew existed.” Moehring says that stories like this keep him motivated.

            Moehring’s community involvement is rooted in his love of country and city. An immigrant through Canada from Amsterdam, Moehring says he wears his patriotism on his shoulder like a badge. That’s why every performance begins with the Star Spangled Banner and every season since Sept. 11 has started with a patriotic concert.

            As for Charlotte, Moehring says, “We chose this city. We’re proud of our city. I’ve lived in major cities on this continent including New York and Toronto. I’ve lived in some pretty amazing cities, and Charlotte ranks right up there.” He says he loves the skyline, and the growth in the city, as well as the enthusiasm with which the city has embraced the Philharmonic.

 

Marching Onward

            In the words of Representative Sue Myrick, “The Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra is an important part of the cultural make-up of the city of Charlotte.” But Moehring doesn’t intend for it to end there. He plans to make the orchestra an important part of the cultural make-up of the nation, and thereby to further the breadth of recognition for Charlotte.

            According to Moehring, the orchestra is in conversation with PBS and other television stations about offering a regular night of televised musical entertainment nationwide, featuring the Charlotte Philharmonic. Moehring cites a lack of quality public programming, and believes that the Philharmonic’s plans would enliven public television while bringing additional recognition to our city. He expects plans to proceed possibly as soon as in the next six months, but at least within the next three to four years.

            But whatever happens in the future, one thing is sure – the Moehrings love their work. “We are a Philharmonic orchestra, and philharmonic means ‘for the love of music.’ We are all here because we love the music… and we don’t mind laughing at ourselves a little bit.”

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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