Strik­ing a new chord

Stam­ford Sym­phony seeks to ap­peal to younger gen­er­a­tion

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Barry Lyt­ton

STAM­FORD — As clas­si­cally trained clar­inetists held a note res­onat­ing off half-full pints, for a brief mo­ment, there wasn’t a phone screen lit and dozens of oth­er­wise scatty screen-swipers held back.

With beers in hand, they tuned to the first set of move­ments by two of the Stam­ford Sym­phony’s top mu­si­cians.

Some at­ten­dees said they had never at­tended the sym­phony, but loved the idea of it. They felt more com­fort­able in a brew­ery than the “old and stuffy” set­tings of the city’s 99-year-old ensem­ble, they said.

So on Wed­nes­day evening, they packed into a small brew­ery in an in­dus­trial park to hear pieces usu­ally heard in sym­phony

halls. The black ties were miss­ing, re­placed with jeans and a Yan­kees cap or two, and the sym­phony was pared back — only two clar­inets could fit in Half Full Brew­ery’s tight tast­ing room — but the mu­sic was the same.

And that was the sell. If the crowds you need won’t come to you, go to them, ac­cord­ing to plan­ners of the sold-out Sym­phony On Tap.

The sym­phony’s foray into un­ortho­dox set­tings comes at a time when it and sim­i­lar in­sti­tu­tions are fight­ing to stay rel­e­vant in a city awash in mon­eyed mil­len­ni­als that, if hooked, would keep them alive for years to come.

The trick is that the gen­er­a­tion es­chews suits and evening gowns, shuns red vel­vet seats and the deco­rum of sym­phonic scenes. The sym­phony doesn’t yet track mil­len­nial at­ten­dance, said CEO Rus­sell Jones, but eye­balling the crowds last year showed room for im­prove­ment.

So much room, that the sym­phony cre­ated a com­mit­tee of Stam­fordites un­der age 40 this year, all vol­un­teers ded­i­cated to get­ting younger folks in seats. The team even has a hash­tag — #SymFUNySun­days.

The usual home of the sym­phony, the Palace The­atre, is also in on the act of ap­peal­ing to younger crowds. The Palace last spring started host­ing “silent” par­ties on its main stage with all you can drink of­fers and live disc jock­eys. It will have its third party next month.

Trou­bled times

The moves come amid trou­bling trends for the non­profit sym­phony and 91-year-old Palace. Tax re­turns show both have spent the past sev­eral years in the red. The Palace went bank­rupt in 2008.

Last fis­cal year, the sym­phony lost $128,000 even af­ter re­ceiv­ing $843,000 in con­tri­bu­tions, gifts and grants. The Stam­ford Cen­ter for the Arts, which op­er­ates the Palace and Rich Fo­rum, was out $404,000. It saw $1 mil­lion in do­na­tions.

Across the board, such in­sti­tu­tions are hurt­ing no mat­ter their pedi­gree.

Clas­si­cal mu­sic at­ten­dance “saw sharp de­clines from 2002 to 2008,” ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional En­dow­ment for the Arts. A League of Amer­i­can Or­ches­tras study found that or­ches­tras across the coun­try have dropped ticket prices, but still saw a 5.5 per­cent drop in at­ten­dance of clas­si­cal se­ries be­tween 2010 and 2014.

The crowds that are left are skew­ing older. At the turn of the cur­rent cen­tury, Amer­i­cans 45 to 64 years old were more likely to at­tend a clas­si­cal mu­sic per­for­mance than any other age group. In­stead of be­ing re­placed by a younger crowd, the same group in 2012 was again the largest at­tendee.

This may not solely be a sym­phony prob­lem, but an is­sue of get­ting peo­ple off their mon­i­tors, out of their houses and into real sym­phony halls, gal­leries, and yes, tap rooms. The NEA es­ti­mates that 71 per­cent of art con­sumers view it through screens.

Lest one think mil­len­ni­als are not nec­es­sar­ily keen to con­sume art, a re­cent re­port by the Wal­lace Foun­da­tion found the rea­sons they seek it out are not nec­es­sar­ily any dif­fer­ent from other age groups.

Those in­clude want­ing to be a part of some­thing big­ger, cul­ti­vat­ing new ex­pe­ri­ence, re­duc­ing stress and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an “au­then­tic,” live per­for­mance.

There are bar­ri­ers, how­ever, such as the cost of ad­mis­sion, an over-sched­uled life, un­fa­mil­iar­ity with the or­ga­ni­za­tion and the in­abil­ity to get oth­ers to go with them. This dig­i­tally savvy crew also has in­creas­ingly found it just as easy to make plans the night-of rather than plan ahead, which is the more tra­di­tional way these or­ga­ni­za­tions have en­sured seats will be filled.

While the num­bers and sur­veys all make for a cold cal­cu­la­tion, they show­case the cal­cu­lus these in­sti­tu­tions must make to sur­vive: What does this gen­er­a­tion like? Beer?

Yes, they love beer — craft beer es­pe­cially, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau.

Craft brew­eries such as Half Full are boom­ing both na­tion­wide and in the Nute­meg State.

Not a sin­gle U.S. state saw a de­cline in the over­all num­ber of brew­eries be­tween 2012 and 2016, cen­sus fig­ures show. The num­ber of craft brew­eries in Con­necti­cut shot from 8 to nearly 30 over that four-year span.

The long-stand­ing math prob­lem was proved in part Wed­nes­day night. The event sold out. Calls for tick­ets were still com­ing in to sym­phony of­fi­cials and Half Full as prin­ci­pal clar­inetist Pavel Vin­nit­sky tuned his in­stru­ment.

Vin­nit­sky ad­mit­ted the set­ting was among the odd­est he has played — up there with an Is­raeli grotto, he said. But “mu­sic is about con­nec­tion . ... It’s won­der­ful to be in such an in­ti­mate set­ting.”

Sev­eral at­ten­dees agreed with Vin­nit­sky.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to the artists,” 28-year-old Solana Clau­dioAl­bar­ran said. “And I get to wear reg­u­lar clothes . ... I def­i­nitely do feel spoiled.”

Thomas Ve­lazquez, chair­man of the un­der-40 com­mit­tee, said he had to turn peo­ple away.

But he promised the sym­phony will be back, com­ing to a mil­len­nial hang­out near you.

“We’re ex­cited to bring this mu­sic to you in a dif­fer­ent set­ting,” he told the crowd, which neared Half Full’s fire-code ca­pac­ity.

“We’ve been here since 1919, but you’re here on the maiden voy­age,” he said.

Staff writer Christina Hen­nessy con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Michael Cummo / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Claire Rowella, of Stam­ford, and Mike Moran, of Norwalk, have a drink while watch­ing clar­inetists from the Stam­ford Sym­phony Or­ches­tra per­form in­side Half Full Brew­ery in Stam­ford on Wed­nes­day.

Pavel Vin­nit­sky, left, and Jonathan Co­hen, clar­inetists in the Stam­ford Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, play in­side Half Full Brew­ery dur­ing Sym­phony on Tap in Stam­ford on Wed­nes­day.

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