Pops Series Enhance Bso's Bottom Line

Orchestra: Marvin Hamlisch Helps Bring New Audiences, And Thus New Money, To The Symphony Coffers.

April 24, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

This afternoon in Meyerhoff Hall, Marvin Hamlisch will begin to put new life into the Baltimore Symphony's Superpops Series.

The theme of today's concert, as well as those tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, is "Search for a Star." Hamlisch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of "A Chorus Line" who is in his first year as the BSO's first-ever Principal Pops Conductor, spent this year auditioning local talent, ultimately selecting 12 finalists for this week's concerts.

But the new life Hamlisch wants to see is not only on the Meyerhoff's stage, but in lines in front of the box office. Hamlisch wants to bring a bigger audience to the pops.

"The `Search for a Star' has already brought new people in," Hamlisch said a few weeks ago. "We chose from more than 300 people, and throughout the process of the search, we've been acquiring interested people who will be in the audience that weekend who will want to cheer their friends, relatives and neighbors on. And once you get new people into the hall, it behooves you to get them curious about what else goes on there."

Hamlisch -- whose Broadway and Hollywood scores have also brought him three Oscars, four Grammys, two Emmys and a Tony -- was appointed by the BSO last year not only to give new prominence to the pops series but also to redesign it.

"Before I came, this orchestra had a pops program, but it was without a captain," Hamlisch says. "It floated, but it was going nowhere."

The BSO's pops series is now going somewhere -- up. Hamlisch's presence has increased subscription sales this season by 11 percent and single ticket sales by 36 percent -- figures that would be more impressive still, were it not for the BSO's mixed results from scheduling concerts at 2 p.m. on Thursdays.

Like the BSO, orchestras all over North America are placing new emphasis on their pops series. Once the unwanted but financially necessary foster child of American symphony orchestras, the pops series has a new place of legitimacy, even honor, at the family table. According to Melinda Whiting, editor of Symphony magazine, there has been a 35 percent increase in the number of pops-concert offerings by orchestras since 1989.

Orchestras give many reasons for this new emphasis, but it comes down to self-preservation. The audience for traditional classical music is saturated and, while the costs of producing such concerts are going up, the audience is not growing and may even be dwindling. There is also the reality, particularly in the aging cities of the Northeast and Midwest, that orchestras and the concert halls they perform in primarily serve a constituency in the suburbs. The institutions themselves are located in neighborhoods with populations whose awareness of the orchestras within their midst is often minimal at best.

"When orchestras are being called upon to prove their worth, their viability and their connections with the [new] communities they serve, pops [concerts] are a chance to reach a bigger piece of the pie and a different one," says Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops which all but invented the pops format.

A simple contrast between the economics of putting on a typical subscription week of pops concerts and one of classical concerts is instructive. Two or three classical concerts may gross about $100,000. Three to four pops concerts usually gross about $200,000. And because pops concerts require less rehearsal time, the orchestra may be freed up to give two youth concerts or perform a program in an outlying area, thus increasing the earnings.

Money is the reason an increasing number of symphonies -- even the august Philadelphia Orchestra and Chicago Symphony -- are performing more and more pops concerts. The only orchestras that do not feel compelled to give them are the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra.

"It's pops concerts that pay for the classics," Hamlisch says. "The audiences for composers like Harold Arlen and Cole Porter make it possible for other audiences to hear Schumann and Beethoven."

John Gidwitz, the BSO's executive director, puts it differently.

"We don't look at the pops as a cash cow that supports the classics, but as one of the major services we offer the community," Gidwitz says.

The orchestra has indeed devoted considerable thought and energy to improving its pops series and enlarging its profile. The biggest step was hiring Hamlisch, a composer of genius, a genuinely talented conductor and a man who has a remarkable gift for conceiving and executing out-of-the-ordinary concerts.

But the BSO faced particular imperatives that impelled it not only to hire Hamlisch for its pops series, but also Pinchas Zukerman as the music director for its summer classical series. Although BSO music director David Zinman did not announce his resignation, effective at the end of next year, until the beginning of this season, the orchestra's management knew at least two years ago his departure was imminent.

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