by Alaina Mabaso
I’ll be honest: while I’ve been to hundreds of plays and concerts, I went to an orchestra performance for the first time this year. As a caretaker to an elderly family member, I found myself at the Bryn Athyn Orchestra’s spring matinee performance. In my late 20s, I was certainly one of the youngest people in attendance.

When Eugene Ormandy was conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an unusually long reign from 1936 to 1980, the orchestra’s concerts were almost all sold out. Today concerts are rarely sold out, and the audience numbers keep dropping. Why is this so, and what, if anything, can be done about it?

The same was true of Broad Street Review’s (an online magazine) Philadelphia Orchestra discussion panel at the University of the Arts’ Hamilton Hall recently. I myself have never been to a Philadelphia Orchestra performance, but I was interested in the larger questions the evening promised, about an arts organization’s continued viability in the modern world.

I’m no stranger to classical music, though my instrumental training was limited to a few squawky months on a plastic recorder in fourth grade. My brother took up the cornet for a few years, and his practice reverberated throughout the household.

During those years, my grandmother, a watercolor artist, gave me a VHS copy of Disney’s “Fantasia” for Christmas. My dad called it Boring-Tasia, but I watched it over and over. To this day, “The Rite of Spring” or “Dance of the Hours” never fails to evoke a misty primordial world or ballet-dancing ostriches. Now I learn that it was the Philadelphia Orchestra which played many of the pieces in that classic film.

Today, Vivaldi, Mozart, Handel, Strauss, Bach, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky are my frequent companions — on my iPod, that is. In fact, I doubt I could write anything without them.

But why haven’t my peers and I been to the Philadelphia Orchestra, especially when it so desperately needs a new generation of patrons? Broad Street Review brought seven panelists together to attempt some answers.

Clarence Faulcon, BSR contributor and former chairman of the Music Department at Morgan State University, unleashed a litany of public relations failures, including the orchestra’s lack of outreach to local minority groups with a rich history in classical music. Despite obvious differences in profit margin, Faulcon urged orchestra marketers to look to the multicultural, multi-lateral campaigns of Philadelphia’s most lucrative institutions: its sports teams.

Other questions of marketing included just how much of the onus for promotions should fall on the musicians themselves. Should they be out “on stump” in the community? Musicians have already played in the mall, streets and subway to little effect on ticket sales, insisted panelist Davyd Booth, a Philadelphia Orchestra violinist. One panel attendee countered that the orchestra’s players have failed to create a social media presence, promoting their performances on Facebook, blogs or Twitter, an essential move to engage younger audiences.

It’s an unfortunate irony, because our orchestra has been ahead of the pack as far as access through technology. As panelist Juliet Goodfriend, President of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, pointed out, the Philadelphia Orchestra was the first to record performances on disk and to live-stream over the internet — though, due to lackluster marketing, few people know this.

Faulcon insisted that the orchestra must begin marketing beyond its own self-interest and pay more attention to social initiatives, like sports teams who have donned pink apparel for breast cancer awareness. “Painting it pink isn’t going to help,” Goodfriend replied sharply.

Many audience members agreed with her fundamental suggestion for maintaining orchestra attendance: support music in our schools. Market research has shown that the most consistent factor among today’s orchestra-goers is that they played an instrument in school. No wonder orchestra attendance is declining all over the country, as music programs are among the first to be cut when schools face budget woes.

The question of youngsters applies to another thorny issue, especially for an artistically conservative orchestra like Philadelphia’s. Should orchestras be reaching out to the next generation of ticket-buyers by performing contemporary works?

Nothing empties a concert hall faster than contemporary music, insisted Booth.

People who advocate the performance of living composers’ music are a tiny but overly vocal segment of the audience. But others on the panel countered that many top orchestras do perform new music. This does risk alienating older audiences, but elderly ticket-buyers are not going to be around forever. Who will take their place, if orchestras do not reach out with new material now?

Booth was reluctant to agree on new music’s merit, suggesting that all of the great classical music the world will ever know has already been written, with Richard Strauss being the last truly worthwhile major composer.

BSR contributor and audience member Jim Rutter disagreed, pointing out that contemporary classical music albums have sold millions of copies among young people — the full orchestral scores that accompany many wildly popular video games. Orchestras who deign to perform these modern composers’ work pack their houses with a new generation of music-lovers.

As for myself, I think the assertion that there will never be another great classical composer is incredibly arrogant. Perhaps, being so young and still waiting for my chance to stun the world, it’s my naiveté that leaves me so galled. But it seems to me that reflexive assumptions about the impossibility of unknown future greatness would be the death knell of any arts organization.

Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart, et al, have plenty of company on my iPod: they’re joined by Hans Zimmer, Howard Shore, Yann Tiersen, John Williams and Philip Glass. I would certainly consider attending live performances of music by these and many more living composers.

Of course, the panel discussion would not have been complete without some hearty vilification of cantankerous critics: “corrosive”, “poisonous” and “a destructive force” were just some of the phrases used to describe injustices at the hands of music writers. Some attendees bemoaned the role of the Inquirer in perpetuating bad criticism.

Whether or not the orchestra is financially, socially and artistically well-founded, panelist and critic Peter Burwasser declared that it is going to be saved, because the alternative is not an option.

At the end of the discussion, all I really know about it is that nothing brings me to a standstill in the train station — or brings a bill out of my purse — better than a good cellist parked by the platform stairs. I hope Burwasser is right.