Point of view

Make social media part of attracting younger fans to NC Symphony

April 19, 2014 


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The N.C. Symphony migrated the short distance from Memorial Auditorium to its new home in Meymandi Concert Hall in 2001, and my wife and I have had the same seats ever since, three rows in front of the violins.

The hall has tremendous acoustics so we don’t worry much about missing some of the sonic thrills by being so close to the orchestra. We enjoy sitting near enough to watch music director Grant Llewellyn talk to himself as he conducts and to see the facial expressions and body English of the soloists as they do their magic. Over the years, we have seen some of classical music’s stars before they hit their fame.

We also see familiar faces in the audience around us, year after year, as the symphony diehards renew their seats – and their support – for the music they love. This season, though, the sameness of the crowd, while reassuring, is a bit worrisome, too. Where are the new faces?

Classical music can be a tough sell, especially to the younger people who could provide the much-needed support for years to come. The arts traditionally have been patronized by the older and more well-heeled members of a community, so the goal should be a greater but incremental appeal to a younger crowd.

My own love of the music began when I was a kid in western New York state, where my siblings and I watched classic Saturday morning cartoons on the three channels our black-and-white TV would receive. Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Donald Duck made fantastic use of the big names in classical composition, and their music-fueled antics are impossible to forget.

Today’s 20- and 30-something potential audience members don’t watch classic cartoons and have more digital distractions than ever. While the orchestra’s wide range of types of concerts – classical, pops, kids’ and others – is intended to attract new listeners, constant change has to be part of the appeal.

Llewellyn and former music director Gerhard Zimmerman both nudged the symphony into the 21st century by programming new and innovative material. In the last couple of years, the concerts have included current works by North Carolina composers, young composers and international composers. One recent program – conducted by a Peruvian who also is chief conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra – included a recent Latin American work.

But material alone will not do the job. The symphony’s executives must think of the experience itself and how it can pull in a younger crowd. How about experimenting with a specially priced family listening room, featuring wide-screen live TV of the concert, plus a great sound system? Parents with youngsters could enjoy the music while the kids listen, too, and the disruption of a child could be forgiven.

Social media also must be part of the picture. I think the glow of smart phones during a concert is unacceptable, but I wonder whether there is some way to incorporate Twitter, Facebook and the others in the musical experience. People more clever than I certainly would have some ideas, and maybe an appeal to the digital literati would yield some new ways of reaching the wired crowd.

I have belonged to organizations long enough to understand that change is hard, and I suspect that some of the long-time orchestra subscribers reasonably might object to changes in their concert-going experience. The challenge will be to incorporate change while respecting the people who have been supportive for many years. I am sure it can be done.

The N.C. Symphony is a jewel; its hard-working members perform dozens of concerts throughout the state each year, spreading the good news of the arts. It is truly North Carolina’s orchestra. A musical program like this is expensive to run. Adding new players is crucial to maintaining its vitality, and those new players have to be paid.

A few years ago, the orchestra agreed to a 15 percent pay cut, necessary in a time of diminishing resources. It was a stunning sacrifice that saved the jobs of perhaps 10 musicians. Now that the economy is showing signs of a rebound, it is important for new resources to be spent wisely.

I would say that spending on the arts is crucial, and if some of that is aimed at attracting a new and younger kind of symphony fan, then it will be money well-spent.

Bob Kochersberger teaches journalism at N.C. State University. He can be reached at bobkochs@gmail.com.

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