TO an entire segment of society, the American symphony orchestra has become totally irrelevant. While many older Americans like nothing better than to attend the symphony on a Saturday night, most people between the ages of 25 and 45 would rather go out for dinner and a movie, head to the gym, hit the night clubs, or just stay home with the kids and watch a rented video. To them, orchestral concerts are ``stuffy,'' ``boring,'' or ``intimidating.''
Such are the observations of a growing number of orchestra managers, conductors, and marketing directors who are seriously worried about the lack of young adults in their graying audiences. In the last decade, the median age of symphonygoers has risen each year and currently hovers between 50 and 55. Even the now-ubiquitous ``pops'' concerts, once envisioned as a way to lure youth, face the same problem.
In an effort to woo the young set, a number of orchestras are experimenting with making symphony culture less ``high'' and more ``hip.'' Blue-jeans concerts, after-concert sock-hops, video during performances, pre-concert discussion groups, and family and ``singles-night'' concerts are among the myriad tactics being explored. Young adults react favorably to such innovations, orchestras find, but whether they are converted to symphony-going in the long run is uncertain.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic, province of classical-music iconoclast Ernest Fleischmann, has just ended its first year of ``Philharmonic Style'' - a subscription series aimed at young professionals that combines modern art, classical music, and rock-and-roll. (See article right.)
Orchestras have to take such risks, or they will end up ``an anachronism,'' says Christine Harris, an arts consultant in Milwaukee, Wis., with expertise in audience development. ``We've lost touch with allowing the audience to take ownership of the music. We set it all up on a pedestal.''
Other orchestras are tinkering with the traditional definition of orchestra concert.
``We've been locked for 200 years in this standard format of overture, concerto, and symphony, with intermission between the concerto and symphony,'' says Gideon Toeplitz, executive vice-president and managing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Concerts are usually two hours long, with about 75 minutes of music. ``We may be due for a change in the rhythm.''
This past spring, Pittsburgh hosted a ``Concert of the Future'' targeted at college students and people in their 20s. For dramatic effect, the orchestra sat behind a scrim with only their music-stand lamps turned on. As they performed Bartok's ``Concerto for Orchestra,'' a colored light show flashed in time to the music. Before Wagner's ``Ride of the Walk"ures,'' the conductor gave a humorous six-minute presentation about ``The Ring,'' complete with slide projections. Instead of the traditional 15-minut e intermission, audience and performers remained in their seats for a question-and-answer session.
The goal was to create a concert ``event'' that is ``more than just coming in and listening to the music and going home,'' Mr. Toeplitz says. Pittsburgh is planning two-more ``Concerts of the Future'' for next season.
The idea that orchestra concerts should be celebratory events, full of excitement, social interaction, and fun, is shared by David Zinman, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The symphony is ``not just a temple you go to to pray,'' he says. With pop music, people have mountains of recordings and MTV, ``but why do they still go to rock concerts? They go for the experience.'' This interactive dynamic is what is missing for young people in classical music, Mr. Zinman explains.
Faced with the realization that many young adults have had minimal music education, some orchestras are offering ``remedial'' aids. The Kansas City Symphony, which a few years ago produced a pulsating rock video touting orchestra concerts as ``cool,'' has instituted a series this season called ``Symphony 101.'' Subscribers were sent study guides in advance to learn about the concerts' composers, the eras of music represented, and definitions of words like ``K"ochel,'' a term used in titling Mozart's mus ic. The ``class'' was limited to 100 people who attended informal concert-preview sessions involving food and discussions with the performers.
``People have grown up with TV, videos, and movies that for the most part have nothing to do with classical music,'' says Cindy Siemens, sales and audience development manager of the Kansas City Symphony. ``We have to coax this generation out of their homes and little suburban areas into a cultural center,'' where they can ``experience things together as a community.''
At the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra in California, where 79 percent of the audience is over 45, executive director Mary Newkirk says she was surprised at some of the reasons young people gave for not coming to the symphony. Some speak about their lack of music education, she says, while others are concerned about not understanding the music or knowing when to applaud.
``We've got to overcome that perception of the concert-going experience as being stuffy and off-putting,'' Ms. Newkirk says. Next season, Long Beach will begin a new ``deformalized'' concert series, designed by conductor JoAnn Falletta, aimed at people aged 25 to 45. It will be held in a 1,000-seat hall (instead of the 3,000-seat Terrace Theater), because music ``has to have an immediacy to it. Why go to a concert when you can listen to your CD at home?''
Musical selections will not be watered down, Newkirk asserts. ``That would be an insult to them.'' Instead, ``you've got to look at how you're wrapping the package.''
Arts consultant Harris warns that simply framing an orchestral concert with exciting before-and-after activities like parties, receptions, or art exhibitions, won't work in the long run.
``If we don't reach them through the experience itself, no matter how much sex appeal, it will never last,'' she says. ``If you bring them to a concert they're not ready for, they'll never come back.'' Harris says the all-important questions are: How do you engage the audience? How do you eliminate the edge of the stage?''
Adds Maestro Zinman of the Baltimore Symphony: ``The experience of hearing Mahler's Ninth is worth something. It's unbelievably fulfilling, and this is what you have to create in the audience - this sense that they're there for this wonderful experience.''