The season pass has come to the world of fine arts. Starting next fall, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will offer patrons unlimited shows for $5 a month -- the first performing-arts group in Minnesota to do so, and one of just a few in the United States.

The SPCO's new membership program is aimed at people who prefer ultimate flexibility and spontaneity, a growing segment of audiences. The orchestra offers approximately 100 concerts each season. The membership would be valid for seats priced at $10 and $25, roughly 80 percent of available tickets. The top seats, which cost $40, are not available in the program.

Jessica Etten, the SPCO's senior director of communications and marketing, said the board had discussed membership for more than a year. Traditionalists were skeptical, she said, "but we asked them to come to it as a new person not connected to the organization."

Arts consumers are breaking a decades-old mold of buying performances on subscription. Increasingly, marketing directors note, patrons want deals and they want them now. Under the SPCO program, a member would pay $5 a month, and then be able to choose seats either online or at the box office before a concert. There would be no guarantee of a specific seat.

"If you care about getting the same seat for every concert, subscription is the only way," Etten said. Subscription packages range from $40 to $320, based on the number of shows at the price chosen. The membership would cost $60 a year.

Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre has used a similar model since 2009, when it sold 40 passes. That number jumped to 247 the next year and 1,200 last year, when members bought 5,648 seats. Communications director Becky Lathrop said many factors influence attendance, but that overall annual numbers at ACT have gone from 100,000 to 120,000 over the past three years.

"We are encouraged to see repeat attendance among ACTPass members," she said. A typical buyer is 35 to 55 years old, compared to 55-plus for subscribers.

The membership model is the latest development in the SPCO's years-long effort to lower prices.

"Our annual net ticket revenue today is about $300,000 better than it was a decade ago because of a significant reduction of our marketing expenses," Etten said. Paid annual attendance has increased to 95,000 from 72,000 a decade ago -- 32 percent.

The orchestra also announced programming for its 2012-13 season Monday. It includes five Mozart symphonies, four from Beethoven, Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and four world premieres. On Nov. 15-17, artistic partner Roberto Abbado will conduct a new piece by Nicola Campogrande for piano and orchestra. On April 18-19, the orchestra will perform a new work by John Luther Adams. Matthias Pintscher will conduct his own new work May 24-26, and artistic partner Dawn Upshaw will present a work for soprano and ensemble by Shawn Jaeger. That program is May 30-June 1.

The season opens Sept. 7-9 with artistic partner Edo de Waart conducting Stravinsky's Concerto in D for Strings and Octet for Winds, and Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony.

Information on subscription packages, memberships and the season pass is at 651-291-1144 or

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299