Audiences Are Coming Back to Orchestras After a ‘Scary’ Fall

Puccini’s opera Fanciulla of the West ends with heartbreaking wistfulness as a mob of gold rush miners bid a sorrowful farewell to their former life.

But for the wonderful Cleveland Orchestra, which recently wrapped up a short concert run of the song, the 2022-23 season is coming to a happy end without any nostalgia for what it was just a few months ago.

The Sunday matinee premiere of Fanciulla was enthusiastically received by the audience, whose capacity was about 70 percent of the orchestra.

This is by no means a staggering number. But for Cleveland, it was more than satisfying, even after attendance numbers plummeted. In interviews, the leaders of orchestras across the country echoed that sentiment, saying it was a very disappointing start to the season for them too, and that even if winter and spring sales weren’t strong, at least He said the panic had subsided as it was not catastrophic. .

“I really feel like we’re making progress,” said Cleveland chief executive André Gremilet about his recent visit to Severance Hall, home of the orchestra.

Simon Woods, leader of the industry group, the Federation of American Orchestras, said the audience size for concerts here and in many other cities in early fall was “miserable.” “People were pretty disappointed, to be honest.”

Even before the pandemic, full houses were not an everyday occurrence in major orchestras, and subscription rates were declining. But like many things, COVID-19 has accelerated existing trends. For many ensembles, the 2021-22 season was an interim step forward after a pandemic pause, and it was assumed that 2022-23 would return to something more like the old days.

Instead, September brought us a rude surprise.

People didn’t come at all, even for an orchestra with Cleveland’s fame and civic status. Speaking at the silver 2,000-seat Severance, Gremillet said: For us, it’s not very good. “

It wasn’t just Cleveland. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra was on average about half full. Also the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Prior to the pandemic, the Pittsburgh Symphony’s house occupancy averaged just over 70 percent. But in the fall, “we were jumping for joy when we hit 1,000,” about 37 percent of the 2,700-seat Heinz Hall, chief executive Melia Turangeau said. “It was very noticeable and very scary.”

The ensemble leader, Kim Notremy, said in Dallas: But I didn’t think it would lead to ticket sales. “

But since then, most places have seen a turnaround, which many leaders attribute to the easing of lingering health concerns associated with the pandemic, especially among older audiences.

“It was like a switch flipped just before Thanksgiving,” said Jeff Alexander of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Dallas and the St. Louis Symphony reported noticeable improvement a little earlier, starting around mid-October. By late fall, Philadelphia is in the 70-75 percent range of hers, and it’s holding up.

“Holiday season sales were very strong, some even better than 2019, and I think that added to the excitement of the audience,” said Woods of the Federation of American Orchestras. . “The holiday concert was the best-selling concert of all time,” said Detroit Symphony Orchestra principal Eric Renmark.

“During the holidays, we got a big boost,” Turanjo said in Pittsburgh. She added that there were several sold-out performances at Heinz Hall in the new year, both pop programs and major classical works like Mozart’s Requiem and Holst’s The Planet.

“We are below pre-pandemic levels,” she said. “But we are within 3 percent of where we were before.”

Woods said the situation was much the same with orchestras other than the biggest and most famous ones. After a brutal start to the season, the second half of the fall saw an encouraging rise that accelerated during the holidays. (The New York Philharmonic was a lucky exception to the much-talked-about opening of the renovated David Geffen Hall in October, and sold well throughout the year.)

Cleveland’s recovery took longer than other major financial institutions to begin. According to Gremillet, attendance was still significantly down until about March. But the trajectory is on the upside, with the orchestra saying sales at concerts averaged 67% from January to May, up from 54% from September to December.

Nearly all orchestras remain below the level of a few years ago. Matthias Tarnopolski of the Philadelphia Orchestra said, “Depending on where we measure, we’re still 10 to 15 percent, sometimes 20 percent, behind what we had in 2019.”

In St. Louis, the orchestra’s chief executive, Marie-Hélène Bernard, said, “We are 25 to 28 percent behind where we were before.” The San Francisco Symphony had 68% sales this season through mid-May, compared with 82% at the same point in its final pre-pandemic season.

“I’m not fully recovered yet. It’s even more unpredictable,” said Ms. Gremilet of Cleveland. “The three concerts in April, which played Wynton Marsalis’ Trumpet Concerto and later Dvorak’s New World, were all sold out. I am directing the program, which did not turn out very well.In a pre-pandemic world, a Mozart-only program would be sufficient.”

Many interviews point to the widening gap between programs that are doing well and those that are not. “It either sells out quickly or it doesn’t sell at all,” Turanjo said. “It’s feast or hunger.”

Subscriptions are still lagging overall, albeit slowly increasing from the lows of the pandemic. Orchestras are reaching more and younger buyers than before, but those newcomers tend to buy fewer tickets each season. Audiences also tend to wait longer before purchasing, making budgeting and marketing strategies less predictable. All of these require expensive internal adjustments.

Programmers watch numbers carefully. Philadelphia resident Tarnopolski said, “We’ve changed our plans for next season to feature more greats.” “Perhaps there weren’t enough of the anchor elements that people were looking for, so we’re making sure they’re there, in parallel with our commitment to being modern and diverse. “

For some orchestras, this period of uncertainty presents an opportunity for experimentation. Cleveland has traditionally accompanied its annual opera performances with other concerts, but this year it expanded that effort into a humanities festival that took place in just over a year. This was a moment in the world of classical music, which changes like ice.

In an attempt to appeal to audiences interested in things other than Puccini, and to increase the orchestra’s presence in the city, the festival is organized around the theme of the American Dream, firmly present in 19th-century California’s Fanciula. rice field.

There were film screenings, theatrical productions, panel exhibitions, readings and art tours, many of which were in collaboration with other Cleveland institutions. Over the course of 24 hours, the ‘Fanciulla’ matinee, a sumptuous yet lucid performance by the orchestra’s music director Franz Welser-Möst, combines an exuberant performance by a local choir with a keynote address by author Isabel Wilkerson. is ready. The warmth of the other sun ”, “Cast”).

These events were not full to capacity, but the audience responded warmly, taking their seats and dancing to the enchanting choruses. And the festival is a compelling proof-of-concept, an ambitious achievement that puts an exclamation mark on the roller coaster season.

“I feel better this year than this time last year,” said Gremilet. “So we suspect that what we have been seeing over the last few months is a continuation.”

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