The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported yesterday that the Minnesota Orchestra, in its 2005-2006 season, played to 69 per cent capacity for the season. The previous season the figure was 66 per cent.
While these attendance figures are much better than they were during the Eiji Oue years--and has anyone figured out yet why Eiji Oue was hired by the Minnesota Orchestra in the first place?--they are still pretty depressing. Minneapolis-Saint Paul has a large enough population, and a sufficiently-educated population, to provide full houses for each concert if the orchestra is a good one--and the Minnesota Orchestra is a good one.
I have always believed, rightly or wrongly, that ticket prices for orchestral concerts are too high. I have always believed that the rule of thumb should be that the typical seat at an orchestral concert should cost the same as a full-price compact disc. If orchestral tickets cost substantially more than full-price compact discs, music lovers will often find it more sensible to invest their music dollars into something that will last for years and years rather than in a single evening of live musicmaking.
However, the Minnesota Orchestra seems to have its ticket prices well within reason. While the top ticket price is $82.00, the very cheapest seats can be purchased for $20.25, well within the budget of just about everyone (and consistent with my personal rule of thumb about orchestral tickets being priced along the lines of compact discs).
Further, the Minnesota Orchestra has two remarkable deals that make ticket prices for very good seats almost irresistible. Rush tickets are available for many concerts for only $20.00 ($10.00 for students with a valid student identification), and the orchestra is currently offering ANY SEAT IN THE HOUSE for $45.00 for its January-through-June 2007 concerts, a special limited-time offer.
So why is attendance so disappointing?
This is not a problem specific to the Twin Cities. Attendance at orchestral concerts in many cities throughout the U.S. is pretty dismal. In Washington, where I went to law school, attendance at the National Symphony Orchestra was exceptionally spotty, but that can be attributed to a depressing combination of a bad orchestra, a bad conductor and bad programming. In nearby Baltimore, where there WAS a good orchestra, a good (now former) conductor and better programming, attendance was also pretty sad.
In some cities, poor attendance clearly threatens the long-term viability of the orchestra. Atlanta's current concert hall only seats 1,700 persons, and yet the Atlanta Symphony only plays to 50 per cent capacity many nights. That is not a large enough audience to keep the orchestra going long-term. The Houston Symphony has seen a precipitous decline in attendance over the last five years and it may have to reduce, significantly and permanently, the size of its ensemble if it plans to balance its books on an ongoing basis.
Even cities where orchestras are playing at peak accomplishment have suffered attendance problems. Mariss Jansons told many European musicians that the reason he left the Pittsburgh Symphony was because he was heartbroken to see acres and acres of empty seats each evening--and Jansons/Pittsburgh was one of the very best artistic partnerships on the American orchestral scene in recent years. The same thing is happening in Cincinnati right now, where Paavo Jarvi has been an unqualified artistic success since he arrived--and where vast portions of the 3,500-seat hall, admittedly too large for a city of Cincinnati's size, are empty.
This is not solely an American problem. I have routinely observed poor attendance for orchestral concerts in another English-speaking country, Great Britain. At the Royal Festival Hall, currently under renovation, I have attended excellent concerts by the Philharmonia Orchestra, the London Phiharmonic and the Royal Philharmonic, under such excellent conductors as Daniele Gatti, Kurt Masur and Esa-Pekka Salonen, in which the hall was at most one-third occupied. At Saint John's, Smith Square, I have attended concerts by London's most popular chamber orchestras and original-instrument ensembles in which the members of the audience could be individually counted if one had the inclination to do so. I have never seen London's Barbican full, despite the fact that the London Symphony is currently the darling of London critics and concertgoers.
On the European continent, however, orchestral halls always seem to be full, no matter how poor the orchestra and no matter how poor the conductor. In Central Europe, with its rich orchestral tradition, this is understandable. But how does one account for a full house at the Theatre Des Champs Elysees in Paris featuring the Orchestre National De France under Daniel Harding?
Contrary to what many persons in the classical-music field think, I do not believe that declining attendance is a function of inadequate music education in the public school system. Music education has not been the victim of serious cutbacks in most of the U.S.--these cutbacks have centered mostly on the Eastern and Western seaboards, around the giant coastal cities, and not elsewhere.
Therein lies the fallacy of New York-based writers who bemoan the lack of music education in public school systems and who claim that cutbacks in music education are the cause of declining concert attendance. To them, one must say: get on a plane and travel to Indianapolis and Iowa City and Overland Park and Nashville and Houston and Clarkston, Michigan, so that you can see for yourselves that music education is alive and well and vital in most of the U.S.
In truth, music education is considered to be excellent in most of the U.S., and certainly as good as it was twenty or thirty or forty years ago. And yet lagging attendance seems to be a nationwide phenomenon (except for isolated pockets of excellence like Cleveland) and not restricted solely to the big coastal cities with their deplorable school systems.
So what forces are at work that are keeping our concert halls insufficiently full? The answer is a very simple one, and a very obvious one, but it does not provide a prescription for relief.
The answer involves shifting, irrevocable societal trends: Americans (and citizens of Britain) are working more hours than they worked twenty and thirty and forty years ago, and they do not have the time and the energy to set aside a block of hours to attend orchestral concerts in significant number. On the European continent, by contrast, persons are working fewer hours than they did twenty and thirty and forty years ago. Consequently, Continental Europeans have more energy and more time to devote to the pursuit of leisure activities, including orchestral concerts.
How can American orchestras battle these social forces? There may be no sure-fire solution, but there are some basic measures that orchestras can take to improve the situation.
Most American orchestras should eliminate weekday and weeknight concerts, as attendance is invariably better, everywhere, on Friday and Saturday nights. Most American orchestras should increase the number of Sunday afternoon concerts they offer. Most American orchestras should focus on offering concerts during holiday periods and on holiday weekends, when many potential concertgoers enjoy a larger block of free time. I fully realize that orchestral members like to have their holidays off, too, but orchestras must be realistic and tailor as many concerts as possible to periods in which the concertgoing public is likely to be free and available.
Toward this end, orchestras should schedule Monday morning or Monday Noon or Monday afternoon concerts on three-day weekends. Orchestras should perform concerts each afternoon between Christmas and New Year. Orchestras should perform concerts on Thanksgiving morning, and on the Friday afternoon after Thanksgiving, and on Easter Sunday, and on Valentine's Day (no matter what day of the week it falls on).
Adapting concert schedules to current American work patterns is the first step that orchestras can take to address attendance problems.
The second step involves taking that old Economics 101 textbook down from the shelf and reviewing one of the most basic laws of economics: adjust prices until the supply-and-demand equilibrium is reached.
Alas, this latter will never happen.