Saturday, August 20, 2005

New York Times Cultural Myopia Gone Wild!

Once again, the New York Times examines the decline of classical music audiences and the inability of symphony orchestras to fill their halls. And - once again - the continuing success of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in defying that trend is... completely ignored. But unlike the previous article when a small group of mainly non-West Coast elite orchestras were examined, now the LA Phil is almost the only orchestra NOT discussed. And if you think I am exaggerating - here is the list discussed in the article:

New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Miami Beach, St. Paul, Spokane, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Fort Wayne, Houston, Omaha, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Duluth, New Jersey... and the Royal Scottish.

Amazingly, in an article describing what it takes to fill the seats at a classical music hall - the most successful example in defying the trend (Los Angeles) is... ignored.

Here are some quotes from the article:

Few major orchestras can fill their halls night after night. Over the decade that started with the 1993-94 season, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League, total attendance at 1,200 orchestras dropped from 30.7 million to 27.7 million, while the number of concerts rose from 27,000 to 37,000. Most major orchestras are earning less and spending more.

Crucially, subscriptions - a critical part of orchestra finances - are declining. And every subscription not renewed is yet one more batch of tickets that must be sold just to stay even. Single-ticket sales usually do not make up the difference.

Why are audiences shrinking? It's the great debate in the classical-music world, as pervasive a topic as race in South Africa or real estate in New York: Is the business of classical music as we know it dying?

Pessimists say it is at least on the decline, and blame a lack of music education, shorter attention spans, an image-obsessed culture and a vast new world of entertainment options. Another point of view says classical music is alive and well, with more listening than ever occurring at home or in the car. Maybe, this line of thought goes, the problem is not demand but supply: too many orchestras are playing too many concerts.

"It used to be orchestras had very small staffs and gave many fewer concerts," said Joseph Horowitz, the author of the recent book "Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall." "This is the nub of the issue. It's a surfeit of product that's causing many of the dysfunctions." That, he says, and the lack of charismatic music directors, amid an overabundance of marketing directors. (Most orchestras did not even have marketing departments until the 1970's. Today, a staff of a dozen is typical.) And there are always practical considerations like concertgoers in suburbs spreading ever farther from downtown concert halls, difficult parking and expensive tickets.

As for the solutions to this problem:

• At the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's "Classical Connections" series for the under-40 set, you can speed date, take salsa lessons or exchange résumés before the performance, a shortened concert with onstage commentary and occasional video.

• For six Friday nights, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will play a traditional program for the first half of the evening, but then provide the choice of chamber music or jazz in the lobby for the second half.

• The New World Symphony, a high-level training orchestra in Miami Beach led by Michael Tilson Thomas, will play four 20-minute concerts in one evening, each on the hour, from 7 to 10.

• Under-30's attending a Spokane Symphony Beethoven concert will receive free "Beethoven Bash" T-shirts.

• The Chicago Symphony Orchestra's "Beyond the Score" series offers a "live documentary" on a major piece - film clips, an actor reading letters, comments from the conductor and musical examples from the orchestra - followed by a performance of the piece in the second half of the program.

• Peter Schickele, of P. D. Q. Bach infamy, will be the host of three short, early-starting concerts of old war horses at the otherwise reliably staid New York Philharmonic.


Bob G said...

Brady, did the story refer to the price of tickets? When the price for a ticket is north of $90 for a concert that lasts 62 minutes, people who have to consider cost start to consider the alternatives. In the last couple of years at the music center, the LA Phil had quite a few empty seats even at balcony prices. I suspect that the current frenzy over Disney hall ticketing will show a little slacking after a while. I have been to well over a hundred concerts at the Chandler Pavilion, but exactly one concert at Disney Hall. It would cost me minimally $75 to take my wife to a concert there, assuming I could even buy the lower price tickets, which proved to be impossible the past couple of years.

We may simply be witnessing traditional economics at work here. It's called the "market clearing price."

Brady Westwater said...

Excellent point, Bob! And in just one sentence - and then as the last of the three points in that one sentence (the audiences moving to distant suburbs, difficulty in parking and then - almost as an after thought - expensive ticket ptices) - was that subject even broached.

But while ticket prices do deter many people - have you seen what Laker tickets are these days? - or theater tickets or rock concert tickets?

So with regular tickets as low as $25 (and with the superb acoustics - I think they are a comparative bargain) and with senior and student rush tickets at $10, I do not think that price is the major problem.

As for the sprinkling of empty seats in DIsney Hall, since the best seats sell out so early and many are in subscription series, there will always be subscribers who have bought tickets, but find themselves unable to go. Sales, as I understand it, are still very, very strong.

The big long term problem/solution as I see it is education AND having a second orchestra with much lower ticket prices to help develop new audiences. And I will be addressing both of these issues in my new website.