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Fishing With The Right Bait
Should patrons be allowed a say in programming?

by Holly Mulcahy
August 3, 2009

Last month I participated in a cross blog discussion about whether orchestras should vary their genres beyond standard orchestral repertoire. There was much discussion and interesting comments both here and at the other blogs but I was left wondering what would happen if orchestras would seek some programming views from the people that buy the tickets beyond the traditional "patron's choice" style programs.

A year ago, Chicago Opera Theater offered the audience a unique opportunity to pick which opera they wanted to hear. For just a buck, people could vote with their wallets between three operas. The winning opera would be performed the following season.
I wonder what would happen if orchestras regularly offered a similar voting campaign. A dollar is not a lot, but it allows a general patron to have a voice in what they want to hear. And the money raised could provide a much needed boost during times when annual giving is down, especially if there was a passionate patron who was determined to win!
When orchestras plan upcoming seasons, there is usually great care in trying to create well rounded programs. Usual goals for a "successful" program are based around a combination of what the music director wants to conduct and what artistic administrators believe will sell tickets. In orchestral planning meetings, phrases like, "Audiences will just clamor to the doors if we program a Tchaikovsky or Beethoven symphony; that will really generate tickets sales." Or, "I don't think our audience will like Bartok, let's stick with..."

While a Tchaikovsky symphony might draw an audience, would that audience be drawn in by Bruckner? Mahler? Hindemith? There are a lot of assumptions when planning but wouldn't it be nice to stop dumbing down the musical offerings and actually ask the audience what they want for a change?

What if orchestras designed a competition like Chicago Opera Theater's that allowed audience members to hear snippets of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra, Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, or Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis and actually decide for themselves which sounds cooler: hashed over Beethoven Symphony or one of these fresh options that some artistic administrators shy away from due to concern over public reaction?

Having a dollar per vote mechanism in place not only allows the audience a type of participation, it creates an environment that teaches the orchestra what bait to use when fishing for ticket buyers.

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