Time to Change

Like many NewMusicBox readers I’ve been perusing the steady trickle of concert brochures and view books for the 2009/10 season, and as usual American symphony orchestras have half-risen to the occasion, with a few remarkable programming choices amidst other programs that would have seemed overly conservative fifty years ago. But given the amount ink of that’s already been spilled over the programming habits of these major organizations, I’d like to turn my remarks to a different but related issue that seems plagued by a similar lack of innovation: concert scheduling.

Quick—you’ve just arrived at orchestra hall for a concert you’ve been looking forward to: what time is it? Most likely just shy of 7:00, 7:30, or 8:00 P.M., on the weekend or just preceding it. Especially for those of us who don’t happen to live in a major metropolitan arts-hub like New York (where there’s fairly consistent concertizing during the week fueled in part by the presence of many smaller music organizations), symphony orchestra concerts inevitably become associated with very particular times.

The most common departure from this regimen (when there is a departure) is the weekday or Sunday matinee concert, which usually welcomes a very different audience demographic than do evening concerts: children, the very elderly, and others who might find getting out of orchestra hall after 10:30 PM distasteful if not outright implausible.

This makes me wonder why more American orchestras have not experimented with changing up their concert times to reflect the needs of those potential audience members to whom they so urgently need to cater.

For example, a great amount of our population now resides in the suburbs, although many commute to the city for work; do they really want to kill three hours before the 8:00 PM downbeat, or else commute to the city a second time? I could envision shorter, one-and-half-hour concerts without intermission that started at 6:00 PM being a big hit for a certain kind of audience member; likewise, a lunchtime chamber series might have the potential to score a big hit, with about 45 minutes of music presented in a more informal setting, perhaps with a small meal included in the ticket price and redeemable immediately following the concert. Last year members of the Berlin Philharmonic presented a late-night concert of my works at the Berliner Kabarett Anstalt-Theater, a wonderful speakeasy-like venue filled with comfy armchairs and staffed with waiters who offer drinks and finger food before the concert and during intermission; I didn’t mind people chowing down to my music, especially since nothing on the menu was crunchy (clever!) and bringing one’s own crinkly brown-bag was verboten.

Orchestras that made a strong commitment to incorporating more diverse concert schedules into their season planning would go a long way toward attracting the burgeoning “young professional” class that they desperately need to cultivate if they aim to remain solvent in the 21st century. Not being an orchestra administrator myself, I’m unsure if these kinds of changes would significantly increase the organization’s overhead. But the orchestra musicians are already accustomed to playing split weeks or with reduced strings, and they employ a rotation system to keep the workload spread evenly; so there’s already a solid foundation that could be built upon to make the kinds of changes I’m suggesting a reality.

We are frequently reminded, either explicitly or implicitly, that we can’t have too much new music (or interesting, less-frequently heard old music) on our orchestra programs because it would drive away a portion of the audience; despite some admirable improvements, we still have very little serious contemporary music featured at American orchestra concerts and ticket sales continue to sag anyway. So maybe if orchestras are interested in upping ticket sales, they might instead consider offering people some slightly cheaper, shorter concert options at times likely to appeal to their busy schedules.

3 thoughts on “Time to Change

  1. Troy Ramos

    We are frequently reminded, either explicitly or implicitly, that we can’t have too much new music (or interesting, less-frequently heard old music) on our orchestra programs because it would drive away a portion of the audience; despite some admirable improvements, we still have very little serious contemporary music featured at American orchestra concerts and ticket sales continue to sag anyway

    When you think about the ‘if you play them (i.e. the “classics”), they will come’ rationale for ticket sales, it’s interesting to note that they actually don’t know that the opposite wouldn’t be true because they’ve never tried it.

    It’s almost like fear mongering in politics: ‘things will get really bad if we do this’ or ‘the sky will fall if we don’t take this path’, etc. Sometimes I think a major orchestra could have a mere 4 or 5 people in the audience and their response would be: ” You see, people aren’t coming because we’re still not playing enough of the classics!”

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    Thanks CM, I was not aware of these NY Phil concerts. I will be interested to see how the experiment fares.

    Reply

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