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October 27, 2010

Cleveland Orchestra launches ambitious Center for Future Audiences with $20 million

There's enough bad news in the classical music business that any good news seems extra good. So it is with word from the Cleveland Orchestra, which has launched something called the Center for Future Audiences, an initiative that aims to put into real action what so many people just talk about -- getting new and younger audiences into the concert hall.

With a $20 million lead gift from the Maltz Family Foundation of the Jewish Federation (a $60 million fund for the project is the goal), the center will remove some of the most common obstacles to attending orchestra concerts -- ticket cost and access.

A sobering fact mentioned in the announcement of the initiative is that the average ticket price to a Cleveland Orchestra concert in the historic Severance Hall has

increased more than 300% since the mid-1980s (it's now $50). That's one way to keep young people out.

The Center for Future Audiences will attack that problem with heavily subsidized ticket prices, meaning deep discounts for the 18-34 set, free tickets to lots of events for children under 18. It's not just a youth thing. The orchestra will also arrange for free bus service from some suburbs to the concert hall, a terrific gesture.

Zack Lewis, in his story for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, includes this great quote from Ross Binnie, the chief marketing officer for the orchestra who was just named director of Center for Future Audiences: "We want to make sure there's no excuse about money, getting here or the welcome you get once you're here," Binnie said. "We're going to turn our plan on its head and say, 'You know what? Come check us out and then tell us you don't like it.' "

Other orchestra have been involved with some things like this. Here, for example, the Baltimore Symphony's $25 ticket initiative a few years ago set off a lot of buzz in the industry, as did its El sistema-inspired OrchKids project that is reaching the youngest generation with an extensive, in-school education program. The Boston Symphony recently announced a public school initiative along the OrchKids line. Every step that any orchestra makes to connect to the disconnected is obviously valuable, potentially invaluable. (A part of the Cleveland Orchestra's new ventures involves the ensemble going out more into the surrounding communities to perform.)

Orchestras that don't try new things, bold new things, are likely to find themselves not just out of touch, but out of business, in the years ahead. It's all well and good to have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, but what's more likely to count are deals that are hard to refuse. That's what I like about the Cleveland program -- the mix of free tickets and free transportation.

I don't know how it will work out. I realize not everybody likes a bus ride, even if it is free, so maybe there won't be enough takers. But it sure does make sense to try such an offer, to reach out in such a concrete way, breaking down as many of those barriers -- real and imaginary -- that keep a good many people from ever passing through a concert hall door.

Of course, you've got to make the experience awfully good for them once they get inside, which requires a lot of fresh thinking, too. Getting more diverse bodies into seats is bound to jump-start such thinking.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:23 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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