Audiences are coming back to orchestras after 'scary' sales last fall

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Audiences are coming back to orchestras after 'scary' sales last fall
A crowd at Severance Hall in Cleveland, Ohio on May 13, 2023, during the Cleveland Orchestra’s inaugural humanities festival, part of an effort to broaden audiences. After a ‘scary’ fall, audiences are coming back to orchestras. (Dustin Franz/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

CLEVELAND, OH.- Puccini’s opera “La Fanciulla del West” ends with heartbreaking wistfulness, as a crowd of Gold Rush miners bids a sad farewell to the life they’ve known.

But for the superb Cleveland Orchestra, which recently finished a short run of concert performances of the piece, the 2022-23 season is ending happily, with little nostalgia for how things were going just a few months ago.

At the first performance, a Sunday matinee, “Fanciulla” was enthusiastically received by an audience that the orchestra said was at about 70% capacity.

That’s hardly a phenomenal number. But for Cleveland, it was more than satisfying after a grim fall for attendance. In interviews, orchestra leaders around the country echoed that sentiment, saying that things had been deeply disappointing early on this season for them, too — and that their panic had calmed amid winter and spring sales that were, if not boffo, at least not devastating.

“You feel it’s really moving up,” André Gremillet, Cleveland’s CEO, said of recent attendance at Severance Hall, the orchestra’s home.

The size of audiences at concerts here and in many other cities was “miserable” in early fall, said Simon Woods, the leader of the League of American Orchestras, a trade group. “To be honest, people were quite dejected.”

Sellouts weren’t everyday occurrences at major orchestras even before the pandemic, and subscription rates were dipping. But, as with so much else, COVID accelerated existing trends. For many ensembles, the 2021-22 season had been a tentative step forward after a pandemic pause, and the assumption was that 2022-23 would return to something approaching the old days.

Instead, September brought a rude surprise.

Even for orchestras of Cleveland’s eminence and civic stature, people simply weren’t showing up. At the silvery 2,000-seat Severance, Gremillet said, “we’d have perhaps 1,100 or 1,200. For us, that’s not very good.”

It wasn’t just in Cleveland. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra hovered around half full, on average; the Philadelphia Orchestra, too.

Before the pandemic, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra had been averaging houses just over 70%. But in fall, said Melia Tourangeau, its CEO, “we were happy, we were jumping up and down, if we got above 1,000” — about 37% of the 2,700-seat Heinz Hall. “It was very visible, and very scary.”

In Dallas, said Kim Notelmy, that ensemble’s leader: “We remained hopeful because we felt people were interested. But we weren’t seeing it translate into ticket sales.”

But then a turnaround appeared most everywhere, which many leaders ascribed to an easing of lingering health concerns around the pandemic, particularly among older segments of the audience.

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

Dallas and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra reported that noticeable improvement began a bit earlier, around mid-October. By the end of fall, Philadelphia was in the 70% or 75% range, where it has stayed.

Woods, of the League of American Orchestras, said: “Holiday sales were very strong, some stronger than in 2019. And that, I think, turbocharged audiences.” Erik Rönmark, the head of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, said, “Our holiday concerts were the best-sold ones we’ve ever had.”

In Pittsburgh, Tourangeau said, “during the holidays, we got this huge push.” There have been a handful of sold-out performances at Heinz Hall in the new year, she added, both for pops programming and for core classical pieces like Mozart’s Requiem and Holst’s “The Planets.”

“It’s below pre-pandemic,” she said, “but we’re within 3% of where we were.”

For orchestras beyond the largest and most famous, Woods said, the story was much the same: A brutal beginning to the season, followed by a heartening uptick later in fall that accelerated through the holidays. (The New York Philharmonic, which opened its renovated David Geffen Hall to much publicity in October, was a lucky exception, selling well all year.)

Cleveland’s rebound took longer to start than some other major institutions’. Until March or so, Gremillet said, audiences were still significantly down. But the trajectory has been positive. The orchestra said its concerts sold an average of 67% for January to May, up from 54% from September to December.

Almost every orchestra remains below where it was a few years ago. Matías Tarnopolsky of the Philadelphia Orchestra said, “We’re still, depending on where you measure, 10 to 15% behind where we were in 2019 — sometimes 20%.”

In St. Louis, Marie-Hélène Bernard, the orchestra’s CEO, said, “We’re hovering 25 to 28% behind where we were.” The San Francisco Symphony was 68% sold this season through mid-May, compared with 82% at the same point in its final pre-pandemic season.

“It’s still not back fully, and it’s more unpredictable,” Gremillet, of Cleveland, said. “We sold out all three concerts in April for the Wynton Marsalis trumpet concerto, with Dvorak’s ‘New World’ on the second half. But the week before was Bernard Labadie conducting an all-Mozart program, and it didn’t do great. In the pre-pandemic world, an all-Mozart program would do fine.”

The increasing separation between programs that do well and those that don’t was noted in many interviews. “It either sells out immediately or it doesn’t sell at all,” Tourangeau said. “It’s feast or famine.”

Subscriptions are still generally lagging, even as they tick up from pandemic lows. Orchestras are reaching more — and younger — buyers than before, though those newcomers tend to buy fewer tickets per season. Audience members also now tend to wait longer to purchase, making budgeting and marketing strategies less predictable. This is all requiring expensive adjustments internally.

Programmers are watching the numbers carefully. “We changed the plans next season to make sure there are more of the major masterworks,” Tarnopolsky, of Philadelphia, said. “Maybe those anchor pieces that people look for weren’t present enough, so we’re making sure that they are — alongside our commitment to the contemporary and diverse.”

For some orchestras, this period of uncertainty has provided an opportunity to experiment. Cleveland, which has in the past accompanied its annual opera performances with other concerts, expanded that effort this year into a humanities festival, which came together in a little more than a year — a flash in the glacially moving world of classical music.

An attempt to draw audiences interested in things besides Puccini, and to amplify the orchestra’s presence in its city, the festival was organized around the theme of the American dream that’s firmly present in the 19th-century California of “Fanciulla.”

There were film screenings, theater productions, panels, readings, an art tour — many of the offerings collaborations with other Cleveland institutions. Over 24 hours, it was possible to pair a “Fanciulla” matinee — the playing sumptuous yet lucid under the orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst — with a rousing performance by local choruses and a keynote speech from the writer Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns,” “Caste”).

These events weren’t full, but the audiences responded warmly — standing and dancing at their seats for the charming choruses — and the festival was a compelling proof of concept, an ambitious achievement to put an exclamation point on a roller-coaster season.

“We are feeling better this year than we were this time last year,” Gremillet said. “Which leads me to think that what we’ve been seeing these past few months is continuing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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