It's Saturday night and a trendy young set is mingling in a large room bathed in a funky, orange glow. In one corner, well-dressed people sipping beer and wine are tapping their feet to the sounds of a live jazz band. Hungry hipsters are delicately nibbling on sushi and baby quiches. Nearby, cute bartenders from the chic Baltimore restaurant Ixia are shaking martinis that sometimes bear naughty names like "Aphrodisiac."
The scene drips with such style it could be taking place in Baltimore's hottest new bar, restaurant or club. Instead, the setting is the lobby of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, the gathering of a pre-performance martini party labeled "Symphony with a Twist." It's part of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's spanking new effort to make its musical offerings more intriguing to a younger demographic.
"It's definitely got an anti-stuffy feel," said Erin Guthrie, a 24-year-old assistant radio station manager from Bel Air whose evening at last month's Symphony with a Twist was her first night at an orchestra performance in years. "Going to the symphony usually seems very stuffy."
"But this," her boyfriend, Jeff Brown, 23, added, "almost feels like a special, fun night out somewhere."
Guthrie, Brown and their fellow members of the under-40 set have become more important to arts organizations in Baltimore and across the country in recent years. Faced with graying audiences and a generation of Americans in their 20s and 30s who grew up more attuned to video games and the Internet than Bach and Botticelli, symphonies, museums and opera companies have been faced with a challenging task: building a hip buzz about their offerings.
Even though arts spending nationally has increased - a 2001 National Endowment for the Arts report showed that Americans spent $10.2 billion on arts performances in 1999, up from $4.4 billion in 1989 - audiences are growing older.
A recent NEA-commissioned study, which looked at the age of audiences for seven art forms between 1982 and 1997, showed that in that time period, the percentage of opera audience members over 60 jumped from 17 to 24. Opera-goers under 30 fell from 18 percent to 13 percent. In jazz - a quintessentially popular art form among younger people - 57 percent of its audience in 1982 was under 30. In 1997, the number had dropped to 23 percent, and its over-60 crowd had increased from 5 percent to 15 percent in that time.
These numbers have given arts organizations a jolt. They know that somehow, they have to make their product sexy and cool to young people who already are inundated with a multitude of fun ways to while away an evening.
"It didn't take a rocket scientist to look at our average patron's age when they came through the door, realize it was about 55 and say, 'Oh, we've got to get some younger people in here,' " said Lucinda Williams, BSO's vice president of artistic and education programming, who oversaw the recent launch of the Symphony with a Twist program.
"These young audiences are our future," she added. "All things must change and evolve, and orchestras are not exempt from that role. Young people like things with lots of spin and glitz and that's OK. We can do that. Who are we to be the big old dinosaur who just sits on the corner and thinks that we don't have to evolve with the rest of the world?"
The BSO isn't the only local arts organization to realize this. The Walters Art Museum recently began organizing "After Hours" dance nights, bringing in blues or salsa bands, providing a cash bar and munchies and encouraging attendees to tour galleries with cocktails in hand. The Peabody Institute has held successful wine-tasting events called "Peabody Uncorked," and the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington is in the second month of testing a program that provides $10 tickets to select performances to college students.
The Baltimore Opera Company, meanwhile, recently decided to organize a dinner-discussion centered on its upcoming run of Verdi's Otello to generate interest among people in their early 30s.
"A lot of people in that age group are already familiar with Othello because it's a pretty popular Shakespeare play," said Cheryl Bryant, the company's events manager. "We thought that [opera] would be the one that would attract people's attention because of that. ... We thought it would be interesting to have people discuss how it went from being a play to the opera."
Efforts like these are hardly new. Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, said some orchestras began brainstorming ways to appeal to twentysomethings more than 10 years ago.
"The difference is, we've gotten a lot better at it in recent years," said McAuliffe, whose New York-based group provides support for 1,800 U.S. orchestras. "I remember 10 or 15 years ago when there was a big emphasis on singles concerts as a social endeavor. There was some success, but it wasn't particularly lasting because a night at the symphony isn't your best singles function."
He also pointed out that events like singles nights - which lure younger people more for the activity than the music - tend not to help symphonies achieve their larger aim of getting a new audience hooked on the art form.
"The really well-done ones now place emphasis on the music," McAuliffe said. "When you're marketing it, if you only emphasize the surrounding things, that's when you get in trouble."
That's why the BSO makes a point of stressing the quality of music when selling Symphony with a Twist. The BSO's new principal trumpeter, Andrew Balio, who was the featured soloist at last month's event, said he was excited about the musical program the orchestra performed that night because such events allow performers to try different pieces. It included Charles Ives' haunting "The Unanswered Question" and Bela Bartok's "The Miraculous Mandarin," which featured a pair of dancers performing on stage.
"Events like these give us an opportunity to play adventurous music," Balio said. "It's kind of like when you go to a restaurant and many times, regulars will order their old favorites. But on special nights, maybe we'll make Osso Bucco or Spaghetti Pomodoro, chef's specials, things that will surprise you."
These programs, though fairly new, have yielded positive results so far. At the Walters, spokeswoman Catherine Pierre said the museum had 25 people sign up as new members after the last After Hours event. And at the BSO, the first Symphony with a Twist in October drew 2,000 people. For tonight's event, almost all 2,400 available seats have been sold.
As important as drawing new patrons, these events also provide some classical music lovers a comfortable ambience that may have kept them away in the past.
Nicole Carman, 20, a junior at Johns Hopkins University, said she and many of her friends in school are classical music fans. "But I have friends who will go four years at school without attending one concert here," said Carman, who dragged fellow Hopkins junior Michael Murrell to last month's Symphony with a Twist after reading about it online.
Carman, a native of Somerset, N.J., said she had never gone to a BSO concert or to the Walters Art Museum in her two years here. But on the same January weekend as her BSO outing, she also checked out salsa night at the Walters Art Museum.
"The live music is cool and it just makes the experience a lot more fun," she said.
Usually, events like symphony concerts "can be kind of intimidating because you're in the minority," added Carman.
The symphony league's McAuliffe said another highly successful orchestra program is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Casual Friday" series, which provides a solid repertoire to an audience encouraged to show up in laid-back California chic. Members of the orchestra add to the casual flavor by wearing clothing other than their standard tuxedos and evening dresses.
There are some risks attached to exploring the new. McAuliffe recalled one symphony that recently unveiled large video screens onstage that highlighted aspects of the symphony or instruments with MTV-esque blurbs throughout the performance. The same symphony also positioned a tiny camera so those in the audience could watch the conductor's every move from the front - "just like a quarterback, where you can see him throw the pass," McAuliffe said.
"Half the audience loved it, and the other half said, 'If you do that again, I'm not coming back,' " he said. "They did not repeat it."
The key, he said, is to create a comfortable setting for the younger crowd to listen to classical music and fall in love with it.
"The setting provides the transition, a familiar surrounding for young people to get to know a new art that may be less familiar," he said. "You've got to be careful that you don't compete with the music."
Events with appeal
6 p.m., March 15: Dinner and discussion on Verdi's Otello, which runs March 16 through March 24; up to 50 people; $50 per person; call 410-625-1600, Ext. 308.
6:30 p.m., today - Symphony with a Twist: the lobby of the Meyerhoff is turned into a bar with live jazz, munchies from Spike & Charlie's and martinis made by bartenders from Ixia. On the program, "It's all Jazz" with vocalist Bobby McFerrin conducting; call 410-783-8000.
8 p.m., April 13 - Symphony Rocks, a gala with a concert followed by food from Brewer's Art, Sascha's, Red Maple and Viccino Bistro and activities including interactive musical stations such as an "instrument petting zoo" and virtual conducting area. There will be a DJ and dancing from 9:30 p.m. to midnight. Tickets are $50. Call 410-783-8120.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
8 p.m., April 13: Pillbox & Paparazzi: Defining Elements of Style. In Washington, the Corcoran's 1869 Society - a group aimed at the 25- to 42-year-old set - will hold its annual black-tie gala with a theme focused on the exhibit Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years. Tickets are $90 for members, $105 for non-members; call 202-639-1753.
Washington's NSO has a pilot program that offers $10 tickets to selected performances to college students. Call 202-467-4600.
NSOvation: This group, targeted at audience members in their 20s to early 40s, has an annual membership fee of $100 to $125. Members are invited to post-performance receptions where they can mingle with musicians, and gatherings like garden parties and evenings at Wolf Trap.
Walters Art Museum
7 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday: Degas et Decadence. The Friends of the Walters turn the museum into a pseudo-Moulin Rouge with can-can girls, crepes and cocktails with a party inspired by the current Age of Impressionism exhibit. Tickets are $25 for members; $45 for non-members.
5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., March 22: Walters After Hours, featuring a Latin jazz band. Cash bar, dance floor and light fare. Tickets are $12, which includes admission to the Impressionism exhibit. Call 410-547-9000.