Priced Out of Classical Music? Try Concerts for $8.33

4 weeks ago
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It is no secret that classical music faces strong headwinds, but one challenge has been reaching gale-force proportions in recent years: high ticket prices.

The top ticket costs $ 495 at the Metropolitan Opera, $ 295 at Carnegie Hall and $ 165 at the New York Philharmonic. And while their average prices are much lower — and each offers inexpensive, sometimes free outreach programs — fans and newcomers can feel priced out of performances that often seem more like luxury goods than staples.

All of which makes Peoples’ Symphony Concerts a holdout — one of the best deals in New York, a city not exactly known for bargains.

The organization, which offers performances by some of the best artists in the world for as little as $ 8.33 a concert, will open its 120th season on Saturday evening with the Juilliard String Quartet playing Mozart, Britten and Brahms in the auditorium of Washington Irving High School in Manhattan.

“We’re primarily able to do it due to the generosity of the musicians, who come and play for a fraction of their normal fees,” said Frank Salomon, 83, who has managed the series for nearly half a century. “The artists believe in the mission. And many say it’s one of their favorite audiences anywhere in the world.”

Founded during New York’s earlier Gilded Age by Franz X. Arens, a conductor with a vision of making the finest music available to students, workers and immigrants, the series has continued to offer Rolex-quality performances at Timex prices.

By using less opulent venues (Washington Irving’s auditorium has good acoustics, but hard wooden seats), forgoing advertising, and attracting philanthropy and well-timed bequests, Peoples’ Symphony has been able to present an impressive roster of artists over the years, including Joshua Bell, Yefim Bronfman, the Emerson String Quartet, the Guarneri Quartet, Leonidas Kavakos, Gidon Kremer, Lang Lang and Radu Lupu.

Everything is expensive in New York these days: rent, groceries, restaurants, taxis, movies, pop concerts, ball games. But rising costs pose a special threat to classical music, raising barriers at a fragile moment when the field must fight to keep existing fans and lure new ones.

Michael M. Kaiser, the former president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, said that after years of bumping up ticket prices to offset spiraling costs, many presenters were hitting a point of diminishing returns: Some people are deciding they cannot afford live performances and are opting instead for home entertainment alternatives.

“This is a problem in the field,” said Mr. Kaiser, who is now the chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland.

Peoples’ Symphony Concerts have been aimed, from the start, at the 99 percent — giving regular New Yorkers a chance to enjoy the best the city has to offer.

This season is no exception. The great lieder singer Mark Padmore has performed Schubert’s anguished “Winterreise” song cycle at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, and has made more than one celebrated recording of it. This May he will sing it at Town Hall with the jazz pianist Ethan Iverson as the finale of a six-concert Peoples’ Symphony series that can be bought for $ 80 (or $ 13.33 a concert) or $ 52 ($ 8.66 a concert). Other artists in the series include the pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and the violinist Augustin Hadelich, who appeared this month with the New York Philharmonic.

The top price for a single ticket? $ 24.

Mr. Salomon, who is also an artist manager and a senior administrator at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont, said that he had been chasing Mr. Padmore since hearing his astonishing performance as the Evangelist in Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Park Avenue Armory in 2014.

“He just blew me away, and I started lobbying to try to get him,” Mr. Salomon said, recalling stalking Mr. Padmore in 2016, when the tenor received the vocalist of the year award from Musical America. “And after five years of bugging him, we finally got him.”

Mr. Padmore said that he had been intrigued by the organization’s goal of making music affordable.

“I was really delighted to hear about it,” Mr. Padmore said in a telephone interview, noting that he also serves as the artistic director of the St. Endellion summer festival in Britain, where artists donate their services to keep costs down. “I think what they do with these concerts is completely admirable.”

From the start, the concerts have drawn discerning audiences. A 1902 review in The New York Times of a program at Cooper Union, the series’ first home, said that the audience’s “attention and manifest understanding are such as to put pretentious up-town audiences to shame.”

The organization still draws engaged, knowledgeable crowds to hear its chamber music and recitals. The pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who has performed several times, said he had found the subscribers “a passionate and well-informed audience — and beautifully behaved.”

In addition to the Town Hall series, Peoples’ Symphony has two six-concert series at Washington Irving, which has general admission seating, and subscriptions cost $ 50 (or $ 8.33 a concert). Mr. Salomon said many subscribers arrive early to make sure they can get the best seats, or sit with large groups of friends or relatives. The slightly more expensive Town Hall series has assigned seats. To attract younger listeners, subscribers to any series can now bring up to two children for free, and $ 25 student passes allow access to all 18 concerts, which would let completists hear them for just $ 1.39 apiece.

And all those prices include processing fees.

The city’s big presenters — which increasingly rely on philanthropy, not ticket prices, to meet their expenses — are aware of the dangers of making tickets too costly, and offer a variety of alternatives for bargain hunters.

The Met, whose average ticket price is $ 141, offers $ 25 rush tickets for every performance; standing room tickets that start at $ 25; and discounts for students and those under 40. The Philharmonic, whose average ticket price is $ 70, offers $ 18 student and senior rush tickets to select concerts; free tickets to some Friday evening concerts for people between 13 and 26; and will give a special $ 5 Phil the Hall concert in April.

Carnegie, whose average ticket price was $ 78 last season, offers free concerts around the city and free family days; $ 10 rush tickets; $ 20 tickets to people 40 and under who join its Notables program; and limited $ 10 student tickets. And Lincoln Center, whose average ticket price for the Mostly Mozart Festival was $ 70.33 this summer and is lower at its White Light Festival and Great Performers series, offers free events as part of each series.

But there are no expensive seats at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, giving it a decidedly egalitarian cast.

Mr. Salomon noted that this will be his 48th season managing the organization, and that his predecessor, Joseph Mann, managed it for 59 years. “Together we’ve run it for 106 of its 120 years,” he said. “This is probably a Guinness World Record.”

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