Another portent

This is the second news item I promised yesterday. Might have commented on it a while ago, but…life happened. 

The Cleveland Orchestra wants a younger audience. Though the headline in the Cleveland Plain Dealer story about that was pretty mild. “Free tickets for children one of many new initiatives planned by Cleveland Orchestra.” 

And yes, anyone under 18 will in the future get free admission to the lawn, for the orchestra’s summer concerts at the Blossom Music Center. And, at some point, they’ll also get free tickets to at least some of the orchestra’s main performances at Severance Hall. 

But the story had a bigger tale to tell. The orchestra — as part of an eight-year program to reach younger people — will create a Center for Future Audiences. It’ll make extraordinary efforts, it says, to reach younger people, bring them to concerts, and welcome them once they’re there. Already musicians from the orchestra have been playing in bars to get attention. “I have enormous faith,” says the orchestra’s marketing head, “that, by 2018, we can have one of the youngest audiences in the country. It’s going to the change the conversation about us.”

So…a few points about this.

They wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t have a problem they need to fix. 
Or actually, as it turns out, two problems. One is declining attendance. And the second, according to the Plain Dealer story, is that they need to raise more money, more than they’ve ever raised before. The newspaper story quotes the orchestra’s executive director, Gary Hanson. If his institution is going to be “worthy of extraordinary philanthropy,” he says, “we have to demonstrate that the orchestra is prepared to change.”

Those are very strong words. And note the backstory. Some years ago, the orchestra projected dire financial problems if it didn’t find a way to raise more money than, at the time, it thought it could raise in Cleveland. So they set up residencies elsewhere, in New York, San Francisco, and Lucerne, but especially in Miami, where they’ve been spending three weeks every year, and — the key to the enterprise — raising enough money to lift them out of financial disaster.

Or, rather, to lift them out of disaster in past years. Now, it seems, they think they’re facing problems again, and have to turn the focus back to Cleveland, to raise more money there. Not that they say they’re giving up on Miami. Gary told me they want to raise more money there, as well. But the picture here is of an institution that solved a past crisis with an enterprising plan (playing and raising funds outside its home city), but now has moved into a new era, and needs a new plan. 

But let’s continue with the points I want to raise.

Do they know how to draw a young audience?

All the plans I’ve seen outlined are about making access easier — cheaper (or free) tickets, transportation to concerts. Well, they’re also going out into community locations, even bars, to make people aware of the orchestra. 

But two things they don’t seem to have addressed, yet are programming and presentation. That is, what music will they play for their new, young audience, and how will they present it? Will they play their usual repertoire, in their standard formal dress? Or will they shake things up? 

“Programming ideas,” the Plain Dealer story said, “will come in part from the musicians and music director Franz Welser-Möst.” Which sounds reasonable, but how much thought have the musicians or Franz or the institution given to the changes that ought to be necessary? I don’t believe that easier access will solve the larger classical music problems that are looming here. 

Our whole field, I think, is in a collision course with contemporary culture, and either we adapt, or we die. Does the Cleveland Orchestra understand this? 

Which leads me to my final point:

They’re reinventing the wheel.

Or at least they’re reinventing it where Cleveland is concerned. Because Cleveland already had Red, An Orchestra, which for a few years drew a large young audience. It then ran into financial problems — apparently the result of really bad financial management — and disappeared. But from everything I’ve heard, it succeeded wonderfully. And the secret of its success was programming and presentation, along with very smart branding, based on the color red. 

So what has the Cleveland Orchestra learned from this? You’d think they’d be mining Red’s experience to learn what they might do, to draw exactly the same audience. But are they?
Footnote: You play in bars to interest a young audience. Then you bring them into Severance Hall on low-price tickets — and play the same concert you would have played if they weren’t there, a concert that’s about as far from a bar as it’s possible to get. That’s a contradiction the Cleveland Orchestra will have to think about. I trust they’re doing it. 

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  1. says


    Programming. You hit the nail on the head. They need to look at Alan Gilbert in New York and look back at Esa-Pekka Salonen, in L.A. I mean, it’s too soon to look at Dudamel. but E-P. S. set the town on fire. His Minimalist Jukebox was I believe 85% sold out, which I think was judged a (stunning) success.