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Concert Subscribers Bullish : Music: The threat of a depressed economy hasn't hurt orchestra subscriptions. The L.A. Philharmonic reports a 6.8% increase.


At a time when many observers of the economy are staring into the face of recession, there is some good news to counter the bad: Subscription sales at Southern California symphony orchestras have increased or are holding their own despite rising unemployment, a collapsed real-estate market, slumps in manufacturing and in other sectors.

The good news continues when one talks to spokespeople for other series sold by subscription. Most report that despite what may seem like pessimism in other parts of the economy, music lovers are still bullish on concerts.

"However you look at it, we are getting bigger," says Norma Flynn, publications manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn.

Flynn reports substantial increases in subscription sales of season tickets to Philharmonic concerts--in the orchestra's premier series, Thursday night Series A--an encouraging 8% from last year. Series A begins tonight with Andre Previn conducting at the opening of the new season in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Overall, the Philharmonic reports a healthy 6.8% increase in subscribers, expected to number 31,200.

"There seems to be a trend here," says Deborah Rutter, executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. "At a time when the world seems going haywire, people revert to traditional values--and concertgoing seems more important to them."

Rutter's marketing director, George Sebastian, says LACO season-ticket sales--encompassing 33 concerts and six series--are now up 16% compared to last season, and that last year "they were up 6%."

Louis Spisto, general manager of the Pacific Symphony, which offers 44 concerts in six series at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, reports a 3% increase in its concerts of classical, pops and family programming. And in his two classics series on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, he says there is a 5% increase in season-ticket sales.

Meanwhile at the Long Beach Symphony, demand is greater than the size of the hall. Manager Mary Newkirk reports that the orchestra's 1990-91 season is, like the previous one, sold out: All 3,056 seats in Terrace Theater have been bought for the ensemble's six winter-series concerts. The gloomy days of the mid-1980s when half a house was the rule have been left behind, and Newkirk looks forward to reinstating a second series of concerts.

Justin E. McCarthy, the orchestra's marketing director, says that does not mean that people who want to attend Long Beach Symphony events cannot get in.

"Before every concert, we run a campaign to remind subscribers to return their tickets if they cannot attend. As a result, we usually have between 40 and 70 seats for resale the night of a concert."

Jim Wright, general manager of the Santa Barbara Symphony, reports sales up 8% from last year; a total subscription audience of 2,650 is expected to increase to 2,800 for its two series of 14 concerts. The San Diego Symphony, financially beleaguered in the past decade, reports sales up a healthy 4% from last season; that orchestra gives 64 concerts divided into eight series.

Only in Pasadena is the upward trend contradicted. Robert McMullin, executive director of the Pasadena Symphony, says, "Frankly, our sales are flat this year--going neither upwards nor down.

"That isn't necessarily bad news, since last season we enjoyed a substantial increase of 14% over the previous season. I think this happens. Unless one has a new conductor or a new auditorium or some kind of novelty, sales tend to be cyclical--that is, some years they move one way and some years, the other. One thing is for sure: Our subscribers, who number just over 2,000, are holding tight."

In an informal survey of other Southland musical institutions, the trend continues: Subscriptions--the financial backbone of these organizations--are increasing or holding steady.

Samuel Lurie, a spokesman for the Ambassador Foundation, which sponsors 99 concerts and 29 series at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena, says: "It's my understanding that we are certainly not feeling any effects of a recession. Some of our series are up in sales, some down, but overall we are steady, and pretty much where we have been in the past two seasons at this point."

Speaking for the South Bay Center for the Arts at El Camino College, Betty Ferrell says that no figures are available for season's tickets at this time, but that "we have seen no great difference between this season and last." The South Bay Center sponsors 75 major events in Marsee Auditorium, sold on 13 series.

One note of pessimism is sounded by Welz Kauffman, general manager of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, who comments: "Remember, these increases have mostly taken place, at least for our organization, since the spring, and before the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. I think the real story may be told in single-ticket sales after the seasons open."

That feeling is echoed by LACO's Rutter: "Even though subscriptions are growing here, the jury is still out on single-ticket sales."


ORCHESTRA SUBSCRIBERS L.A. Philharmonic + 6.8% Pacific Symphony + 3% Long Beach Symphony *No Change Glendale Symphony + 2% Pasadena Symphony No Change L.A. Chamber Orchestra +16% San Diego Symphony + 4% Santa Barbara Symphony + 8%

* Sold out this season and last.

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