What it's like to be back at the theater

Plus: The top news of the week: Mask mandate and other restrictions lifted — Pipeline cyberattack causes gas anxiety — $56M school-funding tussle — hot🔥 local media empire announces 2 new newsletters

Good morning! Today is Saturday, May 15, 2021. You’re reading The Charlotte Ledger’s Weekend Edition.

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Excitement in the air at Charlotte’s first major post-Covid symphony concert Friday: smaller crowd, shorter show … but a feast for the senses

Charlotte Symphony welcomed a live audience back to the Belk Theater on Friday night but kept guest attendance at 500 patrons, or 24% of the theater’s capacity. If you look closely, at center stage is saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who provided some star-power for the post-Covid, coming-out concert.

by Cristina Bolling

You didn’t have to be a classical music buff to feel the excitement Friday night as audience members trickled into the Belk Theater for the Charlotte Symphony’s first major concert post-Covid.

Ticket-scanning staff chirped “Welcome back!” as patrons smiled under their masks and went in to find their seats, spread out thinly in the expansive theater.

The arrival experience felt like a mixture of dream sequence and déjà vu, and it wasn’t until the musicians played their A notes to tune their instruments that it finally felt real — one more facet of life as we know it had advanced on the approach path to normal.

Exactly 432 days earlier, the symphony had played its last performance (Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis) in its stately home before a live, open-to-the-general-public audience.

And for the 14 months since, its musicians and staff have been trying to engage with patrons in every way imaginable — hosting small concerts on the internet from cellist Alan Black’s backyard, recording online-only performances from the Belk and playing outdoors for live audiences.

Big things happened organizationally, too: The symphony hired a new CEO, David Fisk, last July, and just this week announced that music director Christopher Warren-Green will step down in 2022 after 12 seasons with the symphony.

All of that set the backdrop for Friday night’s performance, which clocked in at exactly 55 minutes (with no intermission) and featured a special guest with star-power: three-time Grammy winner saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

For the next few months, symphony performances will be held at the outdoor Symphony Park, as well as various breweries and online, but other live performances are starting back at the Belk and other theaters around town this summer.

If the theater is what you’ve been craving, here are a few things we noticed that you too may experience upon your return:

Smaller audiences feel different: Only 500 patrons were allowed inside the 2,097-seat Belk Theater on Friday, putting it at 24% capacity. Guests had to buy tickets in groups of two or four, and there were two seats left empty between each group. Every other row was left vacant.

The smaller audience meant that the clapping between pieces (and even the standing ovation at the end) felt quieter. Patrons seemed to applaud extra hard to turn the volume up in appreciation of the musicians.

The orchestra was smaller, too: There were 28 Charlotte Symphony musicians onstage Friday night, a big drop from the full component of 58. (Although all symphony musicians don’t necessarily play all concerts, even when Covid isn’t an issue; some orchestral works simply don’t call for 58 musicians.)

But even with the smaller orchestra on stage, you felt the vibrations envelop you in ways a TV or computer speaker couldn’t replicate during the last 14 months. When Marsalis set off on the ragtime-sounding syncopated Hot-Sonate by Schulhoff, heads bopped and fingers tapped.

The experience is shorter, and more efficient: A 55-minute performance with no intermission means no bathroom lines, or pre-concert flute of champagne. (No concessions are being served before, during or after shows.) Paper programs were handed out at Friday’s symphony concert, but watch for a trend of digital programs for other live performances.

Theater doors open an hour prior to the concert’s start time (typically they’d open 30 minutes prior), to avoid having a crush of guests arrive in a short window. Staff invite you to find your seat swiftly when you arrive and empty the lobby quickly when the show is over.

The time away has heightened our senses: Even with a mask on and sitting socially distanced, the perfume of your theater neighbors is acutely detectable.

So are peripheral sounds. As Marsalis paused between movements in Hot-Sonate, a chatty man four seats to our left whispered to his wife: “I wonder who shines his saxophone?” We chuckled.

Being gone from the theater so long, you notice things you didn’t before. Glass panels separating the back row of seats from the walkway behind them in the grand tier balcony looked new to us, but they’re not. “Have these always been here?” we asked the usher. He laughed and responded, “Yes, you’ve just probably never noticed them.”

Time away has heightened our emotions, too: Audience members squealed with delight when they took their seats before the concert and spotted friends across the theater. Both groups raised their phones and took photos of each other.

When the strings swelled in Gershwin’s Lullaby, eyes closed in appreciation. When Marsalis hit his cadenza (dramatic solo performance) in Ibert’s Concertino da camera, eyes widened and shoulders swayed.  

Familiarity just feels good: For as devastating a year as we’ve had, it helps to remember that generation after generation have found comfort in so many of the same melodies, spanning wars, plagues and social uprisings.

And as the audience stepped out onto Tryon Street after Friday’s concert, another melody greeted them — one that is familiar to anyone who spent any time uptown pre-Covid: Sam Bethea, known as the “Jesus Saves!” guy, screaming out his usual refrain.

Cristina Bolling is managing editor of The Ledger: cristina@cltledger.com

Today’s supporting sponsor is Soni Brendle:

This week in Charlotte: Governor lifts mask mandate; a brief gas frenzy; county-CMS debate continues

On Saturdays, The Ledger sifts through the local news of the week and links to the top articles — even if they appeared somewhere else. We’ll help you get caught up. That’s what Saturdays are for.

Local news

  • Mask mandate, gathering restrictions lifted: (Ledger) Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday dropped mandatory mask-wearing in most circumstances for people who are vaccinated and eliminated capacity and gathering limits and social distancing requirements. Businesses can still make decisions on whether to require masks, and masks will still be required in certain settings, including public transportation, childcare, schools, prisons and hospitals and doctors’ offices and they’ll continue to be recommended in places where there are large indoor gatherings of people, including sporting arenas.

  • Long lines, high prices for gas: A cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline, which supplies fuel to about half of the East Coast, made gasoline the big story of the week, as lines to buy gas ran long, supply ran low and prices rose. Pipeline operations were restored Wednesday night, and company officials say supply should return to normal within days.


  • 2040 plan takes shape: (Ledger) In a seven-hour City Council meeting on Monday, council members took tentative votes on the proposed 2040 Comprehensive Plan to try to resolve differences. The most controversial provision — allowing duplexes and triplexes in single-family neighborhoods — could be stripped from the plan. Council members return for another round of debate and votes Monday.

  • County tussle over $56M: (WFAE) Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio and Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell clashed Tuesday over Diorio’s proposal to withhold $56M from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools over long-standing achievement gaps between white and minority students. Diorio announced the plan last week when she presented her budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. To get the $56M, Diorio said CMS must present a plan to improve the performance of 42 low-performing schools in the district and other requirements. The $56M is about 11% of the money CMS is set to receive from the county.


  • South Charlotte parents on alert: (Ledger 🔒) Parents in the SouthPark area are trying to figure out what CMS has in mind for possible student assignment changes that school officials say could affect parts of Myers Park High, Carmel Middle and Sharon and Olde Providence elementary schools.

  • Lesson plans made public?: (Axios Charlotte) North Carolina Republicans are pushing for an “academic transparency” bill that would require public school teachers to post everything they present to children, including materials, lesson plans and guest lecturers, prominently on the school’s website. The bill has already passed the state House along party lines. The North Carolina Association of Educators calls the bill “teacher abuse” and has launched a campaign to get senators to vote against it.

  • USC president resigns after plagiarism: (AP/WFAE) The University of South Carolina’s president stepped down this week, after he acknowledged using two paragraphs in his commencement speech without properly attributing them to a former Navy SEAL who first said them. He also referred to the school as the “University of California” during his remarks.


  • Single-family rentals: (Biz Journal) Builders are launching more single-family rental neighborhoods, which are geared toward older millennials not quite ready to purchase a first home as well as retiring baby boomers. Northwood Ravin is building its first all-rental townhouse project, Townhomes at Bridlestone, which will contain 108 units in Pineville.

  • No income taxes for Duke: (WFAE) Duke Energy is among at least 55 big companies that paid no federal income tax in 2020, despite turning more than $1B in profit. It took credits for renewable energy and other adjustments.


  • Hornets kinda in playoffs: (Observer) The Charlotte Hornets secured a spot in the NBA’s first-ever play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs. As the season wraps up this weekend, the Hornets are jockeying for position in the tournament, which is composed of the No. 7 to No. 10 seeds. It starts Tuesday.

  • Panthers schedule: (ESPN) The Carolina Panthers’ schedule, released this week, calls for QB Sam Darnold to face off against his old team, the New York Jets, at home in Week 1 (Sept. 12). The New York Post called it the “Sam Darnold revenge game.” And former Panthers QB Cam Newton will pay a visit to Bank of America Stadium when the New England Patriots come to town Nov. 7.

Good reads

  • ‘Hog-tying’ death in Greensboro: (The Assembly) In a close-up look at the death of a Greensboro man being restrained by police in 2018, The Assembly draws on court files and depositions to show how officers used a controversial technique known as “hog-tying” — in an incident that somehow hasn’t drawn much attention outside of Greensboro.

  • George Shinn at 80: (Observer) George Shinn, who was celebrated for bringing pro basketball to Charlotte in the 1980s only to fall out of favor with the city a little more than a decade later, reflects on it all in an interview with Scott Fowler. “At this point in my life, I realize I don’t know how many days I’ve got left,” Shinn says. “In the remaining days I do have, I want to do the best I can to serve the Lord. I know I’ve made some bad judgments and decisions in my life. But I think I’m way ahead with the good stuff I’ve done.”

  • Western neighbor named best place for a fight: (N.C. Rabbit Hole) What if you asked North Carolinians for the best place in the state for a fistfight? What would they say? Writer Jeremy Markovich did just that, and the answer may not surprise you: The overall winner was Gaston County. Although Gastonia is an uninspired choice, Markovich writes, “several of you just named other towns in Gaston County. Bessemer City! Dallas! Lowell! Ranlo! (cups hands around mouth) Ranlooooooooooooo!”

From the Ledger family of newsletters

  • Debut of ‘Transit Time’ newsletter: (Thursday) The city of Charlotte is studying bus corridors for possible bus-only lanes, following a six-month pilot program on Central Avenue that some neighbors opposed. Ely Portillo of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute examined the issue in the first-ever Transit Time weekly newsletter, produced by The Ledger in partnership with the Urban Institute and WFAE.

  • Archiving the pandemic: (Monday) Archivists in Charlotte’s libraries, universities and museums have spent the last 15 months racing to preserve stories, data and communications that will help people in the future understand what the Covid pandemic looked like in Charlotte. We break down the ways they’re doing it and the challenges they’re facing in capturing the experience through digital media.

  • Laugh-In: (Monday) “Charlotte Squawks,” a variety show that lampoons life in Charlotte, will return for its 16th season in-person in August, its co-creator told us.

  • Reedy Creek land purchase: (Monday) Mecklenburg County bought 100 acres to add to Reedy Creek Park and Nature Preserve, one of its biggest park purchases in recent years. The land is mostly forest and will remain wooded, and it will help with construction of a greenway.

  • Bojangles cited for wrapped restaurant (Wednesday 🔒) : Bojangles wrapped one of its restaurants on Independence Boulevard in a bright yellow sign so it would resemble a “Bo Box” of chicken and biscuits, but Charlotte code enforcement officials cited the restaurant, saying it violates the city’s sign ordinance. Bojangles has three weeks to remove the wrap.

  • ABC fines: (Wednesday 🔒) Charlotte hotspots Hoppin’ and Peculiar Rabbit face fines for not following Covid restrictions.

  • Waterpark delay: (Monday) Carowinds is delaying opening its waterpark until the middle of June because it can’t find enough workers. The theme park has pushed back the opening of the waterpark, known as Carolina Harbor, until June 12. It had been scheduled to open May 29. The rest of the park is on track to open May 22. Carowinds said last month it was working to hire 900 seasonal workers and offering $500 hiring bonuses. 

  • Gouging complaints: (Friday 🔒) There were at least 57 price-gouging complaints filed against Mecklenburg County convenience stores this week after gas prices rose.

  • Land sales: (Friday 🔒) There were two big land sales in prime neighborhoods this week — one on South Tryon Street in South End, and the other on North Davidson Street in NoDa.

➡️ In case you missed it, despite our relentless hype … The Ledger announced two new newsletters this week: Transit Time, on Charlotte-area transit and transportation; and Ways of Life, an obituaries newsletter celebrating the lives of Charlotteans. Read our announcement for more info on why and where The Ledger is heading.

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN Advisory