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Duluth-Superior Symphony flourishes
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The Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra nearly doubled its audience this year. (MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill)
Times are tough in the classical music world. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is cutting staff. The Minnesota Opera is shortening its season. Major orchestras around the country are operating in the red. But the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra expects to end the season with a balanced budget for the first time in several years. The DSSO has also boosted its audience by 40 percent in one year.

Duluth, Minn. — Arts groups around the country are missing key parts of their budgets. Endowment income has dried up because of the stock market crash. And foundations, themselves strapped by the economic downturn, are concentrating on human services and giving less to the arts.

Major orchestras like the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic can't escape financial problems by improving their sound.

But in a city like Duluth, if the orchestra gets better -- and people hear about it -- it can make a difference in the bottom line.

Markand Thakar came to conduct the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra a year and a half ago. At the time, the DSSO was having financial troubles. Season ticket sales were on a downhill slide, and the budget was in the red.

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Image Markand Thakar

Ticket sales inched up that first year -- probably mostly because people wanted to give the new conductor a try. But for the 2002-03 season, Thakar and the DSSO board were determined to entice lots more people to the concerts.

"One of the things we wanted to do last year -- I particularly wanted to do it -- was to remove the notion that people might have of the symphony as some sort of boring, stuffy exercise for rich old white people," says Thaker.

Thakar and his marketing team came up with a theme for the season. It's called Markand's Grand Tour, and each concert features the music of a country or region of the world. Music by Debussy, Ravel, and Fauré was combined for a concert called "The French Kiss." Bartók, Dvorák and Kodály were featured on an evening called "The Czech's in the Mail."

"The message was, 'This is fun!'" says Thakar.

The word seems to have gotten out. This season the concert hall has been almost full.

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Image Jim Pospisil

But the symphony wasn't just marketing fun. It also offered a sweet deal to new season subscribers -- 50 percent off, two season tickets for the price of one. The promotion worked -- hundreds more people bought season tickets.

You might think the loyal long-time subscribers would resent that special treatment for newcomers. But that's not the case, according to Laura Budd. She and her husband have been season ticket holders for 20 years. She says some people might have been irritated at not being included in the promotion. But she's just happy to see more people at the concerts.

"That is a huge concert hall for an area this size to have to fill," Budd says. "So when it's empty it's noticeably empty. And you have the feeling, 'Where is everybody, why am I the only one interested, or why are there so few people?'"

Budd says the concerts are more exciting when the audience is bigger. The musicians are getting a buzz off the feel of a packed house too. Jim Pospisil plays the French horn. He says the whole orchestra is playing better.

"You play this music with your heart and soul and you can really feel it," Popisil says. "If you really feel things, and the conductor's with you and there's this great energy and creation on the stage, and then it goes out to the audience and it's received, and you can tell by the energy they're liking it, it's a shared experience."

"It's an extraordinarily liberating experience when you don't have to worry, 'Oh, no, this is a quiet passage and I know somebody's going to cough!'"
- Markand Thakar

Thakar's world tour stops at a lot of familiar, comfortable places. Jack Bowman, dean of the School of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota, Duluth and a conductor himself, says Thakar is smart to concentrate on favorite composers.

"I think that's where your ticket sales are always the strongest. There's an audience that likes classical programming, and that means Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and the late Romantic repertoire," says Bowman. "But then Thakar stretches people a little bit. He always gives them in a concert something that pulls them a little bit beyond what they're accustomed to."

Before each concert, Thakar steps out onto the stage with a microphone in his hand, to offer a little introduction to the music. He says it's mainly to help people in the audience put their everyday concerns aside and focus on the music. But his comments also help people understand the unfamiliar pieces.

"We did, for example, a piece by Chris Rouse. It's a little challenging, and also very loud," Thakar says. "And it's helpful for people who weren't prepared for that for me to let them know, 'Yes, this is coming, it's good for you, it's like your vitamins. It's going to be seven minutes, and then we're going to get to some nice, pretty music after that!'" Thakar also asks people to turn off their cellphones and even to try to refrain from coughing. A few people have been annoyed by the lecture on coughing. But Thakar says it's all about making sure people have the best musical experience possible.

"If there are people who might feel constrained by my asking them not to cough," he says, "there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other people who are just freed to open themselves to the sounds. It's an extraordinarily liberating experience when you don't have to worry, 'Oh, no, this is a quiet passage and I know somebody's going to cough.'"

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Image Jack Bowman

Thakar swears the Duluth audience is the quietest he's heard in his travels around the country as a guest conductor.

He may be a disciplinarian on coughing, but Thakar is chatty and friendly when he's not actually conducting. After each concert, he and the guest soloist take questions from the audience. Between 100 and 200 people stay for the informal conversation.

Next season the DSSO will continue the theme approach to programming. The series is called, "Seven Deadly Sins in Seven Lively Concerts." One concert will be about the sin of wrath and the contrasting virtue of brotherhood.

"We're playing William Grant Still's work for chorus, alto soloist, narrator, and orchestra," Thakar says. "It's a piece called 'And They Lynched Him to a Tree.' We're certainly referring to the lynching that took place here in 1920. And we're contrasting that, pairing it with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its message of brotherhood."

The real test of all this audience-building will come next season. All the people who took advantage of the two-for-one offer on season tickets this year will have to decide whether the concerts are worth full price. Markand Thakar and his musicians are doing everything they can to make it so. Saturday night's concert is all Scandinavian music -- a program dubbed the "Fjord Explorer."

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