Tuesday, October 6, 2009

To hell with a six-concert season!

Just a couple of days ago, Barry Johnson of The Oregonian, suggested in an article that the Oregon Symphony "do less with more" by cutting back its classical subscription series to just six concerts. I hate this idea, because it strikes me as one in which the orchestra has thrown in its spit rags and be placed on a level with much, much smaller orchestras. Heck, I review the Vancouver Symphony across the river for The Columbian, and that ensemble manages to mount six concerts a year. Of course, the rebuttal is that the Oregon Symphony could perform six incredible concerts to sold-out audiences. Well, the problem with just six concerts is that the orchestra would probably lose the services of its music director Carlos Kalmar and a lot of the symphony's roster, because they would try to make a living elsewhere. So, the Oregon Symphony would end up with a journeyman conductor, part-time orchestra members, six mediocre concerts, and suffer a loss momentum and prestige.

Last year, the Oregon Symphony closed out its most successful year ever in terms of ticket sales, and though tickets sales have fallen off at the beginning of this year, that doesn't mean that the orchestra has to abandon hope. The orchestra has responded by offering its ticket stub incentive, and I would wager that there will be other ideas that might help to stimulate sales. A couple of years ago the orchestra faced a similar start to the season and ended up selling over $5 million dollars in tickets.

I don't know how many music students from Portland State University attend concerts, but I do know that there are more music students than ever before and that its boasts 23 full-time faculty members and 35 part-time faculty members. Plenty of students are studying music at Lewis & Clark, the University of Portland, Reed, Warner Pacific, and PCC. Most of these students probably cannot afford to purchase a season series of Oregon Symphony concerts, but they can be tapped into for cheap tickets and help to create a buzz for the orchestra's concerts.

For more than thirty years, people have been writing about the aging demographics of symphony goers, but that's just a lot of crap. If that were true, then all of the audience at the Schnitz would be in their 90s. People get interested in classical music for all sorts of reasons, and one of the main reasons is that people just get tired of listening to popular music - partly because most pieces of popular music last only three minutes. So many people become avid listeners of classical music after the age of 40.

Even though the current economic situation is terrible, this is not the time for the orchestra to think small. The orchestra is playing better than ever. It delivers terrific musical experiences. Just to compare a bit, the Portland Trailblazers are not cutting back their season. They are expecting to contend for the NBA championship, and I think that they will sell out most of their games (and those tickets are expensive). With the Oregon Symphony, we've got a top-tier orchestra that does our state proud. Its musicians competed for an invitation to Carnegie Hall and got it. It deserves the support of anyone who is interested in great music-making. I think that a rallying cry is in order. To hell with a six-concert season!


S.Llewellyn said...

James, I am in complete agreement with your views on this. How do supposedly educated and sophisticated people come up with this nonsense? Do they really not think it through? Thank goodness for bloggers like yourself. I have no idea what I might do to aid your rallying cry but you may count me as a supporter.

James Bash said...

Thanks Stephen!

Unknown said...

I whole-heartedly agree. While I know it takes some comp. tickets or a lot of persuasion to get most of my friends in the 20-25 year old range who aren't students to see a classical music concert, things would be a lot easier if tickets were cheaper. Classical music won't die because of a lack of interest, it just takes time for people to accumulate the monetary wealth to develop that interest.

A lot of young people I know listen to classical music via mp3s, though it's mostly orchestral. Opera will always be hard to sell on CD unless you know the music/story already. That's why I love Opera Theater Oregon and their cheap ticket prices and english productions, I can actually get people my age to go to these shows and they always seem to have a good time. I think those same people would enjoy some cheap seats for a great show.

Well, I've ranted but that's my two cents, thanks for striking a chord.

Lorin Wilkerson said...

I'll take up that rallying cry. To hell with a six-concert season! Hopefully nothing of the sort is actually being considered by the folks with the authority to make such a decision.

Ralph Nelson said...

James -- way to go! I agree totally. I don't know if you know about the Henry Fogel (former Chicago Symphony President's) famous marketing story. Apparently in the 1990s the CSO did a marketing survey and found that the average age of a concertgoer was (I think -- I'm going by memory, so numbers aren't exact)about 68. This had everyone up in arms until Henry found in the archives a survey done in the early 1950s that showed that the average age was about 68! In short, what I've always found, especially in my experience as former Marketing director for the OSO (1993-2002) was that people come ("discover") symphonies when they get the kids out of the house and when at least one partner has more time on his/her hands.

The good news about this is that our population demographics (with the advent of the baby-boomers into this age group) now contain the largest # of people in this "target" age group that we have ever seen in history, and if marketing efforts are aimed at this group -- it should produce good results. In my opinion, sometimes arts groups try too hard to cultivate an 'under 30' group -- that will produce only very limited results and waste a lot of financial resources that could be spent cultivated the aging baby-boomers.

I use the word "discover" because in almost all cases, the love of this music has been there for years -- I'd venture to say that almost 90% of any symphony audience either played an instrument or sang in high school and/or college, where they "discovered" that the works Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Wagner, Stravinksy, et al are some of the finest creations that the human race has ever produced -- but people in early life (20s, 30s, 40s) are just too busy, and now when they have some time (in their 50s and beyond), they will seek out avenues (like the Symphony, Opera, PBO, Chamber Music Northwest, etc.) As long as organizations maintain the highest quality - I firmly believe that these groups will survive -- they may have to cut back from time to time - but with good management (and at the OSO Elaine Calder is fabulous!) and with financial support of music-loving angels, they will survive. Thanks you James for your blog -- it is one of the most important ways that serious music lovers learn about music in town! Ralph Nelson