03: Brave New World (Symphony) (June 2014)


By Andrew Byrne in New York

BRAVE NEW WORLD (SYMPHONY)

Alt=Andrew Byrne

This weekend the New York Philharmonic launched a new initiative called NY Phil Biennial, described in marketing materials as “a kaleidoscopic exploration of today’s music by more than 50 contemporary and modern composers from 12 countries.” With 21 concerts at Lincoln Center Hall and elsewhere in New York, the project is described by the New York Philharmonic Executive Director Matthew Van Besien as “a no-holds barred exploration of new music”. In the same interview Van Besien reveals another reason for such a project. "We need to broaden the spectrum of what we are doing," he says. "We are casting a wider net." And it is hoped that this net scoops up new audiences.

For the New York Philharmonic, as for so many orchestras in North America, long-term trends are challenging. Attendance at New York Philharmonic events has fallen off by three percent over the past five seasons, while operating costs have increased by four percent over the same time. The orchestra is running a $6 million deficit this year. Something needs to done. New ideas—such as NY Phil Biennial—need to be tried.

Perhaps it does seem counterintuitive for an orchestra to be attracting audiences by organizing a contemporary music series, but kudos to them for trying something new. And New York Philharmonic is not alone in trying to break out of the sclerotic concert format that is the unthinking default approach of so many orchestras, and no doubt largely to blame for the greying and shrinking audience for orchestral music in North America. In 2010, for example, the Cleveland Orchestra established a Center for Future Audiences, with a $20 million grant from Maltz Family Foundation, with an ambitious mission of having the youngest audience of any North American orchestra by the Cleveland Orchestra’s 100th birthday in 2018.

But of all the innovators in this field, there is one orchestra that is in a league of its own—New World Symphony from Florida. Blessed with a number of advantages (the flexible conditions of a professional training orchestra, a strong national donor base, and a high-tech venue designed by Frank Gehry), the orchestra is ideally positioned to be an incubator for innovation. And experiment it has. Over the last couple of seasons, the New World Symphony has introduced a number of non-traditional concert formats, including Mini-Concerts, Encounters concerts combining spoken work with music performance, and Pulse concerts, which place classical music in a more informal club setting.

In addition to introducing a whole series of alternative formats, New World Symphony has been documenting its efforts, compiling extensive data about who attends the programs, how that audience overlaps with the traditional audience, and audience reactions to the various concert formats. This data is now available to others seeking information on what works and what doesn’t. Information can be found here.

The data focuses on three non-traditional concert formats pioneered by the New World Symphony:

  1. Mini-concerts: 30-minute classical music concerts, scheduled for 7:30 p.m., 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. on the same evening. Tickets cost $2.50. The goal is to attract new audiences especially those without any knowledge of classical music.
  2. Encounters: 60-minute educational programs with spoken narration and visuals. Each program typically focuses on a composer or a theme. This format also includes a social hour after the concert when patrons can socialize with New World Symphony musicians. Ticket prices are $25.
  3. PULSE: a late-night club format, combining live classical music with electronic dance music. The venue is transformed into a club-like setting with ambient lighting and visual effects. Patrons can choose to sit, stand, wander or dance at any point throughout the evening. The event begins at 8 PM and finishes at 1 AM and people can come and go as they please. The format was designed to engage a younger audience. Ticket prices are $25.


Below I have summarized some of points of interest from the data:


Audience outreach

  • 10% of New World Symphony’s concerts were in a non-traditional format, and yet these concerts brought in 31% of all first-timer ticket buyers.
  • 42% of the first-time ticket buyers to the alternative formats went on purchase another ticket, to either an alternative format concert or a more standard concert.
  • Mini-concerts served as a popular introduction to the symphony. 47% of the audience for mini-concerts was made up of first-time attendees; 45% of the audience was 55 or younger; the shorter concert format was very popular with audiences.
  • The PULSE concerts attracted a younger more diverse audience. Average age was 38 for PULSE concerts (as opposed to 65 for standard New World Symphony concerts). The audience was racially diverse (46 percent were African-American, Hispanic, Asian and other/mixed).


Concert experience

  • The alternative formats appealed to traditional concert-goers as well as to new audiences.
  • The educational and visual programming element in all the new formats was very popular with all audiences.
  • Response to the ambience of the space was a higher predictor of satisfaction with the event that the particular music on the program.
  • The data clearly suggests that younger more racially diverse adults are drawn to PULSE concerts


Ticket buying information

  • For mini-concerts, 44% of survey respondents decided to attend within three days of the event, and 25% bought their tickets on the day of the concert.


But the most important takeaway from the survey is explained by Alan Brown, who supervised this study. In an interview in Symphony Magazine in 2014, he points out: “The big breakthrough in this survey is seeing programming not as a ladder but as a neural network. People can move among the nodes based on their interests. Orchestras can certainly curate pathways in classical music. But this notion of loyalty being a ladder, that you are climbing it to become a subscriber or we don’t care about you—that is over.” In the same article, Howard Herring, President and CEO of New World Symphony, says, “We’ve begun to trace the migration patterns [around the network]. What I hope is that people will have a positive first experience. They come back for a second. Then, they make a decision and realize there are other ways to come into the New World Symphony family, and begin to move around inside this network as they get older, and their lives change. And here’s the kicker: it’s their choice.”

Over the following years, I will follow with interest as innovations at the New World Symphony seep into and the larger orchestra culture in North America. In the meantime, I look forward to sampling some of the contemporary music offerings of NY Phil Biennial series over the next ten days.

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