© 2022 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How Is the Cleveland Orchestra Attracting a New Generation of Music Lovers?

photo of Amelia and Brandon Sommerville

For the seventh year in a row, the Cleveland Orchestra this fall will welcome kids under 18 to Severance Hall for free on some nights. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia reports on how that’s changed the makeup of the orchestra’s audience – and how it could change the audience in the future.

This past summer, the 49th season of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Blossom Festival drew its biggest audiences ever, with about 7,000 people at each performance. That’s up almost 80 percent from just a decade ago. And a big part of that change is due to young people coming with their parents and sitting on the lawn, for free.

“It was my wife’s idea,” says Ross Binnie, chief brand officer for the orchestra.

“We went to the lawn at Blossom and we have four kids. And I thought to myself, and she said, ‘This is great value to sit and have a picnic. It’s great family time. You should make this free for the kids.’

"We spend $100 on a movie now – when you add up all the stuff with it. For $50-odd, it’s great to see the Cleveland Orchestra and have some time with your kids on a picnic.”

That was in 2010, just about the time the Maltz Family Foundation gifted the orchestra with a $20 million endowment, which has grown into the $30 million Center For Future Audiences. So Binnie’s wife’s plan went into action, subsidizing under-18s on the lawn with their families and at some Severance Hall performances. Seven years later, the portion of the audience that’s under 25 has grown from 8 percent to 20 percent.

Growing audiences
The overall audience is bigger, too, coming to hear soundtracks played live to Looney Tunes cartoons or 

photo of Blossom Music Center lawn
The Cleveland Orchestra estimates that the Center for Future Audiences has boosted the percentage of their audience that's under 25 from about 8 percent to 20 percent, thanks to education outreach, initiatives like free lawn tickets for Under-18s, and free or reduced tickets to select Severance Hall performances for young people as well.

films like “E.T.”

“This is a terrible generalization but I find – after about 14 or 15 – it’s a much harder sell unless you’re doing it with your parents. That’s why Blossom still fits in. You wouldn’t tend to see a group of 17-year-olds -- on their own -- going out to see a classical music concert. But they might still do it with their parents and grandparents.”

At least one group of near-17-year-olds was at the Blossom Festival last month, led by Skyler Covert.

“I think this is pretty amazing.”

The Florida-native says she grew up with classical music – not live, but on CDs. This fall, she’s a violin major at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

“Where I came from, there was no professional orchestra in town. Classical music venues, they had to bring somebody in. They were pretty small and they definitely struggled to fill the auditorium. So, seeing an event like this for classical music is really amazing. And I absolutely love seeing all the kids here. That just warms my heart and makes me really excited for them and for the future of classical music.”

Following the musical conversation
One of the kids who may someday follow in Skyler’s footsteps is Madison Wainer, an eighth-grader from Brecksville who’s been to several orchestra concerts at Blossom.

“I’ve been kind of recognizing the music. I’ve also noticed that there’s been a lot more people coming as the years go on. I follow the conversations, the music.”

Wainer is the demographic the orchestra is trying to reach, in the hopes they will one day return as paying adults. Until then, there are education and student discount programs.

photo of The Circle Cleveland Orchestra
The Circle is a group aimed at young professionals who want to socialize and attend orchestra performances at Severance Hall and at Blossom.

What about over 18s?
And then there’s The Circle, aimed at young professionals like Andrew Singer, its board president. He grew up with the Cleveland Orchestra, moved away, and is now back in Northeast Ohio. And he says The Circle isn’t just for sitting in a seat, listening to the music.

“We’ve had open mic nights. We’ve gotten outside of the normal venues for classical music. We went to the Happy Dog for one of our holiday parties and got to see one of the classical revolutions.”

They even recently went on a scavenger hunt throughout Severance Hall. Activities like that are what Ross Binnie sees as positive signs for the orchestra’s future. And he still has some pipe dreams for even more outreach to young people.

“ I think we should have a bus that’s full of technology. You could have a virtual 3D experience and, whether it’s at Blossom, whether it’s at school, whether it’s sitting outside -- just an interactive experience just to feel the power of symphonic music all around you.”

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.