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.

  • musicstudent

    If the opinion that great music ended with Richard Strauss is widely held among the Philadelphia Orchestra, then it’s dead, finished, a time capsule sinking in the mud. It’s a costly temple to a lifeless cultural relic that society will naturally move beyond. If they don’t wake up to the reality that art music is, as it always has been, a living, breathing entity with new pieces and ideas being created all the time, if they refuse to foster young composers and new music and at least attempt to connect to the musical world as it exists NOW, then we don’t need them. Let them rot.

    • AlienB

      musicstudent, rest assured not everyone in the Philadelphia Orchestra thinks music stopped with Richard Strauss. Still, your fiery condemnation of this “lifeless cultural relic” is laughable and arrogant. I doubt if someone of such opinion, sadly by no means original, has ever developed knowledge and love of classical symphonic repertoire in the first place. Clearly, it is not for everyone, never was and will never be.

      Though the number of new and contemporary works performed by most major symphony orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, is not insignificant, I am confident that if no new great symphonic work is ever written in the future, the 300 years trove of musical masterpieces will continue to amaze, challenge and inspire for the foreseeable future.

      But if you, or your friends, write or are aware of the existence of neglected contemporary, SYMPHONIC music that inspires classical performers and does NOT send audiences run for the exits to never return, by all means don’t let us rot. Bring it on, make my day.

      • musicstudent

        My comment was a knee-jerk reaction to ultra-conservative statements like the one Booth made. Still, I believe “outdated cultural relic” (what I should’ve written) is a very fair term for the orchestral classical music repertoire IF it’s cut off from music that’s being written now. That statement has nothing to do with the beauty or artistic validity of the music itself (something I’ve loved my entire life). However, the Philadelphia orchestra is facing a crisis, and while some will never believe this, that crisis has partly to do with a public that, at large, has little to no real interest in the music they’re playing. You can brush all this away by saying “classical music isn’t for everybody”, you can resign the art form to being a “niche” interest, and you can contend yourself with the thought of the many generations to come who will continue studying and learning classical music, to then spend their lives giving private lessons out of the back rooms of music stores.

        But then there’s people like me, people who love classical music and love pop music equally, who don’t see why the divide between “art music” and popular culture has to exist (it certainly doesn’t have the historic precedent some seem to think). People who want to see instrumental artists performing music from written scores recognized alongside singers and songwriters at award shows. People who want classical music to reach a wider audience not so more people can know about Brahms, but because they think it deserves a community of composers and listeners as vibrant and populace as the pop music community. And people like me, we HATE people like Booth. He does a bigger disservice to the orchestra and to the classical music world at large than any soulless administrative personnel ever could. Because he’s putting it in a museum like its some dusty da Vinci painting, when it belongs on the street just like any other music.

  • Arts lover

    There are many factors in the issue of declining Philadelphia Orchestra ticket sales, one of them the removal of music programs in the public schools, that removal being spurred by race and class discrimination, something no one wants to fully admit. When demographics began to really change back in the 70’s with Black and Brown students attending public schools in significant numbers, all of a sudden cuts to the arts were made. There were no problems with funding when the public school system was mostly White. This trend of decreasing arts funding denied at least two generations of youngsters from the joy of music making and appreciation, leaving a void filled by more accessible forms of music. Is it then a wonder that we now have two generations that have little to no interest in an art form that was denied them in their formative years. The commenter “musicstudent” makes a good point in that “…there’s people like me, people who love classical music and love pop music equally, who don’t see why the divide between “art music” and popular culture has to exist loves classical music and pop music equally.” There are lots of young people like “musicstudent” out there. When you lock people out of something fpr fear of “losing control” of that thing you claim to love so much, you lose them for good. They find other ways to spend their money.

  • Arts lover

    Another factor in decreased ticket sales is the move from the Academy of Music to the Kimmel Center, a soulless, ugly place with all the appeal of a shopping mall. The Philly Orchestra sold its soul when they left their beautiful long time home. The Academy was part of the identity of that orchestra, but now it just looks and sounds like a corporate entity. Everyone looks the same, and all the music sounds the same, no matter who is conducting. The lush, beautiful string sound the orchestra was once famous for is gone, having been whittled away at for the last 30 years beginning wit the tenure of Riccardo Muti. It breaks my heart to see the Academy filled with short run Broadway shows and one nighters while the orchestras plays in a big cigar box. The Kimmel was a mistake, period. Peope feel these things whether they say so or not. There is nothing specialo about the Philly Orchestra anymore. It’s just a generic,good American orchestra that plays the notes right. There also seems to be a designated quota of no more than 3 or 4 Black players, but Asians are ok. Hmm….