Good things — the Pittsburgh Symphony

In answers to a comment a few posts ago, I made the mistake of saying I’d seen half-full houses at the Pittsburgh Symphony. That was true, but it happened a few seasons ago, and the orchestra is doing much better now. As I should have noted! I was both discourteous and inaccurate.

The growth in both total audience and subscriptions in Pittsburgh has been pretty dramatic in the past couple of years, in fact. We could argue about whether this reverses the trend in the industry, since Pittsburgh is recovering from a larger drop in sales and subscriptions than most orchestras have seen. If they can raise their subscription rate above the industry average, which is around 60%, and keep raising it, then there’s no argument.

And — even if some people in the industry (reflecting the current conventional wisdom) might think that’s improbable — the orchestra does have one thing going for it, which is a change in the way it gives some of its concerts. It’s tried to create what it calls “entry points,” for both new and old listeners, meaning special things that go on before, during, or after concerts, which give people in the audience a way to grasp something about the music, and then hang onto it. I haven’t seen any of these in operation (if I don’t count a pre-concert multimedia presentation I gave in the fall on Shostakovich), but I’ve been told about some ideas that seem (and apparently really were) quite exciting.

My favorite is something they did when they played a Jennifer Higdon piece, and may do again for new or modern repertoire. Before the concert, musicians from the orchestra could be found in various parts of the hall, demonstrating some of the music in the piece. Everyone from the audience could walk around and listen, and — most important — also talk to the musicians, and ask questions, in that way both learning some of the music in the piece, and building at least the start of a relationship with the musicians playing it. No one can tell me people in the audience won’t feel more connected to the music, if they look at the stage from their seats, and say, “There’s Cindy, the principal oboist. I really loved talking to her! Now she’s playing that passage she showed us, the one she likes, but said was so tricky to manage.”

In the future, I’m told, the orchestra wants the musicians available after the performance, as well as before, to give people a chance to build on their listening experience, by talking again to the players after the performance.

Here, I detect a delightful resemblance to something I imagined in my blog entry about the Apple Store. There I wrote that if you have a chamber group…you could open the house an hour before your concert (or however early might be practical), and let people come and hang out with you onstage. You can talk with them, answer questions, play a little to demonstrate.

I didn’t dare to imagine that an orchestra could do some version of this, which puts the Pittsburgh Symphony way ahead of me. It’s interesting, though, and wonderfully encouraging, to see similar ideas surfacing in many places at once. As, for instance, has happened with the idea — tremendously successful, in many places where it’s been tried — of putting classical music in clubs. What this means, I think, is that many of us are looking at the classical music world, and seeing the same problems. So it’s hardly a surprise that we’d propose similar solutions. Which means, as I’ve said before, that we’re evolving our future, and that it’s a future that seems to work. Maybe the Pittsburgh Symphony will sell more tickets than conventional wisdom would expect.

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  1. Matthew M says

    Hey, Greg! I’m glad you gave the PSO some recognition. They’re trying as hard as they can to engage audience members before and after the concert. I’ve really, really enjoyed these efforts.

    Their pre-concert lectures often include musicians and assistant conductors, and after one concert that premiered two concertos, a panel that included the two soloists, two composers, and the conductor answered audience questions. It was a lot of fun. The symphony also hosted Starbucks-sponsored “talk-backs” after every concert that often brought in some musicians who would speak in small groups with the audience about the performance.

    In regards to your vision of the ideal concert, I remember one performance where they had a youth chamber group performing pieces by Mozart before the concert began. Of course, the audience responded favorably and enjoyed interacting with the young musicians afterwards.

    This was all in the 2005-06 season, and it was hard to move away from Pittsburgh because of this engaging ensemble. Boy, I sound like a PR mouthpiece, but I really can’t praise this group enough.