Symphony blues

Last month the Wall Street Journal carried two articles on the plight of classical music in the U.S. today--one on the trials of attracting audiences to symphony performances and the other on a new PBS series.

In discussing endeavors to fill concert halls, "Unsuccessful overtures" (Nov. 4, P14) focused on a project of the James S. and John L. Knight Foundation called the Magic of Music Initiative, which spanned 10 years and involved 15 orchestras. The final report of the project, The Search for Shining Eyes (pdf, 59pp/4.5MB), was published in September.
It deserves attention precisely because it debunks many salvation strategies -- free concerts in clubs, cafes and museums; using jean-clad, not tuxedo-garbed, musicians; online instruction and other programs to educate the masses, among others -- that symphonies keep using to attract concertgoers, to little avail. These efforts may have other benefits, but they're not increasing the number of tickets sold.
The report does not give specific solutions to the dilemma. According to the article, people listen to classical music most in the car, then the home, not the concert hall. "Lesson No. 1 in the report blames the problems of orchestras on 'the delivery systems'--it's clear that people do not want to pay hefty sums for a long concert in a large concert hall." What to do? Keep experimenting. "There are, after all, plenty of people interested in classical music--just not the way that music is being served up."

The Honolulu Symphony has faced similar problems with attendance and revenue. To boost both, a Honolulu Advertiser article in January reported on major changes symphony management was undertaking.

In the second WSJ article, "Doubting Thomas" (Nov. 11, P24), writer Terry Teachout raved about Keeping Score, a series hosted by Michael Tilson Thomas that began with three hour-long documentaries in November. "It's terrific," he declared, but after describing the programs, rued, "Nobody is going to watch them." DVDs of the programs will be available. Teachout continued, "Believe me, they're worth watching--but once again, who's going to buy them?" "Keeping Score" is set to have a 5-year run on PBS. Teachout believes it should be a half-hour series. "Such a format would be far more accessible to younger viewers with shorter attention spans, not to mention older ones with crowded schedules."

Times and audiences have changed.


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