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Fall 2021 Issue

An Interview with our New President and CEO, David Fisk

by Jeremy Lamb

David Fisk joined us in September of 2020 — or as we now think of it — right smack in the middle of the pandemic. A year later, we're finally welcoming live audiences back to performances (albeit with a reduced orchestra on stage), so I sat down with David to hear about his experience so far and his plans for the future. We met at his office even though the majority of the staff are still working remotely. Since we spoke for almost an hour, the following transcript is somewhat condensed for brevity.

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Jeremy Lamb: I’m diving right in with the question that’s foremost on my mind: How soon will we have the full orchestra back on stage?


David Fisk: Hopefully by Thanksgiving, depending on the projections for late fall, and if all goes well we won’t have to wear masks. We will also keep the policy that everyone has to be vaccinated which makes people feel better as well.


JL: Last season we had short, hour-long concerts with no intermission. Now that we're coming out of the pandemic, we have an opportunity to restructure our concert format should we want to. Do you have strong feelings about concert timings and intermissions, or even about what time in the evening we hold concerts? For example, some orchestras offer earlier rush-hour shows...


DF: Yes, the pandemic has given us a chance to think differently, though I think that people are really yearning for a return to normality. There is a reason why we were doing things the way we were, with intermissions etc. But I will say that as we're welcoming candidates for Music Director, we want to hear their ideas as well. I certainly would support the idea of having some concerts presented in a different way.


JL: How do you feel specifically about keeping to shorter concerts with no intermission? For instance, there's a quartet series here in Charlotte called "Candlelight" that offers two one-hour concerts with no intermission, one at 7pm and one at 9pm, and it's very popular.  


DF: I would not do it for the classical series. People need time to relax with an intermission, and also from a musician's point of view there are some sets of pieces you would not want to play all the way through without a break. Regarding Candlelight, they were doing this sort of thing way back when I was in England, with St. Martin in the Fields, and it's definitely an experience that people want to be a part of. Look at how popular the Van Gogh exhibit has become. That's not an exhibition, it's an experience. But if we can popularize orchestral music in the same kind of way, I see nothing wrong with that.


JL: In Richmond you introduced the mobile “Big Tent" for concerts and festivals which ended up being very successful. Do you see anything like that taking place in Charlotte?


DF: I'm very glad we did that, but what we discovered was that it takes a LOT of time and effort to set up. It wasn't worth it for a single concert, so we created a series of Big Tent festivals, though those also became very labor intensive. You can contrast that with what the Kansas City Symphony is doing, which is basically a fold down truck that becomes a stage for a small ensemble. I'd like to see us doing something in between these two ideas here. If we're genuinely trying to be an orchestra for the entire city, I want to cover all the neighborhoods of Charlotte.


JL: You've come to us from Richmond Symphony where you were the CEO for 18 years. While you were there, you expanded the kinds of concerts they offered, including a Lollipops, a brewery series, and an amateur/professional concert. Is there anything you added in Richmond that you would like to add here?


DF: I am not in a hurry here, and I want to pace our progress. I'm very happy we created a new Strategic Plan ( in my first year because I think that gives us a map to use for all kinds of possible activities that we might want to do. A lot of new things will happen because of this plan. I'm also VERY happy with the educational programs here. The only thing I've done so far in that regard is to warmly encourage and support the addition of a third, unauditioned youth orchestra, which I view as the bridge between kids coming out of Project Harmony and into the second youth orchestra. We're trying to make sure there's an opportunity for kids to have continuous learning.

(Currently we have the Charlotte Symphony Youth Philharmonic for students aged 8-16, and the Charlotte Symphony Youth Orchestra for those between 12-18. The third orchestra would cover pre-K through middle school.)


The other thing is that we've just decided to sponsor the CMS orchestra and band, which will ensure that kids and their parents don't have to pay fees to be part of those programs. It's not a large amount of money but it's a very important barrier that would deter some families from being able to participate. The other way I would answer your question is that we have an awful lot going on already. Getting out of COVID and restarting the full season, not to mention the fact that we have to replace the $2M Thrive money each year (through a +$20M campaign) and complete a Music Director search... I don't want to overload us!


JL: You mentioned the youth orchestras. I'm sure you heard that our two youth orchestras, the YOC and the CSYO, used to be one not so long ago. Do you have any plans to bring them back together?


DF: Well, it's very hard to “unring” a bell. This is a big city and there's plenty of room for more than one youth orchestra. There's room for multiple choral groups as well, so I just want to make sure that we have a good relationship with everybody who's in the music space with us. Ultimately our missions are wholly compatible with each other.


JL: In terms of size and salary, we're one of the smallest full-time American orchestras. With that in mind, which areas of growth are you most interested in? Becoming a larger orchestra with more musicians overall, or raising the salary of our existing members? Or perhaps just becoming a larger player in the community with more outreach and more connections so we have a larger footprint in Charlotte?


DF: Well, I recognize that as a question with a lot of depth to it, in addition to one that is going to be the subject of collective bargaining next year. But I believe this is a collective decision, that we all come together to decide what we want the Charlotte Symphony to be. It's a combination of all of what you just said. I see more potential in the orchestra that hasn't yet had the chance to be fulfilled. It's as much about the way we're perceived as who we actually are. I also don't believe in standing still. For us to be healthy and vibrant, we need a constant state of revitalization: commissioning, planning, and fundraising for the next big thing. You also have to attend to the people in the organization, the number of folks we have and the salaries we're paying. We've got to be competitive, right? I was quite shocked to hear about the difference in salary levels between us and the North Carolina Symphony.


JL: Now that you've been here over a year, do you see us working well with the other arts organizations, like the opera, the ballet, the museums etc., or is there still a lot of room for improvement? Better communication and less competition?


DF: I believe we've accomplished a lot by working with the ballet and the opera, and I'd like to see us do more with both partners. I'm a passionate believer that we can do our best work by working with other people. For example, at the Richmond Symphony we produced a concert with the Weinstein Jewish Community Center and the Virginia Holocaust Museum. The program consisted entirely of music written by composers persecuted, forced into exile, or killed in the Holocaust. It could have been a very depressing or sad performance, frankly, but it was a hugely inspiring listening experience for the audience. We have a role that allows us to do some things through music that would not otherwise be possible.


JL: Do you have anything in the works like this for our next season?


DF: One of the things that we're working on at the moment is with the American Guild of Organists for their 75th anniversary series here in Charlotte next year. That's a great chance for us to play some fantastic music to enhance their celebration.


JL: You were a singer when you were young, right?


DF: I was a boy chorister at St. Paul’s Cathedral when I was 8 until I was 13. And I learned the piano, cello, and organ there, through university. Later, I studied post-graduate piano accompaniment, composition and conducting.


JL: I learned the piano, cello, and sang in a choir in college, so *fist bumps* for the same instruments! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me!


DF: My pleasure.

Meet our New Musicians!

by Allan Rosenfeld

Alice Silva, Violin

Why did you pick your instrument?


I was a late beginner compared to the majority of professional violinists. I grew up in an underprivileged neighborhood in Fortaleza, Brazil, and we had a social program that offered music classes. I always loved music, but when the program was the recipient of violin donations, I jumped in and started learning. It wasn’t your usual classical music training, but I fell in love with the instrument, and decided that I wanted to pursue a career playing it.

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Tell us a little something people would be interested in hearing about your life offstage?


People would be surprised to know I am a soldier in the US Army Reserves. I joined the military after I finished my Masters and I became a 88M Motor Transport Specialist (truck driver) for the Army. I have been in and out of Charlotte for many years now, and I already feel like it is my home. I am also a NC and SC licensed Realtor.

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Denielle Wilson, Cello

What were you doing before coming to work in Charlotte?


I was at Cincinnati College-Conservatory working on my master’s degree.

What do you find is the most challenging thing about playing your instrument? 


I find it most challenging to detangle my mind from the physical/technical aspects of playing and see the cello as a vessel for my inner voice (as opposed to a project). I try to work on this by remembering what it was like to sing in my high school choir.

What’s your favorite place in the whole world and why?


Anywhere with my brother and sister. They are my two most favorite people on earth.

Drew Dansby, Cello

What do you love most about your instrument?


I love how versatile the cello is. I feel like I'm always discovering new sounds and genres of music the cello can fit into. It's also just a really satisfying instrument to play.

What do you think is the most notable thing about your hometown?


I really admire the resilience of the arts community in Charlotte. Even with a lack of public support for the arts compared to other major cities, Charlotte's musicians and artists of all genres have a really inspiring way of persevering and sharing their music with their communities, especially through this pandemic.

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Leah Latorraca, Violin

Why did you pick your instrument?

I picked violin because my older sister was playing violin, and naturally I wanted to copy everything that she was doing!

What is the most notable thing about your hometown? 

I grew up in Madison, WI, so definitely the Packers, Badgers, and Cheese Curds.

Tell us a little something people would be interested in hearing about your life offstage?

I like to run and ran my first marathon in 2020!

Derek Fenstermacher, Tuba

What were you doing before coming to work in Charlotte?


Prior to moving to Charlotte, I lived for several years in New Jersey working as Principal Tuba with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.  While I was there I had the honor of performing over 30 concerts with the New York Philharmonic, and even had the opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall twice with the world renowned Mariinsky Theater Orchestra.  Most recently I served as Principal Tuba with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and performed with them from 2018-2020.

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Why did you pick your instrument?


I will say that the old phrase, 'I didn't choose the instrument, the instrument chose me' applies to my first years on the instrument.  I started out as a trombone player, and at the suggestion of my middle school band director, Jerry Potter, I gave the tuba a chance.  It didn't take long for me to find that I have a genuine love for making music with those wonderful low sounds.

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Maggie O'Leary, Bassoon

Why did you pick your instrument? 

I was amazed by the number of keys and how complicated it looked to play.

What do you find is the most challenging thing about playing your instrument? 


Reed making. I find it really helpful to try other people’s reeds, and have them try mine too. Having reference points and outside input helps put the problems I’m trying to solve in perspective.

Tell us a little something people would be interested in hearing about your life offstage?


I really like to cook, and during the pandemic I’ve had the time to make foods I would normally buy packaged/prepared. Recently I’ve made my own seitan (“meat” made from wheat gluten), tortillas, soy milk, and tofu.

Naho Zhu, Bassoon


What do you love most about your instrument?

I first fell in love with the timbre of the instrument, and soon found that many bassoon parts in orchestral pieces were extremely gratifying to play. There are some amazing lyrical solos for the instrument throughout the standard orchestral repertoire, and composers often draw a wide range of characters from the instrument.

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Any pieces you’re particularly looking forward to playing in the orchestra here?

There's amazing repertoire this season. I think Mahler 9 will be exciting and as a bassoonist, Ravel Piano Concerto stands out to me because of the notorious excerpts, and I've never played it in context!

Here, There, and Elsewhere

Despite the pandemic-related limitations on events this past summer, the musicians of the Charlotte Symphony found creative ways to bring music to live audiences all over the city.


Below: Carlos Tarazona, Sakira Harley, Kirsten Swanson and Jon Lewis perform as part of the Candlelight Concert Series at the Collector's Room. 


Below: Kari Giles, Jenny Topilow, Alaina Rea and Jeremy Lamb perform at Heist Brewery and Barrel Arts as part of Charlotte New Music's Revolution: Sound Worlds for String Quartet + Electronics

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Below: Jenny Topilow performs with dancer Jessica Thompson, while filmed by CSO hornist and videographer Bob Rydel for CLTSymphony X Beatties Ford Strong. The project was screened this past August at Camp North End.

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Below: Concertmaster Calin Lupanu hosted a recital with fellow CSO musicians Monica Boboc, Marlene Ballena, and pianist Philip Bush as part of the Connor Chamber Music Series at Central Piedmont Community College. Read about it here in the online arts journal Classical Voice of North Carolina.

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