More than 40 percent of Pittsburgh seats go unsold

More than 40 percent of Pittsburgh seats go unsold


norman lebrecht

March 15, 2015

A customer survey at the Pittsburgh Symphony (conductor Manfred Honeck) reveals alarming tendencies.

Only 57 percent of seats at the main classical series in Heinz Hall were filled by paying customers. And many who attended were dissatisfied with the programmes, the ambience, the ritual. One said: ‘Too boring, too many old stuffy people… The last time I attended the symphony it was a total drag.’

According to market research commissioned by the worries orchestra: ‘the PSO is valued for its musical expertise, esteemed international reputation and position as a part of Pittsburgh’s identity… but its core offering — classical music — is swiftly losing its audience.’

How can it possibly reconcile those polar opposites? Post-Gazette report here.


pittsburgh halls


  • Paul says:

    the article says “The focus groups involved 45 people whose demographics were similar to those of symphony audiences but who had not attended a PSO concert in the past year.”
    … to repeat “who had NOT attended” …

    OK, so that is a bit like if a survey was made of 45 people who do not attend church … and I bet that the survey results would show that most people do not have any interest in going to church 😀

    It is fascinating that they paid $100,000 for this survey which includes such enlightening comments from those surveyed such as ““They play too many of the same old warhorses over and over again.” Back to the church comparison, that would be like if those non-church goers said “we don’t go because there is too much prayer in church”. So by redefining what our core beliefs are and what our culture is founded on, we might attract a new group of people who have never been interested in us before !?!?

  • MWnyc says:

    It sometimes seems as if the biggest turn-off for potential new audience members for orchestral concerts is the audience members who are already there.

    And that’s something orchestras really can’t do much about.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      People for whom the biggest turn off really is old stuffy faces, would probably not go to the concerts for the music.

      I can only understand the “audience turn off” argument if the audience interferes with the listening experience. If, for instance, there is coughing, cell phones go off or the audience applause is so indifferent that it gets in the way of the artists’ performance. Those problems are more likely at events where many attendees go for social and not musical reasons.

      • Anne says:

        Agree entirely. I think the age argument is an excuse, nothing more, unless they are so immature that being in the company of older people is considered socially unacceptable. If so, we have a deeper problem, IMO.

  • Talking the talk says:

    I wonder if the current Music Director has any influence on this trend?

    • Petros Linardos says:

      Manfred Honeck is a deeply musical and conscientious musician. Apparently, those who are bothered by the presence of older faces don’t find him hip enough, and definitely don’t understand the significance of his laudable habit of marking the orchestral parts all by himself. Charles Mackerras did that too, but who cares for such nerds?

      • Talking the talk says:

        I care very much for such ‘nerds’ but really only if the outcome of such acts is that an insightful, inspiring, committed and illuminating performance, otherwise it’s just the equivalent of moving deck chairs on the Titanic. Granted, this is by degrees subjective but congratulations on finding a musician and conductor you can admire in Manfred Honeck.

        • Petros Linardos says:

          I have never been to Pittsburg, but Honeck has won my respect from a live concert I attended with him conducting the Swedish RSO, as well as from recordings or youtube posts with the Pittsburg SO. I fully respect your different opinion, and I am honestly curious to know how you think Honeck’s choices or performance may be connected with poor attendance.

  • Robin D Bermanseder says:

    Reconciliation involves all parties agreeing to meet somewhere in the middle. Expertise and reputation are to be treasured, but if there are barriers to their display and appreciation, these virtues become impotent. A bridge is needed. A bridge that is used from both ends.

    A subset of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra joined with a local ‘classical crossover’ singer at Heinz Hall on 13 Feb 15, filling the venue beyond 90%. From the reviews and social sharings that I have read, the collaboration was very successful, and inspiring for many. Many who will seek more experiences from the classical end of the spectrum.

    Can we please have more?

    Here is a photograph from the event:

  • JAMA11 says:

    You may have seen the bizarre series of essays in the New York Times in which a number of NYT critics concluded, somehow, that the only conceivable candidates to replace Alan Gilbert are Esa-Pekka Salonen and Manfred Honneck.

  • joshg says:

    First of all, yes – it is unfathomable how they spent $100k to interview 45 people and conduct an online survey.

    The depressing takeaway, though, is that people suck. Put education and outreach aside for a moment – if you experience Mahler 2, Tchaik 5, or the Eroica and your visceral reaction is that classical music is boring or worse, (gag) “relaxing, soothing” – then your senses are already so numbed by media and technology that you are practically a lost cause as a potential audience member.

    And it seems like those 45 people would provide any excuse to remain so. What are these “better” cultural choices in Pittsburgh that so many are flocking to? What other local arts organization has an international profile going on 100 years?

    To all those who complain about the offensive senior citizens who dare to make their concert-going experience less cool, here’s a tip: Sit upstairs! All the little old ladies sit in the Orchestra, and the acoustics are way better up top (plus, you have 50% of the empty seats to choose from!)

    The other takeaway is, unfortunately, yes these people need to be catered to. Every gimmick in the article needs to be applied, and more. Classical music and the PSO must remain front and center, but the same-old same-old is not going to cut it. It’s going to require a redefinition of the PSO experience, including thematic programming, multimedia, and technology combined with creative marketing.

    Honeck, while a serious musician, is not going to reverse this trend by doing the same 12 European symphonies every 2 years on rotation.

  • noochinator says:

    If so many old people attend, why not have concerts at old-people-friendly times? Like those 9:30 AM performances in Branson, Missouri…..

  • MacroV says:

    It’s a very poor survey, from what I can tell. But it does show one big problem: People have different expectations. You have the people who don’t know what they like – they like what they know. They want the comfort food of safely-served Mozart and Brahms, and heaven forbid if you play something written after 1900. You have others complaining about all the repetition of a limited range of repertoire, mostly dead, white European males. Others who don’t like the pairing of the familiar piece they want to hear with the unfamiliar piece they don’t.

    A lot of orchestras, I think, are making a weakness of what could be a great strength: They don’t have the single demographic that this survey perpetuates: old white people. You know who has that? Old rock bands like The Who or the Rolling Stones? You’ll probably see a more homogenous demographic at their shows than at a typical symphony concert – and talk about an audience that wants to hear what they know!

    Orchestras need to figure out better how to draw the interest of different demographics – both in their repertoire and their presentations. The difference, in my view, between good and great orchestras, is not the quality of their performance. It’s the seriousness and creativity in how they program and present. I think every orchestra should be stealing shamelessly from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, where you can see great educational programs, creative mixes of old and new, “Late Night at the Philharmonie,” and all sorts of ways that they have figured out how to make themselves relevant in the 21st century.

  • David J Gill says:

    If an arts institution tries to be all things to all people, tries to be hip and trendy and changes itself into something its not, any success, will be short lived, at best.

    Attending the symphony is a unique experience. There is no substitute for good programming, good marketing and plain old excellence, but dumbing the experience down to the level of those who aren’t really that interested is not a formula for success.

    I’ve seem some clever, hilarious TV spots that were done for the Czech Philharmonic. Something like that can change perceptions and together with occasional special price offers can get those who want to go but never get around to it to make it a new priority. That’s who you want to bring in.

    Poor audience behavior can be a huge problem. As a all too well seasoned audience member if anything ruins my experience it will be the bad behavior of other in the audience. Again…humorous marketing as a bit of audience education / reminder is needed. I don’t think you can avoid educating the audience a little…just has to be done the right way.

    For a hilarious reminder of how things have changed do a web search for “Stokowski Rebukes Audience.” Something the great conductor apparently did time and time again. (Not sure what the reaction was.)