It wasn’t some kind of “young people’s concert,” per se – although it wasn’t exactly a typical TSO program, either.
The program was short – consisting entirely of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 – but there was nothing dumbed-down about the presentation. Conductor Peter Oundjian said a few solemn words about the historical events that inspired the piece (the failed revolution of 1905), and dove right in.
For the last decade, the TSO has been serious about attracting younger audiences. Their popular “TSOundcheck” program, launched in 2001 to make concerts affordable to people under 35, has sold some 20,000 tickets this season. That’s about ten percent of the orchestra’s total ticket sales.
A few years ago the TSO established its Young Leadership Council, which in turn created the Impresario’s Club: a membership group for people 25 to 40 that’s supposed to be the “next step” after TSOundcheck. It’s not cheap – a membership costs $500, and it includes a $100 charitable donation – and it’s aimed at a specific kind of person. The phrase “young professionals” is bandied around quite a bit.
Being neither of those things, myself, I decided to check these folks out at the Impresario’s Club’s pre-concert tailgate party. All the necessary ingredients had been assembled on the parking lot behind RTH: burgers, beer and a sound-system blasting classic rock. When I arrived, a clutch of young professionals was already there.
I talked to a few: they were working in upwardly mobile positions in the public and private sectors (Starbucks baristas seemed in short supply). For instance, Dustin Cohen, who organized the party, was a 27-year-old staffer for a provincial Member of Parliament. He tells me he’s been attending TSO concerts since he was a kid – and that his musical tastes run to psychedelic rock from the 60s and 70s, as well as classical music.
I also met a few TSO players, who showed up before the concerto say hello. “This music is dear to my heart,” said cellist Igor Gefter, who lived in Ukraine and Russia before coming to Canada. “Maybe some of these people here haven’t heard of Shostakovich – but they will tonight.”
I get the impression that the Impresario’s Club exists for a blend of social, professional and artistic reasons: membership in the club is basically a word-of-mouth thing, and people join to network. At the same time, club members are well aware that they’re being groomed as the next generation of TSO supporters – and they seem pleased by that.
But are they the people who will uphold a weighty musical institution like the TSO?
There has always been a slice of any orchestra’s audience that’s there primarily for what might be called “extra-musical” reasons. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But for classical music to thrive, it also needs to renew its most devoted core audience. It needs people who really love (and really “get”) classical music – who listen to the music at home, who send their kids for private lessons, who will subscribe regularly and donate generously, and who will defend classical music’s place in our society.
Is that what the Impresario’s Clubbers can be expected do? Is that who they are? And what of the TSO’s thousands of TSOundcheckers? Will they stick around after they turn 36 and can’t buy any more cheap tickets?
Only time will tell – but on Saturday night there was cause to be optimistic. The young audience attentively drank in the expansive arc of Shostakovich’s Eleventh, and cheered enthusiastically when it came to an end.
Maybe classical music isn’t doomed just yet, after all.
© Colin Eatock 2012