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The Orchestra's Subscribers: Fiercely Loyal, Financially Essential and Sometimes Fickle : L.A. PHILHARMONIC : Keeping Concerts All in the Family

September 17, 1989|GRETA BEIGEL

They are the backbone of arts organizations, providing up to 90% of the audiences and of the revenues. Most are fiercely loyal and willing to volunteer their support, such as subscriber Betty Rockwell has done for years at the Pasadena Symphony. But some are fickle, as the Master Chorale of Orange County is discovering as the novelty of its new home at the Performing Arts Center wears off. Even the mighty Los Angeles Philharmonic has a 25% annual subscriber turnover rate. At the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, the goal is to retain 75% to 80% of all subscribers, and at 65% renewals this year it will be a struggle. Why are subscribers so imporant? Single-ticket sales are "scary," says Deborah Rutter of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, "because you never know how you're doing until the last minute." As the 1989-90 music season begins, here are five portraits of these key people, the subscribers themselves.

Fridays at noon, Dr. Charles Witt closes the doors to his Larchmont Boulevard practice and races downtown to the Music Center to lunch with his wife Colette at Otto Rothschild's Bar & Grill.

At 1 p.m., the two head upstairs to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to chat with friends before taking their seats in the orchestra section to await the 1:30 curtain call.

As longtime subscribers of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the couple have followed this Friday afternoon ritual, each fall through spring, for 14 years.

"When we started going, our kids were small and it was wonderful to go as a family," Colette Witt recalls. "It's such a convenient time and gives us a chance to be sociable and learn so much as well."

Sixteen series comprise the 1989/90 season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which begins Oct. 5 with Andre Previn conducting the Fourth Symphonies of Beethoven and Shostakovich. The Philharmonic's budget is a gargantuan $28 million and with generous donations is well into the black each year. Subscriptions total 75% of ticket sales and in the Philharmonic's past two seasons have hovered just under 40,000, with renewals running at 76-80%.

Most popular is Series J, featuring three Saturday night performances. Priced from $16.50-$110, the series attracts a younger audience and last year lured 2,792 patrons to the 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. "We are now seeing a trend toward these shorter series," notes Norma Flynn, the orchestra's director of publicity and promotion.

Traditionally, old-time subscribers frequent Thursday night programs (top price $370). Sunday matinees, tagged at $31-$320, draw mostly families, rated the most enthusiastic audience of the week by Philharmonic officials.

With subscriptions taking up only 55% of the house, Series C--Friday matinees--appeals largely to senior citizens and students who can purchase any seat in the house at $5 apiece two weeks in advance.

"We keep this series open to the public," Flynn said. "We don't go after subscribers that hard."

For the Witts, originally Thursday night devotees who found the late nights too fatiguing, Friday performances hold special significance.

French-born Colette Witt, 55, relishes the series' pre-concert discussions and proudly reminds that she once chaired the popular Symphony Previews.

Dr. Witt, 60, a thoracic surgeon and pianist who has appeared with the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony--he boasts a 1975 performance of Tchaikovsky's First Concerto--admires the roster of keyboardists who often inspire him to rush home and practice long hours at one of the two Steinway concert grands that dominate the music room of his stately Hancock Park home.

Their son Walter, a 26-year-old Yale graduate and pianist who likes to play double concertos with his father, fondly remembers Friday concerts at the Music Center.

The Witts spend an estimated 5% of their income in support of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. One recent afternoon, flanked by their children and "music-loving" Labrador Jackie, the couple tracked the family's association with the orchestra:

* On their first date in November, 1955 (they married one year later), Charles and Colette attended a performance by Leonard Pennario of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto at Philharmonic Auditorium, the orchestra's former home.

* Since the 1960s, Colette Witt has served in various volunteer capacities with the orchestra. As a docent she has worked with the Los Angeles Junior Philharmonic Committee and participated in demonstrations in the schools. She is currently president of the Hollywood Bowl Patroness Committee.

* Daughter Alexandra, 27, a segment producer with the "Today" show, shares her mother's passion for the Hollywood Bowl, and with husband Bill Sorensen, 31-year-old producer of KNBC's 6 p.m. newscast, has for three years subscribed to the summer festival.

Each year, the Philharmonic loses 25% of its audience--some concertgoers switch allegiance to other arts organizations; others move away from the city and some simply pass on. (The average age of a subscriber is 58.)

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