Social media brings new orchestra, opera fans

Philadelphia Orchestra musicians performed an impromptu concert on their plane after it was grounded in Beijing by bad weather. It was posted on YouTube, and already has received more than two million hits.
Philadelphia Orchestra musicians performed an impromptu concert on their plane after it was grounded in Beijing by bad weather. It was posted on YouTube, and already has received more than two million hits.
Posted: October 13, 2013

Normally two islands in a sea of social media, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia have had recent audience triumphs radically revising old notions that Twitter and other social media work only for young millennials.

On Oct. 2, the Philadelphia Orchestra played to a full Verizon Hall on six hours' notice, aided by social media, after a prestigious visiting engagement at Carnegie Hall was abruptly canceled. The strategy: Massive contacts via e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

"We haven't yet digested all of what that told us," said the orchestra's music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. "It did show that a huge institution like us - one that plans two or three years in advance - is also able to get it together so quickly."

Days before (Sept. 27), Opera Philadelphia drew 4,000 for an outdoor simulcast on Independence Mall of its season-opening Nabucco. Social media got the word out about the event. And once there, attendees tweeted their reactions on Twitter. The hashtag #onthemall was among the highest-trending tags in town that night.

That prompted the company's general director, David Devan, to consider establishing a "tweet zone" in the Academy of Music where listeners can do their electronic socializing during the show.

"For a lot of young people, the experience isn't real . . . and doesn't become a life event until it's shared," he said.

Tweet zones have been tried elsewhere: The New York Philharmonic's contemporary music concerts have had them for a few years now, with roughly 12 to 15 participants. But could they work for larger, more mainstream musical events?

Devan thinks so: "People could tweet and blog about what they just heard, just as they do for sports events. . . . as long as it doesn't bother other people in the theater . . . . We're going to pre-test it."

Social media may ease other basic concert rules, as well. At the Oct. 2 concert, Nézet-Séguin lifted the usual ban on in-concert photographs and recordings, but just for the last piece, encouraging everyone to post the results anywhere they could think of. At least a dozen videos of the concert are on You Tube, some in good sound, one with several camera angles edited together to suggest a multicamera PBS production.

The orchestra tasted the attention that comes with going viral during a June tour of China. When a flight in Beijing was grounded due to bad weather, musicians played an impromptu concert inside an airplane. It was captured on mobile-phone video, which was soon posted on YouTube, where it has now enjoyed more than two million hits.

One could dismiss that incident as a fluke. But so was the Oct. 2 Carnegie Hall cancellation: Some of the Philadelphia musicians were literally en route to New York when they were told to turn around due to a stage-hand strike. Almost immediately, the orchestra announced a free, early evening, same-day concert at Verizon Hall.

The full hall, however, wasn't just about making social media contacts, but its ripple effects. The orchestra's numbers are impressive. It has an e-mail database of 136,000 addresses and 34,000 followers on Facebook, with 40,000 more on Twitter. Three local radio stations mentioned the concert frequently.

There was also good old word of mouth. Lifelong Philadelphian Annette Lombardo, a retired bartender who had never heard the orchestra, got wind of the concert from a neighbor while at her mailbox. She changed clothes, grabbed a bite to eat, and, arriving a half-hour early, got a great seat.

"It was so beautiful," she said this week. "I never saw anything like it. The person I was with cried though the whole thing. I got tears in my eyes, too, but I had my dark glasses on. I was so happy. Usually I like rock and roll."

The point of social media, says Devan, is not the number of hits, but how the contacts generate discussion. "It's easy to hit 'like' and never come back," he said. "We're creating a culture of fans who like what we're doing and will share their experience with others. It's really about engaging with your information."

Thanks to e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and news coverage, the Nabucco simulcast had 2,000 registrations (a way of reserving a free ticket) on the first day of availability. The total came to 7,500. And although 4,000 actually showed up (Opera Philadelphia anticipated a 50 percent no-show rate), 55 percent of the total were new to the database.

Such events don't just happen out of the blue. The opera's outdoor simulcasts are a somewhat established tradition over the last three years. The Philadelphia Orchestra's lease agreement with the Kimmel Center allowed the former the flexibility to quick-schedule the concert. Since the Carnegie program might be rescheduled, the orchestra had to pull alternative repertoire out of its back pocket, and readily did.

Who'd have thought it? As a classical musician, even 38-year-old Nézet-Séguin has questioned the possibilities of social media: "I'm proud of having 7,000 Facebook followers, but Lady Gaga has 30 million. Who am I in that?

"Yet social media really was the key for getting that many people. I could feel when I came on the stage: they had only to dim the lights to create huge anticipation applause. Like a rock concert. It was wild."


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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