It started with a blog entry by Anne Midgette, who covers classical music for the Washington Post. While writing about how the Wolf Trap audience's tastes have changed over the years, she commented,
"Back in 1971, it was easier to find 7,000 people who wanted to hear Julius Rudel conduct a scene from Boito’s 'Mephistofele' than it is, today, to fill a house with yet another all-Tchaikovsky program."
And what really raised our eyebrows was this:
"I was particularly struck by hearing from several independent sources that today there are only five classical artists who can reliably sell out a concert: Renee Fleming, Lang Lang, Joshua Bell, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman. (No one said these were the best artists, just that they were the ones with this particular kind of star power.)"
So we wondered what someone closer to home might think of that assessment. Someone who had direct experience with putting on major concerts with A-list classical artists. Immediately we thought of Ken Fischer, President of the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor.
Now to be fair, comparing the prestigious UMS concert series at Hill Auditorium to the Wolf Trap Music Festivals is not exactly an apples to apples situation (which is addressed below), but the article did spark a very thoughtful, and thought-provoking response from Ken, which we offer here in its entirety:
“While it’s regrettable that classical musicians don’t have the same star power from popular media that they may have had 25 or 40 years ago, there are still incredibly smart audiences who are interested in the art of discovery and who continue to support and nurture artists who aren’t as well known and who will become the stars of the future. As an industry, we need to be sure that we provide opportunities for them to become better known more broadly, just as Peter Gelb has done with the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.
"There’s no question that those five classical artists can reliable sell out a concert – we at UMS have presented all five in recent years and have enjoyed sellouts here in Ann Arbor – but they most certainly aren’t the only ones. What about Anne-Sophie Mutter, Murray Perahia, Placido Domingo, Evgeny Kissin, Ewa Podles, and Yuja Wang? At the time UMS presented these artists, they were not yet household names and yet sold really well for us. Roughly half of all UMS events feature artists making their UMS debut.
"Ultimately, we’re in the experience business. It isn’t just the ARTISTS who sell out concerts, but the overall PROGRAM EXPERIENCE. This includes everything from the repertory to contextual events and extends to how ticket buyers are treated in the ticket office and the kind of pre/post-show access the audience has to the artists (be it in-person or via our virtual online communities). These factors are all work in tandem to create a truly satisfying experience for patrons. (That said, if you’re interested in seeing Joshua Bell, we recommend that you get your tickets when they go on sale later this month, because we’re sure that will be a sellout performance!)
"But comparing a sellout in a 3,500-seat concert hall to a sellout in an 7,000-seat outdoor amphitheater is perhaps a false comparison as the overarching experience is wildly different. In the end, it isn’t the act of selling a heap of tickets that’s the most important but integrity of the performance experience. I would hate for us as an industry to sellOUT by focusing only on SELL-outs, when in fact the experience is what really matters.”