For many orchestras in North America, these are dark days. The Philadelphia Orchestra has filed for bankruptcy protection, an extremely bitter labour dispute has torn Detroit apart and several regional orchestras have had to close their doors.
But for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the forecast is far sunnier.
Over the past 15 years, the TSO has had its crises (near-bankruptcy in 1995, labour dispute in 1999 and a unexpected conductor changeover in 2003), but is now enjoying full halls, great reviews and – most tellingly – an audience with an average age under 50.
The orchestra’s secret weapon?
Tsoundcheck. Launched a decade ago as part of an orchestra-wide effort to actively cultivate the under-35 set, tsoundcheck offers $14 tickets to nearly all of season’s concerts, organizes social events for members and performs at non-traditional times like after work and late at night.
There is no fee to join, and members can buy best-available seats online. In 2001, the TSO sold 5,700 tsoundcheck tickets. Last year, the number was 23,000.
New last year, the late-night concert was one of the highlights of the season. For the 2011 version, the newly-formed TSO Young Leadership Council has upped the ante and is hosting a pre-concert tailgate party in the Roy Thomson Hall parking lot on Saturday.
For $75 you get a barbecue dinner, beer, wine and a main-floor ticket to the concert. After the final cadence of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony sounds inside the hall, the party will continue in the lobby with music by Toronto band Paisley Jura.
The fruits of the TSO’s labour are easily visible inside the hall. In the 2009/10 season, 35 per cent of tickets were sold to people under 35, according to the orchestra – the highest proportion yet. In comparison, this week the Canadian Opera Company reported a figure of 10 per cent for its under 30s program for the 2010/11 season.
“There’s been a complete shift in the nine years I’ve been playing with the symphony,” says TSO horn player Gabriel Radford. “For us on stage, that has a tremendous impact. Things seem to come alive. At the end of a show, when you’ve put in all that work, it’s great.”
Tsoundcheckers are treated the same as full-price subscribers, which means they aren’t relegated to the nosebleeds or restricted to buying tickets hours before the concert. Trina Senechal Klinck, 32, started attending the TSO in 2006, when she began dating her now-husband Ben Klinck.
“The symphony is the same price as the movies and it’s way more fun. We bring a lot of friends to shows and it’s nice that we’re not stuck with tickets from the bottom of the barrel.”
Known to be an enthusiastic audience, tsoundcheckers are as open to Bruckner and Tchaikovsky as they are to the New Creations Festival. As evidenced by the sold-out Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony late-night concert last year, the under-35s aren’t interested in a superficial experience.
“If you listen to current bands like Radiohead, Fleet Foxes and Joanna Newsom, you will see that … Young people today continue to crave big-picture themes like love, loss, death and revolution,” says YLC member Dustin Cohen, 26.
“When I’m in the concert hall without distractions, watching the orchestra and the conductor, I’m thinking: ‘I’m going to download this second movement when I get home.’ ”
The success is catching. Carey Suleiman, the TSO’s senior director of marketing, says she gets calls from other organizations wondering how they can replicate the program.
“Young people are curious,” Suleiman says. “They want authentic experience, and certainly a 100-piece orchestra is pretty authentic. We feed off it just as much as they do.”
The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performs Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday at 10:30 p.m.. The pre-concert tailgate party starts at 8:45.
First published in the Globe & Mail.