In all its forms: Close ties, deep roots, and forward focus at the North Carolina Symphony


Group Harmony – from left, N.C. Symphony president and chief executive Sandi Macdonald, principal tuba player David Lewis, philanthropist Assad Meymandi, violinist Maria Evola,
Society Board chair Catharine Arrowood, N.C. Symphony director of education David Albert.
photograph by Jimmy Williams

by J. Peder Zane

As the hot summer night embraced Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater, sweet smoke drifted through the air, propelling the sell-out crowd to the heights of ecstasy that happen when music meets dance. Gray-haired men in tie-died shirts boogied with twirling young women in flowing peasant skirts as the singer crooned: “Once in a while you get shone the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”  When the musicians exploded in a series of thunderous crescendos, the crowd whooped and hollered, raising arms in an act of joyous surrender that was one part old-time religion and one part classic rock ’n’ roll.

Welcome to another evening with the North Carolina Symphony.

Its name conjures staid images of white ties and tails, of Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. But the symphony is a boundary-busting outfit committed to playing great music in all its gorgeous diversity. Nationally renowned for exquisite performances of the most challenging pieces of classical repertoire, the orchestra is equally at home playing bluegrass, big band and Broadway show tunes, music from James Bond films, video games (yes, video games) and, on this June night, the songs of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

“We are pied pipers,” says conductor Grant Llewellyn, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary as the symphony’s artistic director. “We embrace the mission of taking great music, in all its forms, to the people of North Carolina, wherever they are.”

To spread the sound of music, the full 65-member orchestra and smaller ensembles gave more than 200 performances during the 2012-13 season in venues ranging from grand concert halls to acoustically challenged restaurants and bars. Nationally reknowned as the “suitcase symphony,” the Raleigh-based orchestra traveled roughly 18,000 miles across the state, performing everywhere from Asheville to Wilmington, from Salisbury to Southern Pines.

Fifty of last season’s concerts were for school children – in the lush environs of Meymandi Concert Hall, as well as in elementary school gyms, auditoriums and multi-purpose rooms. Gov. Pat McCory summed it up: “The North Carolina Symphony has had a long tradition of excellence, not only in terms of its beautiful music, but also the work the talented musicians do in educating our youth and school children throughout North Carolina.”

So it is fitting that the symphony’s 81st year, which kicks off with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth this month, will include a free concert in Raleigh next spring. More than any other orchestra in the country, it has always been the people’s orchestra. The new season will also celebrate Llewellyn’s 10th anniversary at the helm. The Symphony’s ability to attract the accomplished Welshman signaled its ambitious drive to move from good to great. That it has held on to him for longer than anyone had imagined is a sign that it is achieving that goal.

Even as it continuously seeks to reimagine and redefine itself in response to changing times – drawing on the new wealth, talent and ambition that have remade Raleigh and the state – the symphony is guided by its long and distinguished history. It is that rare institution that is both a landmark of the past and a signpost to the future.

Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration featuring Warren Haynes_photo Michael Zirkle

Al fresco – The Symphony’s Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration, featuring Warren Hayes, at Red Hat Amphitheater in June.
photograph by Michael Zirkle

To truly appreciate the history of the North Carolina Symphony, it’s instructive to look beyond music to other visionary enterprises that have transformed the state, especially the rise of the banking hub in Charlotte and the cutting edge industries at Research Triangle Park.

The fever-dream desire of their proponents to create something out of nothing was the same spirit that inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lamar Stringfield to start an orchestra in a poor rural state in the depths of the Depression. “Before we had been acquainted with him 15 minutes we all knew he was loony,” Louis Graves, editor of the Chapel Hill Weekly, quipped at the time. “Any sane person would have seen it was impossible to create a creditable symphony orchestra in North Carolina.”

After its first concert in 1932, the orchestra performed intermittently during the next decade because of financial pressures. Things began to change when another talented musician at UNC-Chapel Hill with a genius idea took the helm. Benjamin Swalin’s insight was to cast the orchestra as a “basic educational institution with an exalted purpose similar to a public school or public library.” In a radical leap of logic, he argued that it should be similarly supported by the state budget.

In 1943, the General Assembly passed what one opponent dubbed “the horn tootin’” bill. It provided a biennial grant of $4,000, making the North Carolina Symphony the first in the nation to receive recurring state support. Though that barely made a dent in the orchestra’s budgetary needs, the support provided invaluable credibility. By 1947, the Symphony Society had more than 11,500 members, primarily from rural areas of the state.

Its effect was far-reaching, helping to inspire a tradition of public support for the arts as a whole: In 1949, Winston-Salem and Forsyth County launched the first locally established arts council; in 1956, the North Carolina Museum of Art became the first major American museum formed by state legislation and funding.

Since the 1940s, the symphony has logged more than half a million miles by bus, many before I-40 was completed in 1990. “It used to take us three hours to travel between Raleigh and Wilmington,” says David Lewis, the principal tuba player who has been with the orchestra for 37 years. “Unless, of course, Benson was celebrating Mule Days, and then it took considerably longer.”

Lewis said these bus rides help the orchestra, which depends on a large number of musicians playing as a single unit, develop deep bonds. On the road, the strings section mingles with the woodwinds, French horns players have lunch with tympanists, oboists share cocktails with violinists.

That heavy travel schedule – symphony leaders say no other orchestra in the world has had such a long commitment of community outreach – has also enabled it to form deep bonds with its audience. Since its founding, the North Carolina Symphony has performed before at least 5 million school children across the state.

“Everywhere we go, people come up to me and say thank you for that experience 30 or 40 years ago, when the symphony visited their small town,” says resident conductor William Henry Curry. “When I began here 18 years ago, I saw the education concerts as something we just did, but through the years I’ve seen them as perhaps the most important part of our mission.”

Former Gov. James B. Hunt, 76, started playing the violin after seeing the symphony perform. Maria Evola, a 32-year-old graduate of Enloe High School in Raleigh, grew up watching the symphony play. She is now one of its violinists. “Playing with the orchestra,” she said, “is a dream come true.”

So many Tar Heels have similar experiences that the orchestra has set up an oral history booth at some of its concerts where attendees can share their North Carolina Symphony stories.


Symphony bus shot

Adaptable organism

The travel schedule has also made the symphony adaptable. Until moving to Raleigh’s Memorial Hall in 1975 – and then to the 1,700-seat Meymandi Hall in 2001 – the symphony did not have an established rehearsal or performance space.

Symphonic music depends on precise communication between the musicians, their instruments and the audience. To play at the highest level, an orchestra must account for and adjust for innumerable variables – from a hall’s acoustics and the placement of lights, microphones, chairs and stands on the stage to the temperature and humidity that can wreak havoc on delicate instruments. Even today, the symphony is like a sports team whose schedule is filled with away games, forever forced to summon its A game in unfamiliar circumstances.

Accomplishing that requires a large support network that handles a dizzying array of fundraising, artistic, and logistical concerns.  These include 28 full-time and three part-time administrators at the Raleigh headquarters, three full-time stage hands, one full-time librarian and two part-time librarians. They are, in turn, supported by volunteer board members, philanthropic patrons and ticket buyers, bus drivers, scores of staff members at the venues they play, and hundreds of educators around the state who spend months teaching a curriculum developed with the orchestra to prepare thousands of students for their annual visit to, or from, the Symphony. “Everyone’s goal,” said Allyn Love, himself an accomplished pedal steel guitarist who has been the symphony’s director of operations since 2000, “is to make sure that the 65 musicians don’t have to worry about anything except devoting 100 percent of their energy to the music.”

All that requires more than dedication; an orchestra is only as strong as its balance sheet. Like almost every organization in America, the symphony suffered during the recent financial meltdown. Its cumulative budget deficit was $2.5 million for the 2009 fiscal year. It has also had to absorb a 20 percent reduction in state support during the last two years – its latest biennial funding was $3.5 million per year.

And yet, it has not only endured through hard times, its finances are improving, thanks in part to record-breaking ticket sales, which have risen by more than $1 million during the last two years.

The musicians themselves have been pivotal to this turnaround. They agreed to pay cuts when the symphony’s finances were threatened. Today, the average salary for these gifted musicians is $54,648 per year. Many supplement their income by offering private lessons.

The symphony has also benefitted from strong leadership – much of it springing from the strengths of not just the capital city, but the state. Raleigh attorney Catharine Arrowood, who serves as chair of the symphony’s volunteer Society Board, points to the doctors, scientists, and corporate leaders from all over who serve as her board members.

Young concertgoer investigates Symphony musician Paul Gorski's violin_photo Michael Zirkle

photograph by Michael Zirkle

“Running an orchestra is a complex thing,” says Arrowood, who was introduced to the symphony at her Lumberton elementary school. “Being able to draw on a deep pool of passionate and knowledgeable volunteers has been crucial to building a sustainable organization.”

Dr. Assad Meymandi, a Raleigh psychiatrist whose numerous gifts to the symphony (and other local arts organizations) include a $2-million donation toward the construction of the main concert hall, sees a synergistic relationship between the city and the orchestra. “During the last 30 years, the musical sophistication of the audience has grown tremendously,” he said. “We have more people with advanced degrees than almost anywhere else in the country, and that helps provide the quality of life that has attracted them here. They push the orchestra to become even more ambitious.”

Talent and resources 

Talent and resources are magnets for talent and resources. The symphony hired Sandi Macdonald as its president and chief executive in 2011, luring her from the Cleveland Orchestra, which is considered one of America’s “Big Five” orchestras.

Macdonald, whose map of North Carolina is dotted with 34 push pins to mark each of the communities she has visited, said the state’s “quality of life” and “the opportunities we have to expand the music,” were prime attractions. She added that her husband, a CPA specializing in international taxes, assumed he would have to resign from his firm when they moved to Raleigh. His employer, excited by the region’s growth, instead asked him to set up a satellite office.

The symphony’s and Raleigh’s strengths make it easier to hire top-flight musicians, too. Macdonald noted that 120 cellists auditioned recently for two openings. As New York Times music critic James R. Oestricher noted this summer, the changing economic scene means that “climate and cost of living are as likely to figure in a musician’s choice of employer as an orchestra’s historic renown.”

Those dynamics, in turn, are helping the symphony secure its place as one of the nation’s premier orchestras. Arts groups are not ranked like sports teams, but in a nation that has between 1,800 and 2,000 orchestras, the North Carolina Symphony is widely regarded as among the top 25.

Like Schubert’s Eighth, an orchestra is always unfinished. Grant Llewellyn describes it as an ever-evolving “organism” that must adapt to survive. Future challenges not only include the ever-present financial pressures but also what Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras, describes as “seismic changes” in American culture. “We’re in a period now of a high degree of innovation and experimentation,” he explained, “because of threats to our long-term income stream.”

The musical tastes of audience members and philanthropists are becoming more eclectic, pushing orchestras to explore different genres – including tunes from Broadway and Jerry Garcia. In the past, these efforts were viewed largely as ways to attract new fans to classical music; you came for the Dead, you stayed for the Dvorak. Increasingly, orchestras are seeing that their future lies in serving discrete audiences.

Meantime, our on-demand, interactive culture poses challenges of its own, Rosen says. Traditional forms of entertainment, such as “films, sports and orchestras that sell content in fixed time and space that the public does not have a role in creating is at odds with lifestyle trends that allow people to curate their experiences.”

In response, he says, organizations must build closer ties with their local communities, place greater emphasis on outreach, advocacy and education. They must bust boundaries and challenge assumptions, drawing on their historic strengths in order to reinvent themselves.

Sounds like he’s talking about the North Carolina Symphony.


For more information about the North Carolina Symphony’s 2013-2014 season, go to
For tickets, call 919-733-2750 or go to