Striking a new chord
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 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 and live disc jockeys. It will have its third party next month.
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 Claudio-Albarran 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.
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