Detroit Symphony Finds an Audience

Everyone keeps talking about how attendance at classical concerts is falling steadily. But Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee reports that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is bucking the trend.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Many of America's symphony orchestras are operating in the red, and some aficionados are worried about the future of classical music. But Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee reports that the Detroit Symphony may have found the path to survival.

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CELESTE HEADLEE reporting:

In 2003, Florida's largest orchestra declared bankruptcy and closed its doors, and major American orchestras like Atlanta and Minnesota are seriously in debt. In all, 73 percent of orchestras reported a deficit in 2003, and in the decade between 1993 and 2003, total attendance of symphony concerts nationwide dropped by 10 percent. Grim statistics like these have again brought up a familiar question. Is classical music dying?

Henry Fogel doesn't think so. He's the president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and he says lack of interest in classical music is not the problem.

Mr. HENRY FOGEL (President, American Symphony Orchestra League): There's no question that in the period between 2000 and 2005, orchestras did start to rack up deficits. And all of that is clearly related to a downturn in the economy that began in the spring of 2001.

HEADLEE: Interest in classical music is still very high, according to researchers like Alan Brown who study classical music audiences. Brown has conducted studies for the Knight Foundation and many other organizations, and sales figures for Apple's iTunes show that out of about a billion tracks sold in its first three years of business, 12 percent were in the classical category. Compare that to the three or four percent share classical recording sales had in the 1980s and '90s.

But Brown says most people listen to classical music in their cars, not the concert hall. And he says most orchestras can't seem to capitalize on the interest of the listening public.

Mr. ALAN BROWN (President, Audience Insight): The nonprofit arts field is like a huge multinational corporation with 10,000 branch offices but no world headquarters. There's no central body creating policy, causing innovations to happen, and then rolling them out across the field. So you have literally thousands of organizations doing the same thing but not really benefiting from each other's experiences.

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HEADLEE: Brown says recent deficits have forced orchestras to change, and a few have changed dramatically. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra had a $2 million deficit in 2003. Now they're running a modest surplus, and ticket sales for classical concerts rose by eight percent last year, this even in a city marred by poverty and a state with an unemployment rate of more than seven percent. Executive Director Anne Parsons says the orchestra has accomplished this by going beyond music-making to become a part of Detroit's business community.

Ms. ANNE PARSONS (Executive Director, Detroit Symphony Orchestra): First of all, I think that the orchestra recognized that standing still was moving backwards, deciding that we wanted to be a motivator of economic development in our area. So we took on the entire four-block radius and decided what we thought it ought to be and made it happen.

HEADLEE: The DSO now owns a large office building and a new $125 million state-of-the-art performing arts complex. But more importantly, they spearheaded a $220 million urban renewal project in the city, bringing in new developers to build condos across the street and to transform the surrounding area. The orchestra is also going beyond the traditional classical concert season by offering free concerts, performing at local festivals and in public parks.

But the Detroit Symphony is also investing in future generations. They've gone beyond the usual children's concerts and joined forces with the city to create the Detroit School of the Arts.

It opened last year on land adjacent to the concert hall and donated by the symphony. Musicians from the orchestra participate in classes on a regular basis. New Jersey Symphony conductor JoAnn Falletta says Detroit musicians are doing what musicians across the country must do. She says they must take over the role of music educator.

Ms. JOANN FALLETTA (Conductor, New Jersey Symphony): When we lost a lot of music education in the schools, that was a tragedy, and we didn't do anything about it. We let it happen. We've lost maybe a generation of young people who are very well educated except that they have no arts background at all.

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HEADLEE: Aaron Dworkin is the president of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization. Sphinx is dedicated to increasing the participation of young blacks and Latinos in classical music. Dworkin says educational programs are essential, but perhaps the reason more people don't attend symphony concerts is that they don't recognize themselves in the players on stage. American society is increasingly diverse, he says, and orchestras are not.

Mr. AARON DWORKIN (President, Sphinx Organization): We're behind everyone. We're behind sports. We're behind academia. We're behind business in terms of trying to address this issue. And I think that while there is an understanding that there is this incredible lack of diversity, there is not the understanding of the connection to the bottom line of an orchestra.

HEADLEE: Dworkin says this may be one of the reasons why the Detroit Symphony appeals to a broader audience. The DSO staff is extremely diverse, and it's the only orchestra in the nation that still has a minority fellowship program. There used to be dozens across the country.

What's more, three of the musicians are minorities. That's actually a high number for American orchestras. And the assistant music director is African-American. He's become something of a star in Detroit, and he's a champion of American and especially African-American composers.

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HEADLEE: Other orchestra are trying new things to entice audience members, but most are marketing strategies, like salsa lessons and speed dating before concerts. One even has a concert series that includes a free buffet dinner. But Henry Fogel of the American Symphony Orchestra League says the Detroit Symphony's investment in its community is more substantial.

Mr. FOGEL: I don't think that you can fix a problem, when there's an orchestra with a problem, with a slick marketing campaign. That can be an ingredient, but you have to find a way to have the orchestra mean something to the community beyond those people who come to subscription concerts.

HEADLEE: The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has seen a major rise in donations, and the orchestra may have a record year in single ticket sales, surpassing all projections. For NPR News, I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

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