Here’s an intriguing question for those keeping an anxious eye on the health of classical music in these recessionary times: was Symphony Hall half full or half empty for Tuesday night’s concert by the National Youth Orchestra?
Despite being on holiday in Portugal this week, Symphony Hall director Andrew Jowett has been keeping a close eye on the box office, and he had no difficulty yesterday in putting his finger on the reasons for what 20th century music buffs would certainly have regarded as a disappointing turn-out.
“The programme was decided very late in the day and it included a work by Berio,” he said. “If it had been a work by Mozart or Strauss it would have been fine. The NYO has normally had a very good audience but their programmes have become increasingly adventurous.”
There is one of the recessionary rules of thumb: if unfamiliar modern music is difficult to sell at the best of time, financial adversity will tend to make it more so.
“It’s so programme-driven. If you have something a little bit more difficult or less well-known it’s always going to be more of a struggle. It seems self-evident to say that, but what we’re finding is that in difficult times people are being selective. They don’t want to take a chance on something, they want known quantities.”
Six months ago, Andrew Jowett told me that while the box office at Symphony Hall and its sister venue, the Town Hall, appeared to be standing up well until Christmas, the new year could be a struggle. But in fact, after a busy Christmas, there is still no evidence so far of a melt-down.
“It’s very early on, but at the moment it’s still not doom and gloom. I always keep my fingers crossed, but at the moment it’s still holding up. It’s hard work but we never thought it was going to be easy.”
At the same time as paying a penalty for including a “contemporary” work (albeit, by the way, one which is now 40 years old) the NYO concert illustrated another recessionary trend.
“We sold over 200-odd seats on the day, which is a huge amount for us. That means we sold between 10 and 30 per cent on the day, which is extraordinary. People are tending to leave it later and later to buy tickets, partly because they expect to get them cheaper. You might be doing the numbers, but if everyone is coming in at £5 or £10, you’re taking less money.”
The CBSO has just launched a ticket sale, offering 25 per cent discounts on concerts in the second half of the season. That might seem to indicate a downturn in business like the one on the high street, but chief executive Stephen Maddock paints an upbeat picture.
“We’ve done the sale for a number of years but it’s only a 25 per cent discount this time, which is less than it has been in the past. As much as anything it’s a way of energising people after Christmas.
“Our current position on ticket sales is that from the beginning of the season until Christmas it’s almost bang-on target. Over the financial year we are still ahead, so we can afford to slip a bit in the next few months. And we’ve had two good years, so we’ve set our targets high.”
He points out that a greater potential threat than falling ticket prices is a decline in corporate sponsorship.