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Orchestras Must Overcome `Stuffy' Label

WHEN symphony officials lament the paucity of young adults at orchestra concerts, they tend to blame the problem on several culprits: ``the video age,'' the symphony's ``stuffy'' image, and poor music education in the schools. One marketing expert, however, offers a broader theory: an enormous range of entertainment options (classical and popular) that increasingly competes for young adults' attention.

Orchestras ``were the only game in town 40 years ago,'' says Christine Harris, an arts consultant in Milwaukee, Wis., well known in the orchestra field for her marketing savvy.

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During the last two decades, the number of orchestras and arts organizations in the United States grew: Between 1965 and 1990, the number of dance companies rose from 37 to 250; opera companies went from 27 to 120; and nonprofit theater companies grew from 56 to 420, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

``We've seen a healthy development of audience for the arts,'' Ms. Harris says. Orchestras ``have to fight harder to get people.''

Classical music is so often within earshot - from elevators to restaurants to one's own living room - that ``nobody listens any more,'' Harris says. Music is no longer a luxury.

And let's not forget the blossoming of pop music, she says, which has captivated the young generation through radio and television to a degree previously unimaginable. Baby-boomers ``grew up with a different set of entertainment options and different ways of accessibility,'' she says.

Since the format and presentation of classical symphonic music has not changed in decades, you end up with a ``static audience,'' says Harris. ``The bottom line is, nobody's hearing music that way anymore.''

What is needed, she says, is to somehow make orchestra concerts meaningful to young people by truly engaging them in the music - not just paying ``lip-service'' to them with fancy brochures and after-concert sock-hops. Such tactics ``have some potential to work provided that once the [young adults] are there, their emotional, mental, and spiritual capacities are tapped by the experience.''

Leonard Bernstein did just that with his famous ``Young People's Concerts'' in Carnegie Hall, she says. ``Because of his ability to communicate in a special way, he could turn you on to the music. That's what we're not doing.''

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``I think the general public is hungry for deep experiences that enable us to grow personally,'' Harris comments, ``but we have to find the right way to make that connection.''

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