The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music news: The recovery may be easing the Great Recession’s grip on classical music groups in Madison

August 4, 2010
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A reminder: Tonight (Wednesday night, Aug. 4)  is the last of this summer’s FREE Concerts on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. It’s an all-Russian program and features UW-Platteville pianist Eugene Alcalay in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s immensely popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23. Also included are “Winter” from Glazunov’s “The Seasons” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Russian Easter Overture.” It starts at 7 p.m. on the Capitol Square in Madison.

By Jacob Stockinger

The fiscal year is over for most of Madison’s classical music groups.

And now some major Madison arts presenters say that the severe and prolonged economic recession may be easing its grip on the local performing arts scene.

As proof or at least signs or suggestions of a recovery in the arts, they point to increases – some of them in double digits — in subscription ticket sales over last year.

“We are up a bit in new subscriptions over last year,” says Ann Miller, the marketing directing for the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson). She especially notes that subscriptions renewals were at 80 percent rate, “which is good.” But, she quickly adds, the total of ticket sales has decreased because the MSO had fewer subscribers.

At the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (below), marketing director Sue Ellen Maguire says that subscription sales are “on par” with last year, but that she has noticed a substantial increase in new subscriptions that get a hefty 50 percent discount.

“Is that the effect of having a sold-out concert last season with flutist James Galway, or of the recession easing? Maguire asks. “It’s difficult to know at this point,” she says, adding she will have a better idea about the impact of the recession and the economy once single ticket go on sale after Labor Day.

The Madison Opera (below) is reporting similar figures in increase in subscription sales, according to Brian Hinrichs, the Opera’s manager of communications and community outreach.

New subscribers are up 60 percent and subscriptions overall are up 14 percent overall, Hinrichs said, with a retention rate of 80 percent.

“Whether is programming or whatever, it seems like people are coming out again,” Hinrichs said. “I think a lot of it has to be with the repertoire for our 50th season. Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ and Verdi ‘La Traviata” are very recognizable pieces, as is ‘The Three-Penny Opera.’”

“It’s a little early to tell,” Hinrichs added, “but based on our numbers for next year, it does seem there has been some easing of the recession.”

The Wisconsin Union Theater (below) is also experiencing a 5 percent average increase in subscription series, though it is not the same for the classical music series as it is for other series, says cultural arts director Ralph Russo. Single went on sale June 14, but figures are not yet available.

“We’re on par with last year,” said Russo.

So, has the economy improved enough to help the arts groups flourish?

“Is it the artists and our season we’ve lined up, or the economy?” asks Russo (below, in a photo by Jeff Miller of UW-Madison). “Probably it’s a bit of both. At this point we can’t be too sure, but we’re very pleased.”

“It is still undetermined at this point,” Russo added. “We did fewer events last year and sold about the same number of tickets. That are some indications people are maybe finding a little more money to spend on the arts, but it’s not definitive.”

All of the institutions say that the recession has taken a toll on attendance and on programming. That meant many of them cut down on the number of performances.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Miller, for example, said that the MSO’s top goal is to get back to offering nine concerts instead of the eight it cut back to for last season and the upcoming season. “We hope that will increase in the 2011-12 season,” she added.

Miller also said that despite initial projections they would end the year, in the red, the orchestra ended its fiscal year in the black.

“We’re in the black. Not by much, but it is in the black,” said Miller. “We anticipated losses and were prepared to dip into endowment funds to cover losses. But now we won’t have to do that.”

All the performing arts staffers also said that real story about the economy and the arts will be told through single ticket sales. In addition, over the past several years, they explained, consumers have been waiting until very late and close to the event to purchase tickets.

That could be the result of the economic recession and also the highly competitive arts scene in the Madison market, those same sources say.

The various spokespeople also say that getting an earlier than usual start this spring on subscription campaign for next season probably helped to boost subscription sales.

Are you buying more subscription tickets for next season?

Do you think the recession is easing up and allowing for more discretionary money to be spent on the arts?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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