On saving the Orchestra: The view from the suburbs

Suburbanites and the Orchestra

4 minute read
Who will make the case for the long trip to Verizon Hall?
Who will make the case for the long trip to Verizon Hall?
In "How To Save The Philadelphia Orchestra," the retired music professor Clarence Faulcon raises some salient issues. In "That Alice in Wonderland feeling," Alaina Mabaso explained why 20-somethings like her prefer to get their classical music via iPod rather than live in a concert hall. Let me speak for another overlooked and potentially huge Orchestra constituency: suburbanites.

In his discussion of the Orchestra's marketing of the Orchestra's music, Faulcon noted that thousands of dedicated Philadelphians listen regularly to classical music on radio station WRTI and support the station through their contributions. But many of these devoted listeners are suburbanites who don't patronize the Orchestra on a regular basis because of the long commute, the high cost of parking and/or safety issues on late-night suburban trains.

Nor should we expect a huge influx of suburbanites to move downtown in the near future to take advantage of the city's great cultural attractions. Many suburbanites are stuck in large homes that they can't sell in the current and projected economic environment. Their incomes have been reduced while their financially strapped local governments seek to tax them more. They may be supporting their children or helping to defray the unprecedented school and college tuition costs for their grandchildren. Add rising health care costs to this mix

So to gain/regain the patronage of suburbanites, the city (not just the Orchestra) needs to solve this transportation problem: how to get people into the city as pleasantly and as cost sensitively as possible?

Verizon's unique sound

If potential patrons rely too much on CDs and the radio for their classical listening experience, then the Orchestra's marketers need to emphasize just how great music sounds in Verizon Hall. Verizon Hall within the Kimmel Center is a wonderful space to hear music. But personally, it took me ten years after the Kimmel Center was built to venture in to attend a concert. For me, the complex is aesthetically problematic. It sits too heavily on its space on Broad Street and conjures feelings (in me, at least) of closedness rather than humanistic expansiveness.

Once I breached its forbidding walls, I found Verizon's sound to be marvelous, no matter where I've sat. This year Verizon's acoustics were upgraded. Why not spread the word?

How suburbanites socialize

Better yet, find a way through special offers—lower priced tickets, targeted marketing to groups, off-site visits to other cultural institutions— to draw people inside Verizon Hall. Suburbanites socialize through their churches, book clubs, volunteer work, their jobs or their children's schools. Why not hire buses so suburbanites can attend concerts in groups?

Companies could offer season tickets to employees as rewards for high performance or as Christmas gifts. Years ago, when I worked for Merck, my husband and I were delighted to be offered reduced priced tickets in exchange for the corporate donations that Merck made to the Orchestra. What has happened to such programs?

As Juliet Goodfriend of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute pointed out at BSR's panel discussion, music education for the young and the not so young is the primary determinant as to whether people attend Orchestra concerts as adults. We must be patient and consistent with these efforts for them to pay off. In the meantime, perhaps we Orchestra aficionados need a "Music Goes to School" program run by parents, similar to the vastly successful "Art Goes to School" program. Let's get some of those children out of the museums and into the concert hall to develop their auditory skills in addition to their visual skills.

The Dobrin issue

Let me add a side note concerning the alleged "corrosiveness" of Peter Dobrin's criticism in the Inquirer, as expressed at Broad Street Review's panel discussion: If Dobrin failed to appreciate a particular performance the way the rest of the crowd did on a particular evening— well, I find that interesting. As a reader as well as an Orchestra devotee, I would want to know why.

Are there aesthetic differences between what the Orchestra produced and the critic would like to see? Is the audience insufficiently educated to know what's a good performance and what isn't? Did the crowd get caught up in the moment with a chain reaction approval to a performance that could have been improved? Crowds do follow the call of the herd rather than personal assessment— ask any rock star or union organizer.

Critics aren't obliged to be right about everything. They do need to raise their readers' consciousness about the work being critiqued, to provoke thought and conversation, and to provide an independent viewpoint. Good criticism helps to refine the audience's powers of assessment. A loyal audience with increasingly cultivated tastes— young, old, urban, suburban— will not only relish the old favorites, but will welcome experimentation in the programs offered.♦

To read a response, click here.

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