BSO pricing strikes a chord

$25 seating attracts crowd at Meyerhoff eager for season

March 04, 2007|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,Sun Reporter

The maestro handed out doughnuts.

Marin Alsop, the music director-designate for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, helped deliver the treats to the 150 people who circled around Meyerhoff Symphony Hall after the box office opened yesterday.

Alsop's hospitality helped ease the hunger pangs of those who had been waiting for hours. The first people arrived at 7 a.m., two hours before the box office opened. About a dozen musicians were also on hand.

"Only in Baltimore," said Charles Shubow as he took a doughnut from Alsop. "Show me another city where this would happen."

Alsop, though, had a twinge of trepidation.

"I feel a little bit guilty," she said. "All these people are going to have sugar highs."

But most of the prospective subscribers were already beaming over what they called a sweet deal.

For the 2007-2008 season, new and current BSO subscribers pay only $25 per concert for seats anywhere in the hall, including box seats that can sell for three times as much. BSO officials unveiled the new pricing as a way to bolster attendance, cutting the average cost of classical and pops programs by 40 percent.

The decision, BSO officials say, was validated by the crowded scene at the Meyerhoff yesterday.

"We expected a lot of people," said Michael Bronfein, BSO board chairman. "It's a unique and unprecedented offer. At the same time, it's almost overwhelming how big the response is."

Shubow, an adminstrative judge, said he had been a subscriber to the BSO years ago but forgot to renew one year and never returned. Shubow said the price break and Alsop's appointment led to his return.

"This way, I can sit in the orchestra," Shubow said. "Not that it's a much better seat, but it gives you a different view and a different take on the experience."

Paul Kreiner, 70, a substitute teacher from Catonsville, last subscribed to the BSO during the 1992-1993 season. He said he bought tickets for years before that but just "drifted away."

"Then Homicide started coming on Friday nights," Kreiner added.

Unlike many others in line, he said he was buying tickets because of the director. Kreiner said he saw Alsop in concert previously.

"The concert was The Rite of Spring, and I swear I've never heard it done better," he said.

Brendan Hurson, 29, a lawyer who lives in the city, said he was purchasing a mix-and-match plan of six shows for himself and his wife. BSO officials say they believe most of the people who stood in line were just like Hurson - first-timers motivated by the bargain.

"I wouldn't be a subscriber if not for the deal," Hurson said. "If you do the math, it's amazing."

Subscribers may purchase a minimum of three pre-selected shows for $75 or choose six of their own preference for $150. The six-concert series is a savings of nearly $100 from last year.

The new pricing was made possible by a $1 million grant from the PNC Foundation, the charitable arm of Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group. The ticket deal is not available for Family Concerts and other special events at the Meyerhoff, or at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, the BSO's second home.

Paul Meecham, BSO's president and chief executive, said renewals are up as well. Meecham said those who renewed are purchasing close to 16 tickets this year, up 25 percent from this time last year. Subscription revenue, in turn, is five times higher than at this point last year - despite the decrease in price.

Subscriptions are available through September, and about 350 orders were taken yesterday.

Meecham would not commit to offering the deal next year.

"Arts organizations are looking very hard at whether price is an inhibitor to new attendants," Meecham said. "I think it's really important that the arts reach out to the full spectrum to the community. I think certainly price can be a barrier, and I want to remove that barrier."

Alsop, the first woman to head a major American orchestra, plans some unsusual programming, scheduling works by 11 contemporary composers she calls "living Beethovens."

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

Alsop, 50, has been the principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orcehstra in England since 2002 - a role she will continue until 2008. She is a regular guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"The combination of really exciting programs with a lot of variety and this new price initiative is perfect," she said. "It's great for people who have never been to the symphony. They can try it and don't feel like they've spent their life savings."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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