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Celebrating History -- and Making It 

Two major events spark Charlotte arts scene

It's a pretty special week on the Charlotte arts scene. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra is putting an exclamation point on its 75th anniversary celebration by staging a special Return of the Maestros concert at Belk Theater on Saturday night. Five former CSO music directors are returning -- from as near as Spartanburg to as far as Vancouver -- bringing us a living history that stretches back to 1958.

Meanwhile at Booth Playhouse, Charlotte's most estimable performing arts group is flexing its muscle. North Carolina Dance Theatre is staging its annual fall event, Innovative Works, expanding its run to two weeks to keep pace with audience demand. While nostalgia reigneth down below at the Belk, five new works will be unveiled at the PAC's upstairs level, including four world premieres.

Innovative was one of the first new wrinkles Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux brought to NCDT programming when he took over as artistic director. Mark Diamond, the well-traveled prolific choreographer who serves as NCDT2 program director, is fairly addicted to the rush of creativity that comes with the yearly deadline crunch.

"We've actually been doing this for a fairly long time," Diamond says. "I've been in on almost every Innovative evening that we've done. I think it's Jean-Pierre's favorite thing, I know it's my favorite thing, and I think it's the dancers' favorite thing. It's really like the most artistic thing we do."

Within the company, across the Carolinas, and beyond, the call goes out for edgy pieces that will show off the versatility of NCDT's corps de ballet -- maybe stretching their capabilities just a smidge further -- in the intimate confines of the Booth. The electricity and excitement begin months before the audience sees the final results, up close and personal.

"And it's not necessarily without risk," Diamond confides, "because we have guest choreographers, and we're not sure how it's going to turn out. But I think it's our strength, and I think it's been, from the beginning, the most popular thing we do. It gives us a chance to work with a number of choreographers at the same time, and it gives us a chance to work with up-and-coming choreographers, maybe even someone sometimes from the company."

Strength and popularity aside, Innovative Works is surely NCDT's defining event, the program that proclaims the company's determination to straddle the worlds of classic ballet and contemporary dance. You really need to embrace that kind of eclecticism when you sign up. Diamond won't say that the challenge of Innovative is a recruiting tool.

Retention, yes.

"I think it helps us keep the dancers that we have -- the good dancers," he asserts. "Having the vehicle of using different choreographers is really interesting to our dancers, especially our veteran dancers who are really good."

Diamond veers away from the flash and kitsch of some of his more notorious chamber pieces, offering a nature-inspired "Aqua Terra Flora." Sure enough, one of NCDT's dancers is taking her maiden flight into choreographing at Innovative. Heather Ferrante Ferguson's "Seed" is inspired by an Ok-Koo Kang Grosjean poem, danced to a mix of Chinese and Japanese folk music.

After coming aboard as the company's new resident choreographer, Dwight Rhoden is keeping busy, following up his fine Tantrum of Sept. 28 with another world premiere. The newborn was named over the weekend as we went to press.

The Innovative excitement isn't all in-house. From D.C., where he has been Washington Ballet's artistic director since 1999, Septime Webre is bringing us you/me/we, set in three parts to the smoldering vocals of Nina Simone. Webre has moonlighted in Charlotte before, but Daniel Gwirztman is enjoying his first immersion in Innovative's excitement. At the invite of Bonnefoux, Gwirtzman is transplanting Cycles from New York to a Southern clime. Up in Gotham, where Gwirtzman's eponymous troupe is based, Cycles is a signature piece.

Even among his own works, which are normally strictly metered, Cycles is atypical. For the classically trained NCDT pros, the work is even farther afield.

"Jean-Pierre felt that it would push the company into a direction that they haven't been working in," Gwirtzman recalls, "and that was a conscious and explicit consideration in choosing the piece -- which is just terrific! I think this kind of programming is what people really get excited about, and it really says a lot about Jean-Pierre's vision to be so committed to this event and, by expanding it this year, realizing that there is an interest in the community."

Between rehearsals, Gwirtzman is taking the opportunity to crash NCDT's daily ballet technique classes. He sees daily exponential explosions of growth as the Charlotte dancers bridge the gap in the opposite direction.

"For the dancers," Gwirtzman opines, "it's a feather in their cap. The dancer that can work fluently in various styles is going to be a stronger dancer for it. So what a gift this company gives to its dancers, pushing them into places that are not in their comfort zone."

Webre is no less laudatory when it comes to Bonnefoux, his company, and Innovative, though he also perceives the delicate hand of Bonnefoux's superstar spouse, Patricia McBride, in the fabric.

"Quite simply," Webre declares, "it's one of the most adventuresome ballet companies in the country. Jean-Pierre and Patti have great vision, which follows on a great legacy left by [NCDT founder] Sal [Aiello] -- that of a classically based company with very high classical standards that's seeking to present works that speak to today's world. That leads them to creating a lot of new works, which I think are compelling and effervescent and adventuresome."

Hmm... now that's a label we'd like to pin on the programming of Charlotte Symphony Orchestra a little more often. But how about this "Maestros" bash -- isn't that innovative and adventuresome?

"I've never even heard of an anniversary celebration where all the past music directors, living at least, were partaking in the event," Peter McCoppin crows. "And I think what a visionary idea! Because then we see the living history of the orchestra. Oh, it's wonderful!"

McCoppin will lead the CSO in Berlioz' "Love Scene from Roméo et Juliette" -- candidly admitting that it will exceed the time limit of 9-11 minutes prescribed by his hosts. Perhaps tipping a portion of his patented introductory remarks, dear memories of his 1993-2000 tenure at the podium, McCoppin adds, "I love the music, and Berlioz considered it in his own mind to be his finest music of anything he ever wrote. So I thought that's quite lovely."

Besides speaking with McCoppin, we placed long distance calls to Henry Janiec (1958-63) in Spartanburg, Richard Cormier (1963-67) in Chattanooga, and Jacques Brourman (1967-76) in Pittsburgh. None of them would admit to the slightest taint of competitive bloodlust.

"I'm sure that we will all be very, very polite!" said Cormier, with perhaps a trace of irony.

Perhaps because his original mandate was to improve the sound of the orchestra -- to serve as the transitional director as CSO moved from an ensemble of freelancers to full-time professionals -- Cormier was the only alum willing to toss the stray cow-pie in the direction of the orchestra, its subscribers, and its tone-deaf former dwelling, Ovens Auditorium.

It was a more provincial time when CSO was the pride of Independence Boulevard, that seems certain. As a champion of American composers, Cormier remembers rubbing some of Charlotte's erstwhile music lovers the wrong way.

"There was one in particular, who was a member of the Women's Guild," Cormier recalls. "After one of the early meetings that I attended -- she shook her finger in my face and said, 'Young man, don't you try to educate us!' So I continued to try to educate them. And there were some people in the orchestra who didn't want to play anything later than Brahms. So it was kind of an artistic struggle -- and an emotional struggle for many. And for me."

Luckily, we're not like that anymore. Right?

One time, Cormier made the mistake of observing that Ovens could stand some improvement. Probably felt he was being tactful.

"You'd think I'd insulted their grandmother or something," he marvels, "because Charlotte was so proud of Ovens Auditorium, and it was actually not much to be proud of. One of the big problems with Ovens was that they quit before they did the acoustical stuff. They saved money, saved the budget, and created a monster!"

Cormier will conduct the finale of Dvorak's Symphony #8. Janiec plans to contribute Berlioz' "Roman Carnival Overture," and Brourman will commandeer Enesco's Rumanian Rhapsody #1.

Moving into the maestros of the Loaf Era, Leo Driehuys (1977-93) will present Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espagnol. CSO's current pilot, Christof Perick (since 2001), gives us a celebration within the celebration with two Mozart compositions bookending the concert, the "Overture to Le nozze di Figaro" and Symphony #36.

McCoppin will no doubt be astonished to behold the Symphony's bandshell at SouthPark, the summer venue he did so much to develop. Janiec, who headed the Brevard Music Center for 32 years until 1996, has conducted the CSO in recent years during a Spartanburg concert. But he, Brourman, and Cormier will be returning to Charlotte for the first time since their departures, all of them beholding the PAC and Belk Theater for the first time.

Now could somebody please throw a tarp over those vestigial organ pipes at the Belk before Cormier gets here?

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