How can orchestras today defy the odds and attract large, newly engaged audiences - young ones willing to put down iPad and Hulu and instant gratification for the night? Diverse ones who somehow missed the canard that classical music isn't for them?
It turns out the best strategy might be simply to play. Where you play has a lot to do with it, and Friday night, it was Penn's Landing, where the Philadelphia Orchestra's second (and, sadly, last) free neighborhood concert of the summer attracted a crowd that would have raised marketing envy in anyone feeling weight upon shoulders for the future of the art form.
Timing was everything. With storms threatening Thursday evening, only about 1,500 came out for the orchestra's first concert at the Curtis Arboretum in Wyncote, and everyone wisely scattered after the Star Spangled Banner and first piece when the rain and lightning rolled in.
Friday night, the riverside was populated with an estimated 3,500 to 5,000 visitors. How many were lured to the concert more by the promise of fireworks than Fauré's Pavane is something no one would be able to sort out, but the music's spell stopped them all in their tracks. Or not. A girl, perhaps 6, swayed her dreads to Dvorák's Carnival Overture. Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" suggested new choreographic possibilities when joined by a large woman gliding conspicuously near the stage in an electric wheelchair. The "Bacchanale" from Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah dueled with a passing Jet Ski.
If all this action sounds distracting, it wasn't. Not entirely. Other outdoor venues might have matched the twinkling harp in Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture to real stars. But Penn's Landing is about humanity. When, midway through the Tchaikovsky, a pair of lovers got up to leave the concert, you wondered whether they were simply done with it all, or induced to pick up the storyline themselves off-site.
The point is this: One hopes that the orchestra, which has had a rough several years, has the clarity to see that the seeds of a healthier future are already sown. These neighborhood concerts, revived in 2000, are - weather and funding challenges aside - a tremendous success. They do more to bond the orchestra's image with the city than anything else it does. Ushers passed out season brochures to each visitor, and conductor Cristian Macelaru mentioned several times from the stage that anyone interested in hearing more could do so almost any night of the week at Verizon Hall.
Bait and switch is a risk. Most pieces on the slate for Friday night's 75-minute concert are popular enough to have been heard in TV commercials of the last several decades. The "Nocturne" from Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream - with Jeffrey Lang's sweet, slightly brisk horn solo - was the evening's most remote point from popular culture.
With the orchestra expecting to officially exit bankruptcy Monday and about to put flesh to a strategic plan, leaders will be weighing the delicate factors of repertoire, venue, and length and formats of concerts. Funding free performances is a challenge, to be sure. But when the orchestra travels locally, a powerful civic bonhomie blooms.
Our city needs more of this. The neighborhood series has shrunk slightly in its dozen years. That's a trend that the orchestra and its sponsors should be working to reverse if they are sincere about coming off the dais and down to street level where the love is theirs for the asking.