Philadelphia Orchestra Plays for 'Scholars and Slackers'

College Night
(Photo: Ryan Donnell)

People will tell you the average age of an orchestra-goer with approximately the same relish they use when quoting the national debt, and with a similar calculation for drama. "What?" you are expected to say. "At that rate...(insert your own apocalyptic scenario here)."

I happen to identify with the (apparently) tiny school of thought that any listener is perfectly okay. I adore the Philadelphia Orchestra's older Friday afternoon audience; they're uniquely knowing, having seen it all. But I understand the panic over where the listener of tomorrow will come from, which is why I nearly gasped upon approaching Verizon Hall last night. Hundreds of college kids were standing around outside. Not an internet-organized melee, but a swarm waiting to hear a heap of Berlioz inside.

The best thing about the Philadelphia Orchestra's free "College Night" wasn't the free food, though the announcement of its existence, waiting in the lobby as post-concert reward, did get a big round of applause. Rather, it was the programming. Charles Dutoit didn't condescend. He gave the audience of 2,000 kids exactly what the grown-ups were getting this week, and they seemed happy to hear it.

Smart move at the top of the concert. Orchestra violinist Noah Geller got up and proclaimed himself to the audience as one of them: "Ladies and gentlemen...scholars and slackers." He had them. When he told them he had just graduated from Juilliard, mutual warmth and aspirations traveled across the normally obstructionist footlights.

Dutoit was pretty cute himself. At one point he made a circle with his hand, placed it over his ear as a signal for more applause, and got the sound he wanted. Conductors know how to do that sort of thing - conjuring sound from gesture - and the audience laughed.

Lessons? Larger significance? I don't know how many of these students will come back during the year for more, but the orchestra sure has removed all possible obstacles. For $25, college students can become members of eZseatU, and can come back to any concert all season long, to as many concerts as they wish, for free. After the $25, not only are concerts free, but students can score an additional "date" ticket for $8.

The orchestra's new concert format this year - Beyond the Score, a combination orchestra performance and spoken explanation of the music - makes an easy bridge for the newbie from College Night to others concerts.

Any excuse to not hear the orchestra this season will have to be exceedingly creative - something more scholarly or slackerish than "the dog ate my eZseatU ticket."