Hamlisch's shoes won't be easy to fill for PSO
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Symphony pops concerts have long been considered the lighter side of orchestra offerings, but they have been a revenue-generating heavyweight for years.
In the wake of the Aug. 6 death of Marvin Hamlisch, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra will not only have to replace a dynamo on stage but a man who brought substantial revenue to the orchestra during 17 seasons. As its principal pops conductor, he was responsible for programming the entire season each year since 1994.
"Pops is clearly an important part of our earned income," says James Wilkinson, PSO president. "There are far fewer concerts, but average attendance is higher and the average ticket price is 12 percent higher."
In the past two seasons -- 2010-11 and 2011-12 -- the Pops accounted for roughly 40 percent of all PSO subscribers even though it had only 28 concerts (seven concert weekends) each year vs. 53 and 46, respectively, for the classics. The same musicians perform for both series.
In the 2010-11 season, PSO's Pops concerts drew 5,913 subscribers compared with 8,813 for its classic series. Last season, Hamlisch brought in 5,483 subscribers compared with 8,605 classics subscribers.
The earned revenue from Pops and classics subscribers is about equal in both seasons, says Mr. Wilkinson. "Pops attendance has remained remarkably constant. It might vary with a particular performance, but it doesn't vary much."
The revenue stream that Hamlisch and the Pops provided has been crucial to an orchestra that, like many in the U.S., is struggling financially. Mr. Wilkinson said the PSO ended its fiscal year Friday with an approximately $3.5 million deficit, more than double the $1.3 million shortfall the previous season. The deficit in part reflects reduced government funding and the poor economy. The budget has remained at roughly $31 million the past three seasons.
"We will have the unrestricted funds from our endowment to cover that deficit," he says. "We are working toward having a balanced budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year and are continuing our capital campaign."
But the more pressing question facing the PSO is whether the Pops can continue to be a revenue driver with Hamlisch gone. Although he commanded a hefty salary -- around a half-million dollars -- his personality was a major part of the appeal for audiences.
"There are seven concerts that are not tied together other than through Marvin," says Mr. Wilkinson. This allowed him to bring in up-and-coming artists who commanded smaller fees. Hamlisch also was able to keep costs down by booking expensive big-name artists for all the pops orchestras he ran in Milwaukee, Dallas, Seattle, San Diego and Pasadena, Calif.
While the Pasadena Pops just named Michael Feinstein as its new pops conductor, the consensus among industry leaders is there is no one with the affable personality, industry connections, work ethic and comfort leading a major orchestra to continue the Hamlisch model.
The PSO is likely to go in a different direction, forgoing a principal pops conductor altogether. "I don't know that we are going to look for a new Marvin," says Mr. Wilkinson, although he says the decision will not be made until discussions this fall.
While classical concerts' appeal hinges mostly on repertoire, Pops audiences are more focused on the artists, Mr. Wilkinson says. "Glee" star Matthew Morrison is expected to draw well when he kicks off the Pops season Sept. 29.
"Chris Botti coming [in June 2012] will almost certainly be a sellout," Mr. Wilkinson says of the popular trumpet player.
However, other orchestras have found that signing big names is growing problematic for both the cost and the risk.
"In recent years, this trend has somewhat reversed as the number of artists that can attract that kind of attention and pricing have really diminished," says Eileen Jeanette, vice president of artistic and orchestra operations for the Pacific Symphony and an expert in pops nationally for the League of American Orchestras.
"The fees for artists in this category have become cost-prohibitive for many orchestras. They are now trying to attract audiences that are more diverse in age and tastes and have to work much harder than before to get those full houses."
Mr. Wilkinson doesn't expect that will affect the audience of the PSO Pops this season (most patrons had already subscribed) or even in the next few. But he does want the orchestra to look at new programming trends.
It will experiment with one this season when it plays the soundtrack of "The Wizard of Oz" live during a screening of the entire movie. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra recently did the same for "The Matrix," and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will become the soundtrack for "Singin' in the Rain" and "Fantasia" this season. Along those lines are performances of orchestral arrangements of the theme music of video games and films, such as "The Legend of Zelda" and "The Lord of the Rings Symphony."
In other markets these and other innovative approaches are part of a strategy to draw younger patrons.
"Ask any 25-year-old, 'Wanna come to a pops concert?' and they won't even know what you are talking about," says Ms. Jeanette. "We need to find ways to connect with generations that didn't have the experience of watching the Boston Pops on TV each week like I did as a kid."
This is especially crucial in Pittsburgh. "There is concern that the average age of [Pops subscribers] is higher than classics ones," Mr. Wilkinson says.
Pops concerts in general do not lead patrons to classics -- "there is virtually no overlap," he says -- and have historically not generated new donors. But recently the PSO tested those waters with some success. "We were very successful in a campaign last season. We got a $250,000 challenge grant that was contingent on getting matching donations only from the Pops audience."
The challenge was met, and with Hamlisch calling for donations from the stage, some patrons even left money as they were leaving the hall.
But that good news is tempered by the original problem: The persuasive powers of Hamlisch are no longer here.
First Published September 2, 2012 12:00 am