Striking A New Chord

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra tunes up its marketing to make overtures to a new kind of audience.

Fine Tuning Its Future

The BSO rehearses for the challenge of appealing to a new kind of audience

Classical Music

January 04, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is preparing for what may be its toughest gig to date -- reinventing itself.

Like many other American orchestras, the BSO has faced rising costs and deficits, declining income, aging and dwindling audiences. Total concert attendance has fallen about 10 percent during the past decade. In an effort to reverse those trends, musicians, management, board members and volunteers are joined in an unusual collaborative effort aimed at developing what could become a new BSO.

It won't necessarily be a radical transformation, but more of a change in focus and attitudes. It's about generating a concerted effort to strengthen ties to the community and build a larger, more committed, even more pampered audience base. It's about making an old institution that performs a lot of old music into a more relevant part of contemporary Baltimore life.

"If there was a quick, obvious fix to the orchestra's problems, we would do it," says BSO president John Gidwitz. "There is no silver bullet, no instant transformation." Instead, expect incremental steps within the next few years.

Patrons almost certainly will encounter newly formatted concert series, classical and pops, aimed at attracting fresh audiences and reinvigorating current patrons. Expanded Internet activity is also likely -- upgrades for the BSO's Web site, maybe chat rooms for instant performance feedback and program notes delivered electronically in advance to ticket-holders.

You might also see musicians eschewing white tie and tails for some of those new series, as they currently do for select concerts. No, you won't find music director Yuri Temirkanov sporting casual dress onstage, leading a program of orchestral hip-hop at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The Russian conductor, whose concerts continue to be strong sellers every season, will not abandon his very traditional approach to the presentation of classical music.

"Nothing needs fixing with a Temirkanov concert," says Gregory Tucker, the BSO's vice president of public relations.

Adds Gidwitz: "Temirkanov is the greatest exponent we could hope to have for traditional concerts. He'd be my first pick to conduct all those concerts for a long time to come. More cutting-edge programs will be conducted by others."

Temirkanov has not been a key player in the discussions about the organization's future, but has been kept apprised of developments. His attitude about the planning discussions is the same attitude he took when staffers first proposed the BSO's "Symphony With a Twist" series a few season ago, a series organized around specific themes, drawing from the familiar and offbeat repertoire, and featuring lots of chat by each conductor.

"Temirkanov said that if he could be assured it would be a quality series, not a circus or another pops program, we should give it a go," Gidwitz says. That series did turn out to be serious -- and successful -- and has provided a useful model for future programming concepts.

Although there are few specifics at this point, it's clear, judging by the current mood at the Meyerhoff, that there will be a lot more to the future BSO than Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, a lot of alternatives to business as usual.

"Little inconsequential adjustments around the edges will not do it," says Gidwitz, who will retire at the end of this season. "We need to take some fairly dramatic steps in transforming the way we package the music, the way we present ourselves." Adds Jane Marvine, the BSO's English horn player and head of the players' committee: "If things change too much, you could detract from the basic musical quality. And if you don't change enough, you may find yourself becoming extinct."

'Guests at a party'

The transformation process has been going on for some time. You can get a taste of this -- literally -- at almost any BSO event. Once trotted out only for certain targeted audiences or annual summer festivals, cocktail bars and food concession stands are now routinely set up in the Meyerhoff lobby before performances.

"It's a good idea," says violinist Ellen Pendleton Troyer. "There's nothing worse than listening to a concert with your stomach rumbling. And having the food and drink is a facilitator for social interaction."

"We want people to have a good experience in the hall before a concert, not just at the concert," says Douglas R. Mann, BSO vice president and chief financial officer. "We want to provide them with a reason to come earlier. So we offer good food and drink, maybe some music playing in the lobby. And we're looking at improving the design of our lobby to increase seating and counter space. Basically, we want to make people feel they are guests at a party being thrown in their honor."

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