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Orchestra may face uphill battle attracting youth

by Parker Perry | Reporter Published: March 7, 2014 12:00 AM
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Finding someone to go with me to the Cleveland Orchestra, winner of eight Grammy Awards in its historic 96-year existence, was tougher than I imagined it would be.

I am in college. I am supposed to be around some of the sophisticated minds of my generation. Enjoying Ich Hab' ein gluhend Messer on a Saturday night in the company of me? I thought people would be jumping at the opportunity. I asked the cute girl in class -- not a chance. Perhaps that was not the orchestra's fault. I asked my best friend of four years. Nope. Were the roommates interested? Maybe, but they had convenient dinner plans.

I was in serious danger of having to go by myself. Who goes to the orchestra by themselves? Turns out a lot of people, but we will get to that later.

Finally, I figured out what to do. If people were not going to voluntarily go, I was going to have to force someone. I texted my little brother, who too is in college, and after complaining and groaning for an hour he agreed to go.

Pretty much no one wanted to.

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The Cleveland Orchestra is going after a new demographic -- young people. And looking around at the mostly filled Severance Hall, the home of Orchestra, it appears there is still work to do. There were signs of young people, but it was minimal. Microscopic. By far most of the people that attended were older than my brother and I -- much older. But that is not because of the lack of effort.

If you are in school, getting a cheap ticket is easy. Go to the orchestra's website -- www.clevelandorchestra.com -- click the link on the front page about student tickets, send a 30-second email, and you will become a member of what is called the "Student Advantage Program." A ticket to a concert, that originally goes for around $60, will now cost only $10. And that's not the best deal that is being given to young people. The orchestra has also implemented a "Under 18's Free" program. If a family wants to attend an event, they can receive one free ticket for a child for every adult ticket they purchase.

I counted one family Saturday night. The kids, appearing to be under 10 years old, played on an iPad for most of the performance. At times, I wished I had one.

It was my first time making the trip to Severance Hall. Finding the building and parking was easy, but not cheap. We made our way up early enough that we managed to park underneath the building. It was convenient, but $11 left me a little sore. That was probably unfair on my part.

I had interactions with seven employees over the two and a half hours I was there. Every one of them was respectful and helpful. I asked some stupid questions, -- I want to say because I was testing them, but that would be a lie -- and each time they politely pointed me in the right direction and if nothing else at least had the courtesy to laugh only when my back was turned.

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"Hi, which way to Will Call?" I asked.

"Behind you, sir," pointed the employee.


"Which way do I go to watch the orchestra?" I asked another.

"You can just follow the crowd, sir. They will lead you to where you need to be," the employee said gently.


"How do I find Row L?" I asked a different employee.

"The rows are in alphabetical order, sir," I received another polite reply that I did not deserve.

Severance Hall is beautiful. It's not an overly large place. It's intimate. The art that surrounded the stage and audience is pretty. And the sounds that come off the stage echo just perfectly.

When I mentioned that I was attending a concert at the Hall, I had a handful of college friends talk about playing on the stage while they were in high school. All of them described it as a positive experience. They described the auditorium as a great place to play. And they obsessed over how romantic it is.

If only the cute girl from class would have said yes.

I received seats 202 and 203. I thought this curious. It would mean that one seat was left on the end. How strange. When we found our seats, right between row K and M, it was empty. My brother joked about an attractive girl who was bound to sit next to him. It was funny because the median age had to be upper 50s or higher. Eventually the seat was filled by a lovely lady; however; just out of my younger brother's age range. She was close to 70 years old.

I decided that I was going to be polite and say hello to her. Half of the reason for doing so was my Southern Ohio courtesy I was raised with. The other half was because I wanted to know if she really enjoyed going to the Orchestra alone. The short answer, Heck yeah!

The woman went on about how much enjoyment she had listening to the orchestra play. She said that sometimes she closes her eyes and pretends to be on a beach or somewhere equally relaxing. Going alone did not at all bother her.

Severance Hall bustled with conversation while the violinist and cello players and the rest warmed. When the lights went down the trained audience hushed. Then, suddenly, first chair entered and applause filled the Hall. Then the conductor entered with another cheer. The two shook hands and immediately the group played in harmony. Looking over my co-viewers, I felt a sense of connection with the performers. At times their head swayed. Everyone around me was enjoying it, which made me feel guilty. Because the songs were like seven minutes long and I found some of them to be boring. Most of them I found boring.

Judging by the rest of the audience, I had just witnessed three or four masterpieces. And I would not be surprised if I did. Mezzo Sasha Cooke received two curtain calls after she sang as beautifully as the setting. A woman behind me could not stop herself from shouting "Bravo!" a number of times. And the entire orchestra received a ground shaking, standing ovation after they finished their last piece, Rondo alla Zingarese.

I had trouble enjoying myself. My brother did too. This by no means is to suggest that the orchestra itself was poor. Perhaps me and my bro are just uncultured, southern swine. More likely it was just not for us (and by extension a lot of people in my age range). I enjoy symphony music. I have a playlist of classical music on my Spotify. But I thought sitting and watching the orchestra play has an inherent dullness.

I have a hard time believing that the Cleveland Orchestra will have a lot of success pulling people my age and younger to Severance Hall a second time. They've out done themselves with the offers they are putting out. I would encourage young people to try it once, there is virtually nothing to lose (not even a Saturday night; the orchestra was finished by 10 p.m.). But be warned that ducking out at the intermission is looked down upon.

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Jayeff Mar 10, 2014 5:19 AM

I would hope this young guy would never sit near me at a concert... Only people who want to be there should go.  If you want to sample classical music, listen to the radio or buy a few cds.  There are heaps of older people out there to pay to hear this music.  I avoid any concert that aims to bring in young audiences... Many (but by no means all) sit there, bored after 2 minutes, disturbing people around them. I was once at a chamber music concert at the Colburn School in LA... The Tokyo Quartet (augmented by intelligent young people and faculty) played Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.  Some earnest parents sat near me (it was too late for me to move) with their 2 young children. The little boy was maybe 3 years old and wriggled and twisted and turned in sheer boredom throughout the whole event - keeping him still was akin to getting a cat into a bag...No surprise I guess that I own a vast cd collection and enjoy my own peace and quiet.

ennasus Mar 9, 2014 3:44 PM

I agree that there could be innovative ways to make sure people who are new (or old) to a classical performance could and should be met now and in the future for classical music to become more accessible to all of us. I love concerts when there is an immediate connection between the musicians and the audience. This works especially well with smaller groups, i.e. quartets, but can also work with larger ones, There is actual interaction with the audience before and/or after the performance. I have experienced both, i.e. when the Knights, a young chamber orchestra,  came to Detroit, the audience was able to ask questions after the performance. It really helped to make the music more accessible but also to make the musicians more human.

krankyboy Mar 9, 2014 7:13 AM

Hi Parker,

I'm terribly sorry to hear that you didn't have a particularly good concert-going experience, which is actually really sad considering that the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the finest symphony ensembles in the world. I think it's probably a mistake for people to be dismissing you by saying "He just didn't get it," and an even bigger error to dismiss all of classical music as "boring." I appreciate the fact that you were curious enough to buy a ticket and drag someone else along with you. However, after doing a bit of research of my own, I discovered that you'd chosen a concert with some of the least accessible music for a first-time attendee that I could imagine -- Mahler's Blumine (a little-known movement conceived for his first symphony), Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" (which Sasha Cooke sang) and then Brahms’ G-Minor Piano Quartet, in Schoenberg’s transcription for orchestra.

In a word.... Yikes.

As a seasoned and devoted concert-goer out here in L.A., that's a program which would definitely challenge a lot of people. Again, it's terrific music, but probably not for someone who is just "starting out," for lack of a better expression. Personally, I love Mahler -- especially his symphonies. Nevertheless, his compositions won't be nearly as exciting for someone getting their feet wet with the concert experience as, for instance, seeing Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (which is a thousand times better live than it could ever be on CD), Holst's The Planets or Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. What happened to you was a bit like reading a novel for the first time and beginning with Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace or Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. You'd probably want to throw the book against the wall before you even finished the first three chapters.

Hopefully it didn't turn you off forever. But if you ever decide to give it another try at some point, you might want to wait for a concert that features some of the music you really dug on Spotify as part of their program. But I certainly don't think you and your brother are "uncultured swine." On the contrary, you just saw a concert with a program that was going to be a real challenge from the outset (and that's putting it mildly). Anyway dude, don't give up on the idea of going to the symphony entirely for the rest of your life -- even if it takes a while for you to give it another chance, I'd definitely try again. Just make sure the band is going to play something you actually like first.

- Brendan

MichaelHuebner Mar 8, 2014 10:28 AM

Imagine someone who knows absolutely nothing about American football attending a game for the first time. Wouldn't it be bewildering to see all these people jumping up and yelling and screaming when someone off in the distance runs across a little white line carrying an oblong inflated ball? I would imagine she or he would be bored stiff for two-plus hours. I think you have to WANT to go an event before you commit to go. And not for the sake of a possible encounter with a cute girl. Try it again, Parker, but only because you want to.

CutTime Mar 8, 2014 10:23 AM

I must disagree with those who say that Mr. Perry didn't get it, or that it's just NOT for him right now. Perhaps these denials are the problem. He already likes symphony music on his Spotify (with often very average performances there) and he is CURIOUS enough to spend $20 and go out of his way. No, he didn't do his "homework" as I said below. But he and thousands of others won't either. So how else can one of the greatest orchestras in the world WELCOME such new young people? I can think of at least SEVEN ways within Severance Hall, that evening and/or with the orchestra. THREE of them veteran patrons would object to, TWO they might come to enjoy and TWO they need never attend. I suggested one below. One or two the orchestra already DOES, if it still has the Fridays at 7 series. (I live elsewhere.) The point is, this curious new person didn't have as good an experience as listening to Spotify on his cellphone. If the young are to become part of future audience, what further changes, llike Fridays at 7, will tip the value scales and bring them out? Ross Binnie, give me a call.

JRZGRl1 Mar 8, 2014 10:12 AM

I'm sorry I wasn't nearby. Of course I'm 58 so I didn't fit into the demographic you were looking for. But you heard Sasha Cooke & somehow you were not moved? Sasha Cooke is utterly fabulous. And I'm so glad that "Retiree" said he didn't care for Shakespeare. I don't either. 

Retiree Mar 8, 2014 7:32 AM

Just following up. This group, the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, is in your town. Their music might be more to your taste. Give them a listen.http://www.cyorchestra.org/videos/

Retiree Mar 8, 2014 7:20 AM

Parker, I'm sorry your experience wasn't positive. Classical music is probably not for you. I happen to love classical music, but I don't particularly love the plays of Shakespeare or the poetry of Robert Frost. They're both giants at what they do, and though they've been dead for a long time, some people are thrilled by performances of Richard III or deeply moved the poems of Frost. See, that's the problem with great art. It asks something of the person beholding it. That said, I came to music with open arms when I was around three years old when I heard a symphony orchestra concert my parents took me to. At three, it certainly wasn't an intellectual experience. I was just moved by what I heard. Later on, when I went on to study music, I came to love the same music on a different plane. But, truth be told, classical music isn't for everybody. Or perhaps the music you heard just wasn't for you, where you might have been deeply moved by something else the orchestra might play. To dismiss an art form on the basis of hearing several pieces on one evening seems kind of short-sighted to me. You see, I started by saying I don't love Shakespeare, but I'll finish by saying that the loss is mine, not Shakespeare's. He remains a towering giant in theater hundreds of years after he walked the earth. If I ever catch up to him and take a deep dive into his art, I too will expect to be enthralled. I'll just finish up by saying that while not everyone will take a deep dive into classical music, the art Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Strauss, and others will continue to inform the lives of millions, including the millions of young people who take up an instrument and those hundreds of teens who spend their own time out of school playing in the many youth orchestras in all the major cities in this country and abroad, including your own. So save your next ten bucks, but maybe when you're older, give this music another try. Like me and Shakespeare, it could be your loss not to.

bkx Mar 8, 2014 1:02 AM

I am a college student and have attended quite a few Cleveland Orchestra concerts. This silly article is not representative of my experiences at all. This guy obviously doesn't have experience attending events like this so maybe he isn't the best person to write it. I have no problem finding people to go to the concerts with me - even my non-musician friends are interested in hearing Beethoven's 5th live by one of the greatest orchestras in the country. I went to the concert just last night and while not packed with young people there were definitely more than this guy leads you to believe. This is called "high art" for a reason - you have to have some education and understanding of the music to enjoy it. That doesn't mean there is anything wrong with people who don't like it, but the orchestra will never be mainstream for that reason. As long as the orchestra continues to produce quality art I don't think they will have any trouble attracting those who appreciate it, including young people.

ennasus Mar 7, 2014 10:15 PM

Parker Perry obviously has not been around children and young people who love music, including classical music. He should learn about El Sistema (see videos) and he should learn about programs such a the Sphinx childrens's programs and many more that are very successful with children and young people who love to play  and would love to hear the music such as the Cleveland Orchestra performs. 


ennasus Mar 7, 2014 10:09 PM

too bad he did not get it!!!

MalkoChris Mar 7, 2014 9:07 PM

Well, Parker has a point.  Some people may pretend that they enjoy these concerts, and you'd better after paying $100+ for a good seat, but most of the concerts are boring.

CutTime Mar 7, 2014 6:33 PM

I don't know Bobkos. Mr. Perry said he DOES like symphony music... he just found sitting and watching one play inherently boring. I don't think it's so hard to accept given his stage of life and inexperience with the genre. But it does raise interesting questions. I think it's just not enough to open the OUTER door while leaving the INNER door closed. I notice he didn't mention reading the program notes early or attending any pre-concert lecture that might've given him that context. And frankly I don't believe most college students are likely to "do their homework"... unless it's for class credit. Who's going to help people like him find a personal context in instrumental music? I, among many other pro musicians, want to give him BOTH a great performance and some missing personal context.

I think there should be a general and casual introduction to the symphony before concerts for persons like him. Hosted by an assistant conductor or a lively orchestra member, Symphony 101 could give a very broad overview of symphonic development, a brief overview of the program, and interview one of the orchestra musicians, who could play a short solo, a technical lick and a favorite part of the program. This could be the newbie counterpart to the regular lecture and could grow into its own thing.

MollyKatelyn Mar 7, 2014 5:45 PM

If you want to see exciting music, why not watch Yuja Wang play with the Cleveland Orchestra in April? 

Bobkos Mar 7, 2014 2:10 PM

The idea of a person not interested in classical music attending a classical music concert is already an old idea, one that has been repeated in newspapers for decades.  Most authors, like Parker Perry, use the experience as a way to write humor, usually at the cost of the institutions and people who like classical music. And it's not surprising:  so much of American media conveys the idea that classical music is only for people who are weird, strange, anti-social, repressed, etc. Just look at any number of Hollywood movies or American television and you get the same message: normal people don't listen to classical music and if they do, they are not normal. 

So here we have a writer who is taking advantage of this cultural trope and trying to demonstrate how irrelevant, silly and abnormal is classical music.  Even if he has no interest in classical music, perhaps if he had showed greater respect for the institutions and the people who enjoy and work in classical music we wouldn't have to think of him as being so intellectually closed-minded and incapable of thinking beyond the narrow scope of his own limited knowledge.  It's a shame that the Twinsburg Bulletin has such people on their staff--people devoted to making fun and deriding Ohio's institutions and people, rather than empowering and strengthening them.