Audiences' 'graying' worries orchestras MUSIC IN SEARCH OF YOUNG EARS

April 12, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

"Live! From Baltimore! It's Wednesday night!"

That's the feeling you might get when flutist James Galway joins David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony this week for three subscription concerts.

One thing's for sure: It won't be like any other concert in the BSO's 76-year history. Mr. Galway will play in almost every piece on the program (even sitting in the orchestra to play Ravel's 2nd Daphnis Suite); he will trade jokes with Mr. Zinman; and he may even take questions from the audience, as if he were on the "Donahue Show."

This unusual concert is the most ambitious experiment yet in the orchestra's ongoing efforts to see if the music it plays can be reformatted to appeal to younger listeners. Although the BSO plays to nearly 90 percent of capacity, the mean age of the audience at the orchestra's evening classical concerts is 59, officials say. Thirty percent are older than 65; 48 percent are between 45 and 64; only 22 percent are younger than 45.

These figures are comparable to those for other orchestras. There are no nationwide statistics that establish definitively that the audience for symphonic music is older than it was 10 years ago. But many orchestras have noticed a definite aging trend: The percentage of subscribers to the Los Angeles Philharmonic who are over 65, for example, has risen 8 percent over the last five years.

There is also the possibility that people do not begin to like classical music until they are older, and it is by no means inevitable that concert-going audiences will disappear. Still, orchestras are worried because the generation of educated people under 45 has had less exposure to classical music than any other in the history of this country. In any case, there is a sea of gray heads out there in which orchestras fear they may perish.

"Live performance has to change or it won't exist anymore," Mr. Zinman says. "Our audience is getting older and older."

Financial woes

The classical-music business has faced a variety of crises for years, most of them financial. The BSO's endowment campaign in the mid-1980s left it in reasonably good condition, although two years ago it was forced to cancel a European tour and this year it had its request for a special $1 million grant spurned by the state legislature.

Among the orchestras in major cities that have closed in the last decade are those of Miami; Kansas City, Mo.; San Diego; Syracuse, N.Y.; Denver, and New Orleans. Orchestras with huge or rapidly growing deficits include those of Detroit; Cincinnati; Rochester, N.Y.; Cleveland; St. Louis; Buffalo, N.Y., and Los Angeles. And it doesn't help even the most well-heeled orchestra to know that people may not be coming because they're dying.

The BSO's Galway concert is just one of a number of things orchestras nationwide are doing to try to enlarge their audiences -- preferably with younger people. These include casual concerts, which the BSO premiered in 1987 and which will be imitated next season by several other orchestras (including Washington's National Symphony and the New York Philharmonic); shorter concerts; concerts at rush hour to accommodate busy baby boomers who don't have time to eat dinner downtown; outreach programs like the BSO's "Classically Black" series, tailored to minority groups that do not ordinarily attend the symphony; preconcert lectures; and singles' nights that include a preconcert cocktail party and a postconcert dance. The object is to make symphonic concerts user-friendly, to do for them in terms of accessibility and popularity what English-language supertitles did for opera.

It used to be easy to find critics of these changes, says Don Thulean, vice president for orchestra services at the American -- Symphony Orchestra League. "But even people who were curmudgeons have come around and gotten progressive," he says.

One of the people who is critical is Samuel Lipman, the music critic of Commentary magazine and the publisher of "The New Criterion."

"I can understand that the desire for a younger audience is creating a real panic among orchestra administrators," Mr. Lipman says. "But a concert like this can give a misleading impression of what subscription concerts are all about . . . but in these matters I always worry: What are we going to do for an encore?"

"If the objective is to provide music to the community, there's no reason to continue the old formats -- as long as the art form is not bastardized," says Lew Spisto, executive director of the Pacific Symphony in California's Orange County. "Talking to the audience at concerts, having the conductor stop and explain, using videos -- these are all legitimate. To become a reggae band -- that's not what we are. There's got to be a midway point for orchestras between being a museum and becoming a farce."

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