Mann Center is targeting families with summer orchestra program

Aiming at a younger audience, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will play music from "Toy Story," "The Incredibles," "Finding Nemo," and other Pixar films, with clips. (Disney/Pixar)

Cartoons, sports, video games, Jerry Garcia, the Great American Songbook: Orchestra season at the Mann Center continues to track ever more toward pop culture.

This summer's orchestra roster of artists and repertoire being imported by the Fairmount Park presenter aims to bring new listeners to classical music by way of just about anything else.

"It is a tactical approach to building audiences," said Mann president and CEO Catherine M. Cahill. "We believe if we can get families into the Mann to experience what we have, it will get people to consider coming back and trying something else."

Eight orchestral concerts are planned, with a possible addition of one or two more, Cahill said.

Most concerts will be augmented by some extra-orchestral element.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and vocalist/guitarist Warren Haynes will open the season June 25 with a Jerry Garcia tribute. Later that week, the theme is Pixar, with tunes from Toy Story, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Up played by the Pittsburghers to clips from those films.

The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform the remaining six scheduled concerts. Fantasia will get a night (July 23) in both the original 1940 version and Fantasia 2000, released in 1999, with, of course, clips. The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses will make another appearance (July 25) after a 2012 concert that attracted 7,000 listener-viewers. Michael Feinstein and as-yet-unannounced guests will join the orchestra for Broadway songs on Aug. 2.

The Mann is producing a new show this year: a "Symphonic Sports-tacular" hosted by the "Voice of the Eagles," Merrill Reese (July 24).

"All five of the major teams in Philadelphia are on board to provide video footage, to bring in celebrities, and to help promote it," Cahill said. The orchestra will perform John Williams' Olympic Fanfare and Casey at the Bat. "We're still looking for the right voice for that."

Peter Schickele will come out of retirement, Cahill said, for his sportscaster version of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 that comes with its own umpire - and a cry of "fumble" and a slow-speed instant replay after the horns can't agree on a note. "It's hysterical. It's very clever, very inventive," Cahill said.

Two pure classical nights are scheduled. The later Van Cliburn's relationship with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mann Center gets a nod in a concert featuring the first orchestra engagement by the grand prize winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (Aug. 1). And the 100th anniversary of the first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring will be noted in a program that also will feature pianist Di Wu, a Curtis Institute graduate, in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (July 31). Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits, principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, will make his Mann debut in the concert.

Mann patrons will notice a number of changes to the venue this summer (actually, the season opener is in late spring, with a June 7 concert by indie-rockers the National). Gone are the 4,800 green seats just beyond the covered shed; 2,000 new seats have been put in, with the extra space taken up by bringing the lawn closer to the stage.

Walkways have been redone, and a drop-off point at the top of the hill has been built. Still being sought is money to pay for new video and sound systems so that shows with visual elements - like many of those this summer - can be better experienced by visitors farther from the stage. About $13.5 million has been raised in a $16 million campaign, Cahill said.

The Mann is struggling to fill seats for classical concerts. Last summer's Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert with music director Manfred Honeck was an enormous critical success but drew only about 2,500 listeners. The next night, when Pittsburgh performed Legend of Zelda scores, the audience was nearly three times larger.

The Mann has an enormous capacity - 13,500, as opposed to the city's usual orchestral venue, Verizon Hall, with 2,500 seats. So a crowd that would look and feel like a sell-out downtown seems paltry at the Mann.

"That's the challenge for us," Cahill said. "With our capacity, we are required to be consistently creative to find younger audiences so we will have an audience for our future."


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