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Expecting hard times, orchestras are changing their tune

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The DC Youth Orchestra sees the economic downturn as an opportunity to expand their role in their community. (Courtesty of DC Youth Orchestra Program; Photo by Neill Roan)

Out of work residents of Rochester, N.Y., may have trouble making ends meet, but they won’t need to give up their season tickets to their hometown orchestra, even if they can’t cover the tab for the next season.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra is offering to hold the seats of unemployed Rochester-area season subscribers until Sept. 15. If subscribers are still unemployed by that date, the orchestra will give them free subscriptions for the 2009-2010 season. The move is an attempt by the orchestra to sustain its subscriber base of 8,000. It is just one way orchestras around the country are trying to stay afloat in hard times.

“People need that haven of going to that concert, where they can experience relief from the stress of their lives; the arts are not just for those with disposable income,” said Jennifer Burch, a 15-year veteran French horn player with the Rochester Philharmonic.

Expecting hard times, some orchestras are canceling concerts, cutting their budgets and even resorting to layoffs. But some orchestras are responding to the harsh economic climate with creativity, offering discount tickets and engaging their audiences to keep their budgets afloat.

“Everyone has adjustments to make,” said Judith Kurnick, vice president of strategic communications at the League of American Orchestras.

The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra was initially planning to perform Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, which is famous for its grand orchestrations that require very large ensembles. Instead, the Albuquerque-based orchestra will perform Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” this May, a choral favorite with audiences that requires fewer performers and is, in turn, less expensive to produce.

“That piece in particular calls for more musicians than we have on our roster, so we have to hire extras, and orchestras have to show their community that they are being fiscally responsible,” said David Sherry, vice president of marketing at the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra.

The New Mexico Symphony has also pared down its season of 11 classical music concerts to 10 for its upcoming season, reducing costs both for the orchestra and for its subscribers.

Tara Klein, 28, a cellist with the Akron Symphony Orchestra in Ohio, has noticed a shift in her orchestra’s programming this season, saying that the focus has been on making the programming interesting and accessible to audiences.

“This year, they’ve scheduled many pops concerts,’’ Klein said. “And we had a concert on Lincoln’s birthday where we played a whole bunch of works connected with Lincoln and had a media presentation.”

The Akron Symphony’s conductor and concertmaster have also begun to give lectures on the program before each concert and a question-and-answer session afterward, Klein said.

Most orchestras have three primary sources of revenue: ticket sales, which account for 30 to 50 percent of most orchestras’ revenue; individual and corporate donations; and revenue generated from an endowment, held by large orchestras.

The size and scope of the current economic crisis means orchestras across the country face hits to all three major revenue sources. And for some orchestras, the worst is yet to come.

“Ticket sales have not been impacted because orchestras sell subscriptions a year ahead,” Kurnick said. Most orchestras have just begun their subscription campaigns for next year’s season, and it will not be an easy road ahead.

Several orchestras are offering discounted tickets for younger concertgoers as a way to fill otherwise empty seats and build a future subscriber base.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is offering $11 tickets to anyone under the age of 37. And for its March concerts, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is selling $5 tickets to college students and $1 tickets for those 18 and under.

Despite economic concerns, some devoted audience members have not been discouraged from attending, but are less inclined to commit to a season subscription. “I still go to as many concerts as I can,” said James Bonkovsky, 51, an arts consultant based in New York City, but “I am less eager to do subscriptions because they are getting expensive.”

Bonkovsky attends several performances a week, but he says he may need to adjust his personal budget, which includes his concert going habits, in the near future. “I consult for a few organizations and I may lose one of the jobs, so that may change things,” Bonkovsky said.

As full-time orchestras prepare for a potentially discouraging subscription campaign and endure a decrease in donations, small orchestras and youth orchestras see the downturn as an opportunity to expand their role in the community.

“All of our concerts are free, so we don’t have that revenue concern,” said Ava Spece, executive director of the DC Youth Orchestra Program, a competitive youth orchestra with student performers between the ages of 4 1/2 to 19.

“Before we stop going out to dinner, we may consider going to a cheaper restaurant,” said Ava Spece, explaining that the economic difficulties may lead classical music enthusiasts to consider cost-saving measures like attending free concerts before they stop attending concerts altogether.

Jennifer Burch remained skeptical about the argument that audiences will gravitate to student orchestras to save money. “We have one of the top music schools” in Rochester, the Eastman School, “and there is terrific music coming out of that school,’’ she said. But “we have never seen that there’s a competition between what the RPO and the Eastman School bring to the community.”

Despite the current economic hurdles that may force some to disband, orchestras are, on the whole, highly resilient performing arts groups, Kurnick says.

“Fewer than 10 orchestras in the last 50 years have not reopened in some other form,” Kurnick said. “Whatever happens, we recognize that there is a desire to have an orchestra.”

E-mail: smo2002@columbia.edu