BSO pops series designed to avoid mistakes of '92

October 14, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

The news from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is both good and bad.

Yesterday the BSO announced that the campaign for its annual fund for the 1992-93 season exceeded its $3.3 million goal by $50,000. It was the second year in a drive to take the fund -- which helps pay the orchestra's annual operating expenses -- to $4 million by 1994.

The bad news is that the $50,000 is less than the orchestra lost -- probably well in excess of $100,000 -- when it lost 1,200 subscribers to its pops series this season (dropping from 5,999 renewals last year).

The series, which begins tomorrow night in Meyerhoff Hall with Christopher Seaman conducting a program of Viennese music, is a glittering one that features appearances by Rosemary Clooney, Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Johnny Mathis and an evening of Kurt Weill conducted by BSO music director David Zinman.

That such a series did not inspire more subscriptions is a result of mistakes the orchestra made in the artists it booked last season and in the design of an expensive seasonal brochure (mailed out last spring) that many subscribers are said to have found too complicated to understand.

Last season the orchestra presented television star Dixie Carter and Manhattan Transfer in an attempt "to diversify our offerings, bring younger people into the pops audience and attract single-ticket buyers," says BSO public relations director Megan Depencier.

"But the typical reaction from our regular subscribers to Manhattan Transfer was 'What they did, they did well but it wasn't what we wanted' " Depencier says.

And Dixie Carter was, in the words of one of the BSO's musicians, "a major disaster." Her cabaret act was considered so tasteless and offensive that many in the audience walked out and even more called the BSO's office the next day to complain. The orchestra, for what is apparently the first time in its history, offered mass refunds and ended up losing $30,000.

But the BSO lost even more when renewal time came, because "the pops audience behaves in less traditional ways than the classics audience," says Jack McAuliffe, vice president for marketing and promotion of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "It's more dependent on featured artists than music, and what people have experienced is more of a factor than what they anticipate experiencing."

The booking mistakes were compounded by the orchestra's brochure -- a beautiful 21-page, magazine-like document (with a 10-page insert) -- that included lavishly reproduced photographs, masses of copy, much of it in tiny print, and a graphic design, with its slew of symbols and icons, that suggested a marriage between Walt Disney and Hieronymus Bosch.

Moreover, the brochure's insert presented the BSO's four pops series among a bewilderingly wide choice of series subscriptions -- totaling 27 -- that additionally included an option to design one's own series. And while it was pops renewals that suffered most, classical subscriptions were not unaffected. Subscription sales to all of the orchestra's classical programs are on par with those last season, the BSO says, but sales of the orchestra's smaller series did not do comparably well.

The orchestra is currently looking for a new director of marketing to replace Paul Dupree, who resigned last summer, and is also trying to recoup the losses in subscriptions. Early this season it mailed 110,000 copies of an elegant, but much-easier to understand, brochure for mini-series of four concerts each. The orchestra also bought radio advertising and two full-page ads in The Sun.

"It's our hope that we'll make it up with mini-subscriptions," Depencier says. But if the orchestra can fill its empty seats, it cannot completely recoup its financial losses. It's more expensive to market a four-concert series than an eight-concert series because it costs the same amount of money to market a four-concert series and an orchestra must sell twice as many to make up the difference.

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