Sunday, June 1, 2003

Deals help CSO stay in synch

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra sold $2 million in tickets this season, staying even with its record "Bravo Paavo" campaign in 2001-02. But the orchestra had to be exceedingly creative to lure ticket buyers - everything from $5 tickets to college nights, with perks such as parties and free food.

In its second season with music director Paavo Jarvi (which ended May 2-3), the CSO enlisted new people to its two newest series (Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons), and sold more single tickets this year than last.

"The atmosphere of Music Hall was very exciting and powerful," says Seth A. Dressman, 21, of Elsmere who bought $5 tickets to hear Los Romeros. "I was overwhelmed by the enormous sound and clarity of the orchestra. Absolutely incredible. My girlfriend, Jena, and I are planning on attending another concert sometime in the near future."

Dressman was one of the 65 percent of single-ticket buyers this year who had never attended a CSO concert. More than 5,500 people bought tickets online - and 75 percent of them had never been to the CSO.

That kind of success is something of a miracle at a time when major orchestras are in deep financial trouble, coast-to-coast. Nevertheless, CSO operations were challenged by the flagging economy and the changing lifestyles of 21st-century Americans.

The long bear stock market has created a more than 30 percent drop in the endowment over two years - plunging from a high of $94 million to its current $61.5 million. The resulting loss of income from those funds, which helps pay for operations, means ticket sales are critical. Yet, despite a relentless battle to bring in customers, average attendance at weekly concerts in the 3,400-seat hall - the nation's largest - slipped to just under 1,900, meaning the hall was often half empty.

So, even though ticket revenue inched up 1 percent (to $3.7 million for both CSO and Pops), the orchestra was hard-pressed to sell full-priced tickets, says Rosemary Weathers, CSO spokesperson.

Bargain hunters

"Tickets for seniors, students, two-for-one coupons, any kinds of special bargains, people were looking for (them) this year," she says.

• Paavo Jarvi's debut concert as the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra's music director will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday on WCET-TV (Channel 48).
• The 90-minute program, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Paavo Jarvi Inaugural Concert, will air nationally at 10 p.m. on PBS.
• Recorded in Cincinnati's Music Hall three days after 9-11, it includes interviews with Jarvi.
Bargain hunters turned out in droves for $5 tickets, offered in two different concerts this season, that collectively brought in nearly 3,000 people. Making it easy, customers no longer had to go in person to the box office to get some discounted tickets. Student and senior discounts are now available online or by phone.

Having so many discounts can be a double-edged sword. The CSO needs a younger audience, such as Miami University student Allison Palmer, who says, "Without the reduced ticket prices, I would not be able to afford the concerts."

Marketing director Dianne Cooper hopes that people like Palmer will sample the CSO, and eventually purchase a subscription. This year, 3 percent more people bought a subscription than last year, she says. But Cooper knows that the days of the 24-week subscription are over, and it's hard to get buyers to commit to even an eight-concert package.

"With $10 student tickets and an abundance of seats at Music Hall, there's simply no reason to buy a subscription," says Jonathan Yaeger, 28, of Clifton. "You can show up 10 minutes before curtain and get a good ticket for a cheap price."

Less spent on image

This year, the CSO finished a four-year, $1.2 million image campaign, part of which introduced the new music director with interstate billboards and TV commercials. The majority of the budget was spent in the first and third years. This year, the orchestra spent just $100,000.

Despite the efforts, the symphony audience still looks older than those in other cities, evident in the CSO's recent tour to New York, Boston and Washington.

Dr. Stavra Xanthakos, 33, of Oakley believes that greater publicity is the key to attracting young people.

"Young people like to meet other young people, and if the CSO was a more 'hip' place to meet, I think their numbers would increase," she says. "While I think it is great that we can hear some of the greatest classical music ever written, played live in a beautiful concert hall by a world-class symphony, I'm not so sure most people my age are aware of this."


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