When the League of American Orchestras' annual meeting kicks off in Seattle on June 6, the almost 1,000 conventioneers will have more than classical music on their minds. American symphony orchestras are thinking about survival in an era where potential audiences have the world available at the tap of a smart phone.
Classical musician and radio host Dave Beck of Seattle's KING-FM jokes "there are lots of people in classical music audiences whose hair is even grayer than mine."
Attracting youth audiences is a major challenge, says Beck. But he believes Seattle Symphony Orchestra is a pioneer when it comes to creating programs designed to do just that.
He points to a project called Sonic Evolution, in which the symphony pairs pop musicians with young, emerging composers. For example, this spring, Seattle hip-hop icon Sir Mix-A-Lot will team up with the grandson of legendary Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev.
The orchestra also has launched a series of performances called "Untuxed," which is exactly what it sounds like. Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot and his musicians take the main stage at Benaroya Hall clad in jeans, sweats or whatever they'd wear to rehearsal. Morlot talks to the audience from the stage, and encourages questions.
"That's really working here," Beck says.
He believes it helps demystify the concert hall experience. "When people take off the robes and talk to you," he says, "when you don't have to worry about where to sit or when to stand, it's hugely helpful."
It also helps the Seattle Symphony to have young leaders. Maestro Morlot just turned 40, and Executive Director Simon Woods is not much older. Beck says their youth is an asset as they approach the challenge of keeping classical music vital in the 21st century.
And it is a tough challenge. The lingering effects of the Great Recession have instilled an era of caution in the nation's nonprofit arts organizations. Orchestras across the country struggle to make ends meet, and several have been forced to either cut way back on programming or to shut down altogether.
But Beck is optimistic. He looks at the success of the West Coast's major symphony orchestras and sees new initiatives he believes will succeed in attracting young faces to the orchestra halls. Someday he hopes to see pink, green and blue hair sitting amidst the sea of gray.