ASO-something different is happening

Knowing its audience and keeping its span of activity fresh and dynamic are two imperatives for an orchestra’s survivability into the future. ASO are tackling both of these head on.

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ASO-something different is happening

Graham Strahle writing for Music Australia, takes a look at the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to see how it is working to build new audiences.

Having recently appointed a young Australian-born principal conductor in Nicholas Carter(who turns 30 this year), the ASO wants to literally present a fresh face to the public. ASO managing director Vincent Ciccarello says, “The appointment of Nicholas was a deliberate part of our strategy to project youthfulness. People sense something different is happening.”

With that in mind the ASO introduced a new series, Classics Unwrapped, last year with Guy Noble as host. In these short, early evening concerts, single movements from symphonies and some contemporary music are performed. “We want to present the orchestral canon in a different light and break down barriers, so people can attend who either may be unfamiliar with some repertoire or don’t want to sit through a whole symphony,” says Ciccarello.

Gigs at Grainger, another new series, sees the orchestra explore jazz improvisation and other styles. The ASO has recently also added a trio of Zukeman concerts centred on violinist Pinchas Zukerman, its new artist-in-association.

These are innovations that the orchestra is hoping will expand its audience base, already served by its established concert offerings, which include a flagship Master Series, a similar Grat Classics series featuring celebrity soloists and conductors, a popular-oriented Showcase series, family and matinee concerts. “We are not fixated on audiences being young,” Ciccarello says. “The aim is to get more people who have not been to orchestral concerts before”.

Last year was significant for the ASO because it managed to arrest a decline in subscriber numbers that has been occurring over many years. Market research also found that 50% of audiences at its Master Series are under the age of 60. “One would expect the overall age would be older,” Ciccarello observes.

The research came up with a more surprising finding, though, that the idea of there being a discrete ‘classical music audience’ might be to a large extent a mythical construct, at least in Adelaide. The figures tell this. Only 36% of people who attended an ASO concert last year also went to an opera or a chamber music performance. More than twice the proportion of people, 77%, also went to a museum or art gallery, while 65% saw a play, drama or musical. Perhaps most unexpected of all, 39% also saw a cabaret performance, which is more than those who went to chamber music and opera.

“It dispels many generalisations we have,” says Ciccarello. He says the research highlighted a multiplicity of reasons why people attend orchestral concerts. They found people’s motivations range from the purely social to “spiritual and philosophical reasons”.

Venue is a strong deciding factor. “We know there are people who will go to the Festival Theatre who won’t go to the Town Hall, and vice versa, depending on whether they view acoustics or larger-scale performances are important,” he says. Younger people seem to find the Town Hall a big turnoff despite its fine acoustics, he adds. Which raises a burning question for the ASO: the orchestra lacks a dedicated concert hall of its own. It rehearses in Grainger Studio at its Hindley Street headquarters in the city’s CBD but has to hire out the Town Hall and Festival Theatre for all its main concerts. “We desperately need a new concert hall, and we’d love to be using different venues such as the Malthouse in Melbourne. It is cultural infrastructure we really need, and we are having discussions on that,” Ciccarello says.

Ahead of venue though, the biggest factor he says in making people choose to go to a concert is the repertoire being performed. “Here it becomes a bit alarming, because we believe that the orchestral repertoire is narrowing. The classical canon is reducing, as is happening in the opera world. So in the case of Beethoven, people will want to go to theEroica but not the Fourth Symphony. If it is Tchaikovsky, they want to hear the Fifth, not Number Two.”

Trying out different concert formats and collaborations with other artists and musicians is high on the ASO’s agenda. A highlight last year was its semi-staged performance under fairy lights of Mendelssohn’sMidsummer Night’s Dream last year with the State Theatre Company of SA. Projects like this can involve intensive production work and considerable expense. Nevertheless, Ciccarello says, “We want to do more of these, and we are taking steps to expand what the orchestra does. It’s sound world can encompass many possibilities, and our musicians are very prepared to do that.”

by Graham Strahle

via Music Australia

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