September 03, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


Searching for Cool 

As audiences age, the symphony and opera target a new audience.

But look at Virginia Opera’s programming this year, and you’ll see they’re not taking chances with their new audiences: “Madame Butterfly” and “The Magic Flute” are on the bill this season. It seems the strategy is to lure twenty-somethings in with hip ads, then gratify them with tunes they recognize from years of absorbing the background music of cartoons and commercials, thus convincing them to return.

The Richmond Symphony brochure design, by contrast, is refined and exceedingly tasteful, and its Web site is outdated. The symphony doesn’t seem to be putting funds into the same demographic as the opera, but it is reaching out to new audiences this season with Monday night Masterworks concerts at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in the West End. Like last year, they are also planning several lighter “family” concerts in Chesterfield and Henrico counties — “right in your neighborhood,” according to the brochure.

As plans now stand, the Carpenter Center will close in 2005 for renovations, and construction of the new performing arts center may begin around that time, so the symphony is easing into a phase of dislocation. St. Michael’s was chosen, according to symphony Executive Director David Fisk, in part for its large stage. It’s one of the few area churches that can accommodate a full orchestra. The stage is in the center of the performing space, providing audience members the option of sitting behind the orchestra and seeing conductor Mark Russell Smith from the performer’s perspective.

“We’re very much hoping to build a relationship with the parish,” Fisk says. “We can’t assume we’ll stay” at St. Michael’s through 2007, when renovations will be finished, but “we see it as a growing relationship.”

The symphony’s season begins with a gala dinner and performance of Rachmaninoff’s second Piano Concerto by André Watts. It’s good to hear big-name performers like Watts in Richmond — it makes us feel important, and the concert undoubtedly will be outstanding.

But it’s an even better deal to hear concertmaster Karen Johnson solo in the first Masterworks concert this fall. If you miss Watts, you can always buy the CD, which isn’t true of Johnson — yet. Richmond is fortunate to have Johnson, a superior musician who also conveys charm and approachability. She may be responsible for attracting younger audiences to symphony concerts. It’s common for musicians who are beginning their careers, as Johnson is, to spend only a few years with any given orchestra, so we may not have much more time with her. Katherine Needleman, newly appointed principal oboist of the Baltimore Symphony, had a brief stint with the Richmond Symphony just last year. She was to be the featured soloist in this fall’s “Baroque and Beyond” concert, but the orchestra will be announcing her replacement soon.

The young pianist Mei-Ting Sun appears with the symphony in early November, playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2, and the Richmond Symphony Chorus joins the orchestra for a program in late November.

Other highlights this fall include pianist Emanuel Ax returning to the University of Richmond. Also at the Modlin Center, the Shanghai Quartet will get started on playing all the Beethoven string quartets during the course of the year. S

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