Young musicians and singers from Torrence Creek Elementary, Butler High, McClintock Middle, Windsor Park Elementary, West Charlotte High and Hough High School will perform in a musical showcase. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Young musicians and singers from Torrence Creek Elementary, Butler High, McClintock Middle, Windsor Park Elementary, West Charlotte High and Hough High School will perform in a musical showcase. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Lawrence Toppman

These 500-plus young performers are making history with Charlotte Concerts

By Lawrence Toppman

ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

March 15, 2017 1:08 PM

It’s not really a contest, though judges award prizes on the spot.

It’s not quite a championship, as some of the best ensembles entered (but not every one).

And it’s never been tried locally. So Charlotte Concerts and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won’t know exactly how things shake out until “A Musical Showcase” takes the stage for the first time Monday at Belk Theater. Jordan Gross, former All-Pro lineman for the Carolina Panthers and sometime pianist, will be the master of ceremonies. (And, perhaps, tickle the keys.)

The showcase is a remarkable leap for Charlotte Concerts, which has spent decades helping kids: supplying instruments to schools, honoring accomplished young musicians, letting students perform in lobbies before concerts. Buoyed by a grant from the Leon Levine Foundation, the organization raised $75,600 for this extravaganza a year ago and invited every CMS school to jump in.

Orchestras, bands, small ensembles and choirs took a shot at impressing nine adjudicators, who sifted through dozens of audiotapes – or videotapes, in the case of show choirs – to pick the 14 groups that will take the Belk stage. Each of those will receive $500.

The 500-plus performers come from all zip codes, income levels and backgrounds, a fact that gratifies event coordinator Marc Setzer. (You’ll find the winners below.)

“We often think of classical music as a white field of endeavor, or an elitist one,” he notes. “Linda Francese (the other coordinator) and I visited all the finalists to make sure the ensembles sounded like the recordings we heard, and I was pleased to see such a wide variety of kids.”

Setzer probably heard a trillion triplets and a quadrillion quarter-notes while teaching choral music for 35 years at South Mecklenburg High School. So he’s hard to surprise, but two more things struck him about groups who got into the show.

First, the playing field seemed level. “You expect concert bands to be stronger, because kids learn those instruments early,” he said. “Strings are hard: My father, a violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra, used to say, ‘It takes 20 years to learn to play the violin – badly.’ But the ensembles were of a balanced quality.”

Second, he saw a lot of students and teachers making music for no academic credit: “Four ensembles – Waddell, Windsor Park, Torrence Creek and Alexander Graham – meet outside the school day, often before school starts. That’s dedication – for students, parents who support them and teachers who do this out of the goodness of their hearts.”

To keep playing fields level, elementary schools competed only among themselves. So did middle schools, and so did high schools. That will also be true on the big night, when four celebrity judges listen afresh. Grammy-winning singer Anthony Hamilton, Blumenthal Performing Arts president Tom Gabbard, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra president Mary Deissler and First Presbyterian Church music director Will Young will award another $500 apiece to the top schools in each age group. Meanwhile, Campbell University has coordinated visits by admissions counselors from 11 regional colleges.

Running the performance will require the organizational skills of a wedding planner and the patience of a monk. Charlotte Concerts has paid for buses and drivers for kids and chaperones – about 100 of those will tag along – as well as substitute teachers where needed and meals for the high schoolers, who will arrive as early as 9 a.m. to rehearse.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Setzer, smiling at the headaches ahead of him. “And next year, as the word spreads, we hope to have more schools applying and more students playing. We’d like to see this get bigger.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Want to go?

Charlotte Concerts’ “A Musical Showcase” starts at 7 p.m. Monday in Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St. Tickets cost $10-$30. Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

The 14 showcase squads: Torrence Creek Elementary Quarter Notes; Waddell Language Academy (Elementary) Choir; Windsor Park Elementary Orchestra; Alexander Graham Middle School Campana; Community House Middle School 8th Grade Band; McClintock Middle School Advanced Chorus; Southwest Middle School Orchestra; Ardrey Kell High School Wind Ensemble; David W. Butler High School Jazz Ensemble; East Mecklenburg High School and Northwest School of the Arts Women’s Chamber Choir (combined); Providence High School Chamber Winds; South Mecklenburg High School Chamber Orchestra; West Charlotte High School Chorale Ensemble; William A. Hough High School Howlin’ Huskies.

The Windsor Park Elementary School Orchestra will be featured in Charlotte Concerts’ “A Musical Showcase.” Nancy Pierce
The Hough High School Howlin’ Huskies show choir will be featured in Charlotte Concerts’ “A Musical Showcase.” Nancy Pierce
The McClintock Middle School Advanced Chorus will be featured in Charlotte Concerts’ “A Musical Showcase.” Nancy Pierce
The South Mecklenburg High School Chamber Orchestra will be featured in Charlotte Concerts’ “A Musical Showcase.” Nancy Pierce
The Butler High School Jazz Ensemble will be featured in Charlotte Concerts’ “A Musical Showcase.” Nancy Pierce
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