A line of food trucks was parked outside the concert venue, peddling smoked barbecue, falafel and empanadas to early arrivers. Free craft beer flowed for all who wanted it.

The crowd of 20- and 30-somethings sipped, nibbled and milled out, dressed in a mix of T-shirts, designer denim and workplace casual attire.

Just what were they waiting for? An indie rock band?

Not exactly. They were about to catch one of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s recent “happy hour” concerts.

“Young people in particular have really responded to the more social aspect,” said SPCO marketing director Lindsey Hansen. Hosted two or three times a year, the happy hour events feature food and mingling on the plaza outside Ordway Concert Hall, always with free pours of Minnesota brews. (St. Paul’s Tin Whiskers sponsored April’s event.)

After an hour or so, the young revelers took their drinks and filed neatly into the hall. There was no dumbing down of musical content once everyone was inside. Instead, the orchestra played an hourlong program, pairing bright, bubbly works by 19th-century composers Charles Gounod and Antonín Dvorák with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ethereal 1914 piece “The Lark Ascending.”

Designed to appeal to a new generation of concertgoers, initiatives such as the happy hour concert are catching the eye of national observers.

The SPCO is “breaking the established conventions,” said Douglas Hagerman, board chairman of the New York City-based League of American Orchestras. “They’re risk-taking, and they’re doing things that many orchestras have been unable or unwilling to do.”

He recently traveled to St. Paul for one of the league’s board meetings, learning more about the SPCO’s pioneering programs. “They’re doing outreach to parts of the community an orchestra typically wouldn’t reach,” he said. “They’re among the most creative orchestras we have in the country.”

Across the nation, orchestras are scurrying to attract young listeners. But while most stick to safe repertoire and two-hour performances in traditional halls, the SPCO has experimented with the 300-year-old concert format while doubling down on challenging programs.

“In our industry, orthodoxy and received wisdom are very prevalent, dominant even,” said SPCO President Jon Limbacher. “But we have not followed the course of other orchestras. Our ethos is to chart our own course.”

Creative autonomy

One of the SPCO’s boldest moves was dispensing with the services of a music director — traditionally a conductor charged with making big decisions on programming and musician staffing.

“We stopped having a [music director] in 2003,” said SPCO principal violinist Kyu-Young Kim.

For the orchestra’s permanent members, the effects were overwhelmingly positive.

“If you go to most orchestra rehearsals, it’s utter silence, apart from the conductor,” Limbacher said.

“Here, we’re more musician-led. The interaction back and forth is amazing.”

Kim was appointed SPCO artistic director in 2016, becoming the first playing member of a major U.S. orchestra to occupy such a position. His appointment, bold and forward-looking, placed artistic decisionmaking firmly in the hands of SPCO players.

And giving musicians the autonomy to create interesting, unusual programs paid immediate dividends. “Death and the Maiden,” a 2017 album planned in conjunction with SPCO artistic partner Patricia Kopatchinskaja, won a Grammy Award this year.

Meanwhile, the SPCO has slashed ticket prices, offering free tickets to children and students, plus a $7 monthly subscription to as many performances as a grown-up music lover would like. The idea wasn’t necessarily about filling seats, Limbacher said.

“It’s about who the orchestra belongs to,” he said. “It belongs to the whole community. Our job is to share it with everyone, and price can be a huge barrier. We have worked to reduce the price so that it’s not beyond the reach of most people.”

So how does the orchestra pay the bills in light of decreased ticket revenue?

“One of the great misconceptions is that lowering prices means less money,” Limbacher said. “Because as you lower prices you’re able to lower your marketing expense. And it’s much easier to ask for philanthropic support if, in fact, you’re serving a broad section of your community.

“We lowered prices,” he said, “and we have more net revenue today than ever before.”

The next big challenge

The SPCO has a long established habit of taking its concerts beyond the Ordway, performing in neighborhoods throughout the Twin Cities area.

“We play in 17 different venues,” Kim said, pointing to concerts at churches in Eden Prairie, Stillwater and Mahtomedi. “Sometimes it can be eight venues over two weeks. I don’t think any other orchestra does that.”

The strategy has helped the orchestra reach new audiences. “The farther out you get into the suburbs, the less overlap there is with audience members who also come to the Ordway,” said marketing director Hansen.

Building upon this tradition, the SPCO recently became one of the nation’s first orchestras to perform regularly in rock clubs, a further initiative aimed at enticing younger fans. The SPCO now plays regularly at St. Paul’s Turf Club and Icehouse in south Minneapolis, with three concerts planned for each venue during the 2018-19 season. There concertgoers can eat chicken wings and clink glasses while enjoying, say, a flute quartet by Mozart.

“People love music just as much as they ever have,” Hagerman said. “They just consume it differently now.”

Despite all this progress, the SPCO’s Limbacher sounds a note of caution as he looks to the orchestra’s future.

“We haven’t made enough progress in terms of serving people of color,” he said. “And if we don’t find a way to do that over the next decade, then it will be a failure. This orchestra cannot just be for a select part of the community.”

Next up, the orchestra will build on its eight-year partnership with the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis. Another new series is planned for St. Paul’s West Side, with free tickets for local residents. The organization recently hired an audience development manager to focus on building relationships with communities of color. Needless to say, if the SPCO masters this challenge, it will truly be at the vanguard of U.S. orchestras.


Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at artsblain@gmail.com.