How do you get millennials into classical music concerts? Without young ticket buyers, who will patronize classical when the current generation of donors and attendees (most born in the mid-20th century) pass away?
Organizations have responded by trying to make the classical music experience more like going out to a club. Because, we all know the kids like clubs! And so, the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra offers its brand new 'Balcony Club.' As it's described in their press release:
Attendees of the Balcony Club are invited to watch the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra performance ... live on plasma screens within the Balcony Club venue. For those who prefer to socialize, the Balcony Club offers the perfect setting for networking ... ticket holders may bring drinks into the concert hall, enter and exit quietly during the performance, and use smart phones for messaging and non-flash photography.
Sounds fun! We went to Saturday's opening night performance of the LBSO to see how this concept worked.
Not so well, it turned out. Turns out there tend to be more people in line to use the loo at an LA Philharmonic concert than there were in the Balcony Club Saturday evening.
Here's what it looked like 20 minutes before the concert began:
Here's the Balcony Club one minute after the concert started
Who could blame anyone for not wanting to socialize outside when young virtuoso pianist Haochen Zhang tore up the keyboard in Prokofiev's finger-busting Piano Concerto no. 3? Unfortunately, if you tried to enter the balcony seats with a beer -- you could not. Food and drinks inside were banned. LBSO also decided that it wasn't such a great idea to have Balcony Club members coming and going whenever they felt like it, so they restricted hall entry between movements --standard operating procedure at most classical concerts.
What about the TV screens to broadcast the performance? The sound was simply piped in over the low-fidelity outside speakers, and here's what the video looked like:
There were eight people left outside as the concerto started. We went over to a table of three young women in little black dresses to ask them how they were enjoying the Balcony Club.
"Oh, we're just ushers," they giggled, and pointed us to three thirtysomethings kicking back on a semicircular lounge.
"I like having a cocktail and listening to great music," an attractive wavy-haired brunette told us. A man who identified himself as a "concert pianist" thought the Balcony Club was a great idea, and he hoped more people would come in the future.
"This is fun," said a well-dressed, good-looking guy, "it just needs some more time to catch on."
Inside the hall, we saw couples snapping photos of each other on their smart phones, but there didn't seem to be much social networking going on. We spotted but eight tweets from three audience members and one message posted on LSBO's Facebook wall. (See below.)
We were ultimately disappointed by the Balcony Club. You can watch an internet broadcast of a symphony on your smart phone and get a better picture and sound than we experienced in the lounge. The intermission needs to be longer if they want people to socialize more. Saddest of all was the decision to ban drinks from the hall.
Sadly we suspect that it's, in fact, impossible to present an orchestra in a club atmosphere. It's too difficult to serve audience members food and drinks in a large auditorium like the Terrace Theater. Clubs tend to do much better with amplified chamber music, where the sound system can override the clinks of forks on plates and cocktails being made at the bar.
The grandfather of such endeavors is Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan, where one can not only have drinks, but also dinner. In San Diego, Anthology has done something similar with their Luscious Noise series, but it's worth noting that the selections tend to be short pieces in themselves, or excerpts from larger works.
The LBSO Balcony Club needs better sound equipment, more vigorous promotion, and hey -- how about cheaper drinks? Whether LBSO can rise to these challenges, and attract a larger audience by doing so, remains to be seen.