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Trade ya a flute for that violin?

The Houston Symphony is offering trading cards of its musicians to help build public awareness.

September 14, 2007|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra may market itself with an 80-foot mural beside the Harbor Freeway downtown, but the Houston Symphony has decided to look through the other end of the telescope. It's offering the public free "official trading cards," featuring 33 of its musicians, just like the ones of baseball players that kids have long coveted.

"The idea came from several directions -- from the musicians, from my printer, who's always interested in getting extra work, and my in-house creative designer," said Bruce Robinson, the orchestra's senior director of marketing.

"We had a specific need that we printed the cards for. We have a spinning wheel -- a wheel of fortune -- that we just started to take out to our free summer-in-the-park concerts and concerts in various locations around the metropolitan Houston area to attract people to our programs.

"The main prize is tickets to an upcoming concert. Those are scarce and valuable. Second prize is a large photo of the symphony performing in Carnegie Hall with our music director, Hans Graf. We needed some other premiums. For the third, fourth and fifth prizes, you might get five cards or three or one. We were able to print up 100,000 of these for very little money."

The cards have a picture of a musician on the front and another picture and "musician stats" on the back -- "stats" that include the player's age, background, years with the symphony and a "flip-side tidbit."

Violinist Kurt Johnson's "flip- side tidbit," he said, is that he's an avid sportsman "who can be seen walking his basset hound around midtown."

Johnson, who has been in the orchestra for seven years, said he thought the whole idea of the cards was "kind of neat."

"It's a nice way to promote the symphony, especially for younger audiences," he said. "It shows a lighter side of classical music. It doesn't have to be stuffy."

The response so far?

"I haven't seen them up for sale on EBay yet," Robinson said. "But we've only used them at a half-dozen concerts so far. Adults' first reaction was, 'What are these?' But kids get the idea immediately. It's a real pleasure to see them enjoying them because they're designed to connect with the orchestra -- the musicians themselves."

The cards will also be available by request during the regular subscription season.

Using trading cards in classical music is not new, said Julia Kirchhausen, vice president of communications for the American Symphony Orchestra League. Indeed, when Walt Disney Concert Hall opened in 2003, the Los Angeles Philharmonic printed cards of its members for distribution to schoolchildren and for use as a teaching tool. According to Philharmonic spokesman Adam Crane, the cards are being updated.

"But it is rather unusual as a marketing campaign," Kirchhausen said. "Several years ago, Deutsche Grammophon did it as a promotion. I'm not exactly sure how many there were. I had Kathleen Battle, Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham cards. Wish I had them now.

"The premise is to build equity in individual musicians as being talented members of a team. What we're all trying to do is capture the attention of the public. This is a fun way to do it."

Said Robinson: "We know from a market research study we did four years ago that a motivation people share in coming to a performance is connecting with musicians. The musicians individually are a huge part of why they go to concerts. But the cards are a very small part of what we do. We also have life-sized cutouts of the musicians that we scatter throughout the hall. The cards are part of the larger program."

Whatever the Houston Symphony has been doing, it's apparently worked. Subscriptions rose from 5,498 in the 2004-05 season to 7,074 in '06-'07, Robinson said. Single ticket sales, meanwhile, more than doubled in four years. For last season, they were 24,000, up from 10,000.

It's likely, in short, that the cards will keep coming.

"Having 100,000 of them, I expect that we will have premiums for our drawings for several years," said Robinson. "That's a lot of cards."

--

chris.pasles@latimes.com

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