When the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall opens its doors for tomorrow's concert, it hopes to see a change in the face of its audience.
Mixed in with the older, mostly white crowd that normally frequents performances at Baltimore's modern, 2,400-seat concert hall, the symphony hopes to entertain a significant number of African-Americans.
With a series of shows beginning tomorrow by an all-African-American troupe called Soulful Symphony, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is embarking on a campaign to attract a more diverse audience. Its subscriber base mirrors most symphonies around the country, with about 2 percent African-American and Latino listeners and 3.5 percent Asian patrons.
With orchestras facing budget deficits, bankruptcies and audiences that are aging and dwindling, several - from Oakland to St. Louis - are finding ways to attract crowds that long have been ignored.
The BSO's diversity effort is part of a broader plan by the 88-year-old ensemble to reinvent itself as it tries to earn a profit and boost attendance. The BSO has seen an average 2 percent decline in its audience each year for the past decade.
To address a deficit expected to reach $12 million by 2008, the symphony in September announced an innovative financing plan to, in principle, sell its Baltimore concert hall to its own nonprofit subsidiary and use the proceeds to pay off debt and pay for programs.
In an effort to expand its base, the BSO has launched one of the country's most aggressive diversity recruitment efforts, according to people who track symphonies nationally.
In May, it took under its umbrella Soulful Symphony, a 75-member orchestra of African-American musicians led by composer-conductor Darin Atwater.
Soulful Symphony will perform four concerts, starting with tomorrow's show at 8 p.m. In January, it will perform with the BSO, which is providing administrative and fund-raising help. The subsequent shows will be in February and April.
The Eddie and C. Sylvia Brown Family Foundation, whose founders have been active in promoting the arts to minorities, have put up $300,000 that has to be matched 2-to-1 by the BSO board, the African-American community and the community at large in the three years. So far, 20 percent has been raised.
Unlike traditional symphonies that play mostly classical music, Soulful Symphony adds the sounds of reggae, blues, jazz, gospel and Afro-Cuban. One of its performances will meld in African proverbs and the poetry of James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes.
"This is pretty innovative, what they're doing in Baltimore," said Melinda Whiting, editor-in-chief of Symphony Magazine, published by the industry group American Symphony Orchestra League. "It promises to introduce their regular patrons to something new that ... brings in a whole new audience."
Symphony watchers point to various reasons, past and present, for weak minority attendance. During segregation, blacks were banned from symphonies and, therefore, were introduced late to the style. Minorities don't see themselves on symphony stages - the BSO has one black musician. And as cuts at schools target music and arts, particularly in the largest cities, students aren't being exposed to symphonic music.
"The tragedy of the last generation is that they're growing up empty-handed in terms of musical education," said Patrick Williams, artistic director for the Henry Mancini Institute, a nonprofit that provides music education and performances to under-served youth and communities in Los Angeles. "You're not going to have an audience of any knowledge or sophistication if they've been deprived of any musical education."
Symphonies also do a bad job at marketing themselves to diverse audiences, some in classical music contend. Just as car or clothing companies tailor ads to different segments of the population, symphonies need to do the same.
"Classical music has presented itself and sometimes presents itself in a very elitist way that is unwelcoming," said Aaron Dworkin, founder and president of the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit nonprofit that exposes and trains black and Latino youth in classical music. "You have to find ways to make classical music more welcoming."
To promote its diversity initiative, the BSO crafted a marketing campaign that is much more grass-roots than past strategies.
For the past six months, BSO "foot soldiers" have visited churches, black sororities and fraternities and other social groups representing African-Americans trying to sell the idea. Last month, symphony staff met with the Baptist Ministers Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity, a group of local pastors, to stoke interest.
"Baltimore is a diverse community and the symphony should have a diverse audience," said Jerome Stephens, a deacon at New Shiloh Baptist Church.