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The Orchestra’s vanishing audienceBY: Dan Rottenberg 05.24.2011
The Philadelphia Orchestra has lost 40% of its audience since Riccardo Muti departed. That statistic begs a fundamental question: What’s the point of balancing your books if you can’t sell your product?
A financial crisis, or a marketing crisis?DAN ROTTENBERG
To most observers, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent bankruptcy petition is perceived as a long-range attempt to solve the Orchestra’s financial crisis by reining in its runaway costs, especially with the Orchestra’s pension plan and its rent at the Kimmel Center. Yet in a column in last week’s Inquirer (May 18), the Orchestra’s board chairman, Richard B. Worley, readily acknowledged that the cause of the Orchestra’s financial crisis is not rising costs but declining revenue.
Over the past two decades, Worley noted, the Orchestra’s annual attendance has declined from 250,000 to 150,000, and half of that decline has occurred in the past five years. As a result, he said, ticket revenue has dropped to the point where it accounts for only one-third of the Orchestra’s expenses, and donations have fallen to “half the level of other major orchestras.”
To put it another way: Since the charismatic if tempestuous Riccardo Muti stepped down as music director in 1992, the Orchestra has lost roughly 40% of its audience, even though (in the judgment of many expert observers) the quality of its music has actually improved. The opening of Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center in 2001 should have reversed that decline, if only by virtue of its novelty; instead, the audience decline actually accelerated after the Kimmel opened. Without the Kimmel, one must conclude, the decline might have been even more severe.
These dismaying statistics raise a fundamental question: Even if the Orchestra manages to renegotiate its rent and its pension obligations, what then? What’s the point of balancing your books if you can’t sell your product?
Worley’s column neglected to explain the audience decline. He especially neglected to explain why other major orchestras with older concert halls have avoided bankruptcy and (in some cases) even flourished during this period. But several explanations come readily to mind.
—Muti’s successors, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach, capable as they may have been, failed to connect emotionally with Philadelphia audiences the way Muti did. (People loved Muti or hated him, but at least they cared.)
— The Orchestra dithered in its choice of a successor for Eschenbach, leaving its most important position in limbo for nearly four years.
— The Orchestra’s marketing has been limp and, in some cases, downright embarrassing. Think of the “Unexpect yourself!” slogan of 2009-10, or the “One really big season” campaign of 2007-08, which implied that every subsequent Orchestra season would be a dud.
— Philadelphia music lovers now enjoy a variety of concertgoing alternatives provided by hungrier, more creative and more entrepreneurial organizations like the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the Chamber Orchestra, Dolce Suono, Orchestra 2001, Tempesta di Mare, Vox Ama Deus, Piffaro, Astral Artists— the list is endless.
— Competent second-level symphony orchestras in places like Haddonfield and Lansdowne now appeal to suburbanites who’d rather not venture downtown.
Waiting for Yannick
Nor did Worley explain what the Orchestra will do differently in order to win people back. “We intend to rebuild our audience by continuing to perform at the highest level, presenting exciting programs and guest artists, and innovating,” was the extent of his discussion on this issue. Are you as excited about this vision of the Orchestra’s future as I am?
Perhaps the Orchestra’s designated music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin— who at age 36 is even younger and more charismatic than Muti was when he took charge in 1980, at age 39— will turn it all around. I hope Yannick has strong shoulders. A great deal will be riding on them.♦
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