In May 2014 Northeast Ohio in the United States played host to hundreds of music professionals from around the country. The annual League of American Orchestras conference brought executives, musicians and critics alike to downtown Cleveland to discuss ways to these ensembles vital in a time when music is more likely to be heard through ear buds than in concert halls. It’s a mission that sometimes calls for… unusual tactics.
One such example was a nineteenth century composer who walked into a bar. Or at least he looked like Beethoven as he entered a tavern in Canton, the first stop on a five-part pub crawl, this past March.
"We had a guy dressed-up like Beethoven, leading the crawl."
As executive director of the Canton Symphony Orchestra, Michelle Mullaly and her staff have devised unorthodox ways to attract new audiences to concerts. Canton Symphony musicians serenaded the patrons of each bar, who got discount tickets to future performances. Mullaly says, it’s part of a strategy hatched at a time when the average orchestra fan is aging.
"Just when you look around our audience, the majority of the people have gray hair."
It’s an issue faced by orchestras across the United States --- from smaller ensembles like the Canton Symphony, all the way up to the world-renown Cleveland Orchestra. Cleveland executive director Gary Hanson says it doesn’t help that the Orchestra was saddled with a stuffy, ivory tower air for decades.
"In the late 19th and early 20th century, the European fine arts were seen as a pursuit of the emerging American aristocracy." And he says a number of century-old musical institutions are working on ways to turn that elitist image around.
"It’s changing enormously. You can go the movie theater and see the Metropolitan Opera, and you can go to Slavic Village and see the Cleveland Orchestra."
Slavic Village is an old, working-class community in recovery after being slammed by the economic collapse of 2008. This Spring, Orchestra members played everywhere, from a cozy Polish restaurant to the immense Bohemian National Hall, in an effort to attract visitors.
The drop-off of orchestra audiences is not just a problem here. London-based critic Norman Labrecht says it’s a global phenomenon, fueled by the stripping of arts programs from schools. He thinks orchestras have to find ways to reconnect with their home communities. One way to do that, he says, is to follow some advice from former Los Angeles Philharmonic executive, Ernest Fleischman.
"What he proposed was that the orchestra break itself down into units --- it doesn’t always have to perform as a single mass --- and that it serves different needs in the wider community. We have to pay attention to two things: first, the lives of musicians are dull and rule-bound; and second, the needs of communities are ever changing."
The Canton Symphony’s Michelle Mullaly says she spent about a quarter of her marketing budget this year getting musicians out of the concert hall and into the community.
"We did stuff at rotaries, we did stuff at the mall, we did stuff at the airport, we did pop-up concerts at hospitals, and colleges and businesses --- we really made an effort to get our musicians out in places where people don’t expect to see them."
And they had a nearly sell-out crowd on the final night of their Beethoven festival. Long-time Slavic Village resident Joyce Hairston was thrilled to hear the Cleveland Orchestra play in her neighborhood. "Oh my god, it was wonderful! It was so melodic, I mean I was drifting off to my happy place. I loved it!"
The Orchestra’s second trumpet-player Jack Sutte says that it’s a two-way street. "For me, it’s nice to see different parts of Cleveland that I haven’t traveled to, but also the new concert experience in new venues. New people coming to be immersed with the Orchestra."
Cleveland Orchestra planners say they are developing further neighborhood residencies and increasing outreach to area schools, as the Orchestra gets to know its home town a little better.
This article was originally published by David C. Barnett on IdeaStream here.
Learn more about the Canton Symphony Orchestra "Rock the 5th" pub crawl here.