The repertoire was highly unusual.
Six members of Orange County's Pacific Symphony had works of Mendelssohn and Mozart on tap, themes from "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Lord of the Rings," and classical renditions of "Hello" by Adele and Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off."
The location was also out of the ordinary. The sextet took their instruments – two violins, a viola, a cello, an oboe, and a flute – out of the pristine concert hall at the Segerstrom Center and set up on landing in the middle of a wide staircase at the Anaheim Packing District.
The audience was in charge of the program, and the musicians could switch from Tchaikovsky to Pharrell. Flutist Ben Smolen and violinist Bridget Dolkas were the emcees for the night. They call out trivia questions:
What's the name of the "fifth Beatle" who recently died?
What jazz great does Don Cheadle portray in a new biopic?
What's the name of a compositional technique where a short, recurring musical phrase is associated with a character or idea?
There were some rules, but not the standard ones for the symphony experience. "We’re not yelling out the answers, we’re not looking on our phones," Dolkas explained to the audience. "We’re just writing down the answers because we’re having a quiz."
Whoever won the trivia round got to pick from the menu and select what the group plays next.
"So basically this is all about you guys choosing what you want to play," Smolen said to the crowd.
This was the scene a few weeks ago at one of the Pacific Symphony's Music Mixology events, where members of the orchestra set up in unexpected locations for a fusion of pub trivia and interactive concert.
The Pacific Symphony, like orchestras across the country, is looking for new ways to connect to the community. As the audience for live classical music shrinks and grows older, innovation and engagement is more important than ever for these institutions.
The mixology event is an experiment, and orchestra leaders said that success could mean a lot of different things. Maybe more people are lured into the concert hall, or maybe people simply become aware it exists.
REACHING PEOPLE WHERE THEY ARE
The Pacific Symphony held these "mixology" events at three locations throughout Orange County – at Santa Ana's 4th Street Marketplace and The Boathouse Collective, a bar/restaurant in Costa Mesa.
"Part of what I like about this is that it brings the symphony out to the public," said Adam Sterling, who's become a big fan of these trivia nights.
Classical groups have tried setting up in nontraditional venues, but this takes things a step further by allowing the audience to compete for a say in the program.
"And we know that some people are clearly not going to pay attention and some will be transfixed on what we’re doing," said Kurt Mortensen, director of audience engagement for the Pacific Symphony.
John Forsyte, president of the Pacific Symphony, said these mixology events shouldn’t at all be a substitute for the formal classical experience, which he described this way: "That almost solemn and joyous experience of going to the concert hall and paying great attention to some sort of long architectural work of music that through that journey gives you tremendous inspiration or tremendous intellectual and emotional benefits."
But he noted that innovation is key. He's been in his position for nearly 20 years and said the biggest change for the orchestra is how it relates to the community.
"The orchestra has to find ways to take down barriers to participation and enjoyment of the live instrumental experience," he said.
In 2010, the League of American Orchestras recognized the Pacific Symphony as one of the five most innovative orchestras in the country. Forsyte said they have have an advantage as a younger institution, founded in 1978.
"We have less inertia, for certain," Forsyte said.
"There’s the weight of tradition that is very challenging for older institutions to respond to," he said. "But increasingly, I think, American orchestras are open to alternative experiences."
RE-TUNING AN AUDIENCE
Many orchestras are embracing these non-traditional experiences out of necessity. A 2012 survey from the National Endowment for the Arts found that 8.8 percent of American adults attended at least one classic music performance that year, a decrease from 11.6 percent in 2002. Not surprisingly, the majority of attendees are in age brackets over 55.
Forsyte said the Pacific Symphony been fortunate to remain fairly steady. But people are buying differently – getting smaller packages and purchasing tickets last minute – so they still need to expand the base.
And to draw in new patrons, he said it’s also important to shift the culture and show that symphony musicians aren’t stodgy, all bowties and black dresses – they're approachable.
"What we’re doing is creating an impression for potential new audiences that the symphony is willing to have fun." Forsyte said.
At the mixology event, Stephanie Poole said she definitely got that fun message. The hustle and bustle of the space actually enhanced the experience for her.
"I think the ambient noise, you know, it shouldn’t be called noise," Poole said. "It’s an enjoyment to hear."
She and her coworkers came to check out the venue and stayed for the music. She's never been to the symphony before and says she definitely wants to check it out now.
The three mixology events were funded by a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to help the symphony innovate and diversify its audience. Mortensen designed playful surveys to garner information about the audience and prizes were on the line to entice people to hand them in. Instead of asking point-blank about age, the survey asked people to circle the object (record, cassette tape, CD, mp3 or Spotify) that represented how they listened to music in high school. Respondents were asked to define the relationship with the symphony with options like, "Let's get married," or "It's not you, it's me."
Fifty-five percent of respondents at the Anaheim Packing House said they were interested in more of the mixology events and about a third of said they also wanted to attend performances at the concert hall.
Whether or not those folks make it there, Forsyte says he wants to continue pushing the limits and bringing the symphony out to them.