CSO promotes discounted tickets in troubling times

By Emily Ornberg

According to an Oct. 17 article in the Chicago Tribune, the CSO has the most debt of all major symphonies in the country. With a projected deficit of $1.3 million for the 2012 fiscal year, approximately $373,000 more than FY 2011, the symphony could use a boost in sales.

At its annual meeting Oct. 17, the CSO announced that it sold almost 382,000 tickets for 225 concerts, compared to 380,300 tickets for 212 concerts for the 2010-2011 season, according to press releases. The orchestra’s subscription series reached 82 percent of paid capacity this season, compared to 84 percent last season.

The CSO isn’t alone in its financial woes. The Philadelphia Orchestra emerged from a year of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July, and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra ended a lockout in October that canceled concerts for more than a month. Strikes and lockouts have recently occurred in both the Atlanta and Detroit symphonies, while the Boston and New York symphonies are operating at a loss. The Minnesota Orchestra canceled all concerts through November because of an ongoing labor dispute.

Though the CSO experienced the possibility of a lockout in September, it has since increased efforts to improve its financial standing by making a more concentrated effort to draw students to concerts by making tickets more affordable.

Liz Madeja, director of marketing for the CSO, said the orchestra has been offering discounted student tickets for several seasons, but it is attempting to make more students aware of the benefit.

“The city has a ton of schools with a ton of students that come here,” Madeja said. “While we do sell very well for a lot of our concerts, some of our concerts have no-shows, or we have concerts [with] extra room. So really it’s a win-win situation where we can offer $10 tickets to students who have tight budgets.”

Javier Mendoza, program director of the Chicago Arts Orchestra in Lakeview, said younger audiences are often neglected because their average income is much less than that of regular orchestra-goers. He said although he has seen a few orchestras struggling, marketing for an audience—young or old—is always tough.

“It is a very challenging time for orchestras,” Mendoza said. “But the challenge of building an audience and having an audience is always there.”

Ticket sales and performance fees from concerts cover approximately half of production costs, according to the Tribune article, which also reported that salaries and the costs of providing benefits for top musicians like Yo-Yo Ma, who renewed his contract as CSO’s creative consultant through 2015, are rising.

Some of the numbers look grim, but the CSO has had strong and steady support from donors, patrons and an endowment that reached $233 million at the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

The orchestra’s season runs from September to June and offers student tickets to almost every performance based on seat availability. Madeja said student tickets are also offered for visiting chamber concerts, orchestras and piano recitals.

Cameron Arens, director of audience development for the CSO, said students may enjoy the orchestra because everyone who writes and performs the music was also a student at one point. He said the orchestra’s performances are contemporary in a sense, which can be inspiring to younger audiences.

“The concerts that student tickets are available for really represent the best and a variety of what we offer,” Arens said. “It really is an opportunity to see not just the concerts that might not have sold well, but to see what this orchestra does best.”

Walter List, a junior music major at Columbia, said he enjoys seeing the orchestra. He said he has also watched a few rehearsals, and every experience he has had with the CSO has been inspiring.

“I’ve seen it a few times, and it’s amazing,” List said. “It’s definitely a professional orchestra, one of the best in the country, and I love Riccardo Muti, the conductor. What most people don’t know is that the CSO plays all different kinds of music that can appeal to everyone.”

Scott Hall, coordinator of jazz studies at Columbia, said discounted tickets are a great opportunity for students to hear and see a world-class orchestra.

“Many of us forget that Chicago Symphony is just down the street because we’re occupied by our computers and phones, and everything else is distracting us,” Hall said. “Hearing the Chicago Symphony is an amazing experience.”