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CSO Pulse: Classical music with an after-party 

New social group seeks to bring younger audiences to the Charlotte Symphony

The symphony isn't on the weekend agenda for most 20- or 30-somethings in Charlotte. And it's not because of the music. It's more likely the ritualistic seriousness of symphonic audience etiquette. Sitting still and quiet for two hours in uncomfortable formalwear — heaven help you if you need the bathroom — seems almost directly contrary to the way this age group tends to gather. If you can't talk, how can you meet people your age? And if you can't meet people your age, why leave the house in the first place?

CSO Pulse, a new social group put together by the Charlotte Symphony, is trying to change those perceptions by bringing in a younger audience. The members of CSO Pulse often attend the KnightSounds series — short-and-sweet concerts which are an hour long (compared to the more traditional two-hour length) and incorporate visual art, dance and drama.

"The KnightSounds concert format is totally different from what people perceive a symphony concert to be," says Alexandra Zsoldos, the Charlotte Symphony's director of individual and community engagement. The events are still based in the classics, but the idea is to present the pieces in innovative, unexpected ways.

The "To Tchaikovsky with Love" program, on March 23, incorporates dance by the North Carolina Dance Theatre and operatic elements by Opera Carolina while local actors Dan Brunson and Susan Roberts Knowlson play the parts of Pyotr Tchaikovsky and his patron and intimate friend Nadezhda von Meck. "Bolero Comes Alive," scheduled for May 4, features CGI elements courtesy of New York digital artist Matthew Weinstein.

These nontraditional elements are ways to engage a potentially skeptical younger demographic, CSO Pulse president Anna Drake says. "I think it's more about being a little bit different, so you attract people who aren't interested in traditional [symphony] concerts because they don't think they'll be engaging."

While CSO Pulse enables Drake, 26, to connect with classical music appreciators her age, it's also how she stays connected to her own musical background. "I was a violinist all the way through college," she says. "Now, my involvement with the symphony is how I tell myself I'm still a violinist, because I don't have time to play anymore."

Some members of CSO Pulse grew up in youth orchestras and, like Drake, no longer play, while others are in Charlotte's symphony or oratorio. And CSO Pulse is already growing. When it launched last October, the goal for the first year was to get 75 members, with an annual membership fee of $50. Zsoldos says there are already more than 60 members in less than six months.

"We did a lot of research on what other symphonies around the country are doing," Drake says. Many of them have younger affiliate groups which hold happy hours and offer VIP privileges and ticket discounts. And this is happening not only in cosmopolitan spots like New York, but also in Charlotte-sized cities. Even in the midst of an economic slump, these programs thrive. Classical music, it turns out, can be as much an excuse to get 20- and 30-somethings together in the same room — ideally one that serves drinks — as the usual social outlets.

At Charlotte CSO Pulse events, there's a reception beforehand, with a VIP area for members. Zsoldos says those in the group who are also symphonic musicians help give an inside perspective on the program before it starts. And often members of CSO Pulse reconvene at an uptown bar afterward. The idea is for the symphony to be as much a part of Charlotte nightlife as any other place young professionals gather.

"CSO Pulse usually does its own post-concert activity at a local restaurant in order for the members to get together and talk about the concert experience and have a good time," Zsoldos says.

After KnightSounds' late February take on Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," CSO Pulse had a free beer tasting from Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, says Zsoldos. And, in keeping with the cantata's sensual mysticism, "we had a fortune teller come. Actually, she was not really a fortune teller, but she was great!" says Drake.

"I think that is just typical Charlotte nightlife," she adds. "We do something neat and creative that is related to the concert, but in our own atmosphere where people our age might normally be Uptown anyway."

While CSO Pulse ostensibly aims to grow the symphony's audience, Drake is passionate about its survival. She hopes people her age will develop a lifelong taste for classical — as much for the Charlotte Symphony's sake as for the Queen City itself.

"Any city that is fun and engaging and exciting is attracting new people of all different ages and genders," Drake says. "I don't think you're going to find a city like that that doesn't have a vibrant symphony or arts scene."

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