BSO will offer cheaper tickets, fresh sounds

Moves seek to boost attendance

February 28, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun music critic

With cheap seats, conversations with high-profile composers and programming that includes a CSI-style forensics exploration of Beethoven next season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will challenge two of the most common complaints about classical music - that it's too expensive and too old-fashioned.

As part of a strategy unveiled yesterday to bolster attendance, the BSO will reduce the average subscription cost to classical and pops programs by 40 percent.

New and current subscribers to the BSO's 2007-2008 season, the inaugural season of music director Marin Alsop, will pay only $25 per concert for seats anywhere in Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, including the usually pricey box seats.

The new pricing is made possible by a $1 million grant from the PNC Foundation, the charitable arm of Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group. (Shareholders of the Baltimore-based Mercantile Bankshares voted yesterday to approve its sale to PNC.)

"The staff came up with a really radical approach to pricing to encourage more people [to come] into the hall," BSO President and CEO Paul Meecham said yesterday.

BSO officials sought funding for the initiative last month.

Meecham said it was "the perfect storm - Marin Alsop's first season, the 25th anniversary of Meyerhoff Hall and PNC's entry into the market. PNC's underwriting effectively allows us to risk doing this."

Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League in New York, said yesterday that "a number of orchestras, small and large, have begun to take seriously the whole issue of pricing.

"But I'm not aware of anything like" the BSO's $25 ticketing policy, Fogel said.

Steven Mackey, whose work Time Relief for marimba and orchestra the BSO will perform locally and at Carnegie Hall next season, called the ticket price change "a big deal."

"Now a regular old working-class stiff can take his wife to a symphony concert," he said. "And by the end of the year, that person will be transformed. It will be amazing."

Last fall, the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts sponsored a two-month, citywide campaign of free arts programming. Bill Gilmore, director of the office, said that the BSO's move "mirrors much of what we tried to do with Free Fall Baltimore, to make the arts more accessible and to build audiences. We know that ticket prices are a barrier for a lot of people."

The ticket deal is not available at the BSO's second home, the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda nor for some events at the Meyerhoff.

BSO board member Ned Kelly, the Mercantile chairman who will become vice chairman of PNC, said the ticket plan came about when BSO board Chairman Michael Bronfein approached PNC.

Noting that the PNC has a history of supporting the Pittsburgh Symphony, Kelly said: "Reduced ticket prices are great for all because it makes seats available for a more diverse audience. The gift reflects PNC's commitment to Baltimore."

The company has also agreed to donate $25 million to the Baltimore Community Foundation.

The BSO's one-price-for-all means that a six-concert, $250 subscription this season, for example, will cost $150 next year. Box-seat subscribers will save even more, a nearly 70 percent reduction.

"I would be surprised if it didn't lead to a significant increase of numbers in the hall," the orchestra league's Fogel said.

Once inside that hall, concert-goers will be in for another jolt to go with the reduced admission price.

An already newsy season - Alsop is the first woman to head a major American orchestra - has some out-of-the-ordinary programming, too.

"It's about the familiar seen through a fresh perspective," Alsop said yesterday.

The New York-born Alsop, who is also principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England and a guest on major podiums elsewhere, has scheduled works by 11 of the hottest contemporary composers on the scene, composers she calls "living Beethovens."

They include John Adams, creator of the opera Nixon in China, and Chinese-born Tan Dun, who won an Oscar for the film score of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Several of the featured composers will serve as guest conductors as well, leading their own music and standard works. The featured composers will participate in a new "Composers in Conversation" series at the Theatre Project near Meyerhoff Hall.

Seventeen compositions will be receiving their first BSO performance next season.

Much of the modern fare will be heard in direct juxtaposition to music by Beethoven - his nine iconic symphonies will be woven throughout the programming, the first time the BSO has played all of them in a single season.

The Beethoven theme will be further explored in a two-night presentation inspired by the hit CBS show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

"I'm addicted to those real-life forensics shows," Alsop said. "We're going to have `CSI: Beethoven' - what made him tick psychologically, medically. We're even going to have a lock of his hair. I'm going to enjoy that one."

How the public responds remains to be seen.

"I think the programming will appeal to our core audience and to a new audience," Alsop said. "There is a lot of standard repertoire for our stalwart supporters - Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Mahler, Brahms. ... "

For Alsop, the aim of mixing "standard repertoire with something new is to hear the old in a different light. It's like seeing a Rembrandt next to a Jackson Pollock," she said.

The '07-'08 season lineup and the new subscription pricing were greeted enthusiastically by BSO musicians.

"The whole organization is energized," said Jane Marvine, head of the players' committee. "It's all fabulous. This is so much about what Marin is giving, not getting."

As for what happens after next season, especially regarding the ticket costs, that is to be determined.

"We will obviously test how successful it is before making any decision about future strategy," Meecham said.

Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.

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