April 5, 2003
New York Times

“Creating a New Lure to Catch Crowds
for Classical Music” by Anne Midgette

In the current economy classical music is often said to be in trouble.  Selling tickets in New York is a competitive business. Organizations are struggling with the question of how to attract wider audiences.

Jacqueline Taylor and Omus Hirshbein, longtime classical music presenters and administrators, have come up with a way to offer their art that addresses these problems.

They’re giving it away.

“Free for All at Town Hall,” their new concert series, opens tomorrow with a recital by Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Anne-Marie McDermott, the noted violinist and pianist, playing Schubert, Fauré and Beethoven. Tickets will be distributed at the Town Hall box office, starting at noon on the day of the concert. Cost: nothing.

The point is to make great music available to an audience that cannot afford a high-priced ticket. Ms. Taylor, 38, who for six years was executive director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Mr. Hirshbein, 68, who for 20 years oversaw a cultural renaissance at the 92nd Street Y, have cast their nets wide. They have placed ads in a host of publications that presenters often overlook.

The catch: none, beyond the obvious difficulty of raising money during an economic downturn. Ms. Taylor’s and Mr. Hirshbein’s nonprofit organization, Twin Lions Inc., has amassed money from private donors, foundation grants and their charter corporate sponsor, WQXR, which is owned by The New York Times Company. But with the costs of renting the hall and paying the artists they still need to raise $100,000 to complete their four-concert season. “If it’s meant to be, it’s going to happen,” Ms. Taylor said last week, sitting in Mr. Hirshbein’s elegant West Side apartment, where Twin Lions has commandeered a spare bedroom. “It’s God’s work.”

The idea had its seeds in “Beethoven 2000,” a cycle of the Beethoven quartets that the Chamber Music Society offered in Ms. Taylor’s final season. During a Lincoln Center council meeting about ways to mark the year 2000, one director mentioned his dream of filling the halls of the complex with a kind of public open house, and Ms. Taylor promptly went to David Shifrin, the Chamber Music Society’s artistic director, who was planning a Beethoven cycle with the Orion String Quartet. “I said, `We should make it free to the public, in celebration of 2000,’ ” Ms. Taylor said. “Everyone around me thought I was crazy,” she added, “because you can sell out the Beethoven quartets at Lincoln Center, so why would you give them away?”

One answer: because of the long lines snaking down Amsterdam Avenue before every concert. “They were of all ages, races and dress codes, exactly the target audience classical music organizations everywhere are trying to attract,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in his review in The New York Times. “And when the final quartet ended, the players were greeted with a standing, whooping ovation.”

Ms. Taylor said the experience had been unforgettable. She had already announced that she was leaving the Chamber Music Society and going back to graduate school. But she said, “All I could think about was what I had just experienced, how to keep doing more of that.” 

Ms. Taylor’s excitement touched a spark in Mr. Hirshbein, her former boss and mentor at the Y. After subsequent stints at the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Chamber Symphony, Mr. Hirshbein was “loose,” as he put it, and ready not only to listen to Ms. Taylor’s vision of a nonprofit organization to present free concerts, but to act on it. “Without him, it would have just been talk,” Ms. Taylor said. 

Mr. Hirshbein approached Patti Cadby Birch, an art collector and philanthropist, and convinced her of the idea’s merit. Mrs. Birch committed $100,000, and the project was under way. In its first season, “Free for All” is presenting four major New York recitals. Edgar Meyer, the bassist, will appear on May 11; David Finckel and Wu Han will play all of Beethoven’s cello sonatas on June 8; and Joshua Bell, the star violinist, appears on June 29. 

In addition to the appeal of its mandate, the series offers the lure of Town Hall, once an obligatory station in a musician’s career. “I feel like I’m making my debut,” Wu Han said.

The music is not in question, but the future is. Fund-raising has been tough: “It’s a mess out there,” Ms. Taylor said, and it is not as if the team can look forward to a boost from the box office. Nor are there advance sales to help estimate the turnout. Mr. Finckel, the Emerson Quartet’s cellist and Wu Han’s husband, said it was up to the artists to make it work. “I put a lot of responsibility on us,” he said. “Hopefully a lot of people will come that have not heard a classical concert before, so the quality of performance has to be as great as any performance can possibly be.”

Ms. Taylor said, “The point is to have excellence.” She added: “When I’m sitting in the fourth row of the Metropolitan Opera listening to some of the most exquisite music that exists on the planet, all I can think is, `Who is this for?’ Humanity has given the world incredible gifts, and I just want more of it to be available to more people without any connection to their ability to buy a ticket.”

©2003 New York Times

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