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Philharmonic Faces Challenges

Music: Wijnbergen's gone. Questions about programming, a changing audience and ticket sales remain.


Neither the leadership of the Los Angeles Philharmonic nor its former managing director, Willem Wijnbergen, will say exactly what sparked the rift that left Wijnbergen out of a job in June. "Serious issues that need to be resolved" at the orchestra is as far as the exiting Wijnbergen would go.

What's no secret is the set of important challenges that faces the Philharmonic with or without a managing director. Wijnbergen, and now the acting Philharmonic leadership--attorney Barry Sanders, in the unpaid role of Philharmonic Assn. president; paid staffers; the board of directors, which has formed several new transition committees; and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen--have been focusing on several major problems: declining ticket sales, aging audiences, the changing demographics of their communities, and how to introduce contemporary compositions--new music--to a core audience that must be coaxed into accepting change.

These are much the same problems that face other symphony orchestras across America as they strategize about their survival in the next millennium. In some cases, however, the situation is more dire in L.A.

Despite nationwide concern about a declining audience dominated by two colors--white and gray--the American Symphony Orchestra League conducted a recent survey that paints a brighter picture. Even though there are ups and downs, on average, according to ASOL, the country's 850 symphony orchestras are enjoying a boom that mirrors the strength of the economy. Ticket sales rose 37% between the 1990-91 season and the 1997-98 season--adding $117.7 million to overall ticket revenues and bringing the '97-'98 season total to $432.9 million.

"Compared to '90-'91, there were 5 million more seats filled in 1997-98," said ASOL spokeswoman Grace Chang.

The situation is not so rosy at the Phil. Ticket revenues have stayed the same in recent years due to increased ticket prices, but audiences have declined--not precipitously, but steadily.

In 1996, attendance at the 18,000-seat Bowl averaged 9,700 per concert (that includes only Philharmonic-sponsored events, not rentals). In 1997, it was 9,500, and in 1998, it dropped to 9,100. For the orchestra's regular fall-to-spring season at the 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, ticket sales averaged 2,210 a performance in 1996-97, 2,115 in 1997-98, and 1,830 in the 1998-99 season.

One reason the Chandler Pavilion appeared emptier in the 1998-99 season was not just the drop in ticket sales but Wijnbergen's controversial decision in October to go cold turkey on "papering" the house with complimentary tickets.

The Pavilion admittedly is larger than most concert halls. The Cleveland Orchestra (which reports increasing ticket sales and an audience whose average age is actually getting younger) plays in 2,080-seat Severance Hall, considered an ideal size for orchestral music.

But even the more intimate Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is set to open in the 2002-03 season with an estimated capacity of 2,380, will have seats to spare if the Philharmonic's averages don't rise.

Under Wijnbergen, the Philharmonic made aggressive programming and marketing changes, reflected in the ongoing Hollywood Bowl season and the Philharmonic's upcoming season at the Pavilion. They include a sleekly contemporary 1999-2000 brochure, the introduction of world music and jazz series at the Bowl, and new series packages at the Pavilion intended to provide subscribers with a clear choice between traditional orchestra fare and new music.

Even those orchestras reporting steady or increased ticket sales are taking measures to ensure that things stay that way. In San Francisco, where executive director Brent Assink says awareness of the orchestra is high enough that city cab drivers know what's on the program, the orchestra is spending "a lot of money" on attracting new audiences. In Cleveland, the key phrase is "audience preparation"--pre-concert talks and education--as well as an effort to promote the institution rather than specific programs or guest stars. "We want people to come to 'the orchestra' the way they come to 'the museum,' " said executive director Thomas Morris.

The ASOL survey indicates that, while concertgoing is up, the increase represents a greater number of people seeing fewer concerts--a phenomenon that presents new marketing challenges.

One manager offers this cost-efficient solution: Play fewer concerts. "Instead of lamenting about marketing difficulties, I say take the OPEC approach--reduce the supply of oil," said Joseph H. Kluger, president of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has experienced its own drop in ticket sales--5%--in recent years.

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