Three years ago, as director of marketing for the Pittsburgh Symphony, Louis Spisto had a brainstorm while composing ways to attract a younger audience: Why not harmonize the needs of the singles community with the needs of the symphony?
The result was a singles-oriented concert series that offered lectures and parties. "It was a remarkable success," Spisto said. "More than 1,500 people joined the series. Today, symphonies around the country are copying the idea"--including the local Pacific Symphony Orchestra.
When Spisto last year transferred to the Orange County symphony, he brought with him his cherished marketing ploy. For the past two seasons, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra has presented "Classic Encounters," a subscription series specially designed for singles.
Consisting of four concerts, the next series begins Nov. 23. Subscriptions, which range in price from $40 to $120, cover pre-concert cocktail parties and lectures.
Just to set the record straight: The symphony itself practices equal opportunity seating. Only happy hour is closed to married folk, not the concert hall.
"There are a few barriers to subscribing to a symphony series when you're single," Spisto said. "First, it's difficult to plan six months' worth of dates. Either you buy sets of two tickets, and you end up eating the cost of one ticket when you can't find a date for a particular evening. Or you buy single tickets and go alone, and then you end up feeling left out.
"But the Classic Encounters series is limited to only four concerts, so you don't have to commit yourself to 10 or 15 nights. And at the parties, you can socialize with other singles."
Following the 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. parties, held in a restaurant or hotel ballroom near the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, concert-goers can walk together to the theater. Participants also have the option of attending a 7 p.m. lecture about the evening's featured musical pieces.
"Younger audiences tend to feel less secure about their knowledge of classical music," Spisto said. "Classic Encounters provides an avenue for people to learn something about what they will be listening to."
As was the Pittsburgh Symphony, Classic Encounters was devised in part to draw a younger crowd. "Symphonies around the country are having to face the problem that older audiences are not being replaced by younger audiences at a high enough rate," Spisto said.
"We are having to figure out incentives to bring in the audiences of the future. Singles audiences tend to be younger; they offer us something, and at the same time we are giving something back to them."
Last week, about 50 of Classic Encounters' 280 subscribers congregated for a pre-concert get-together at Brandon's Lounge in the Beverly Heritage Hotel.
Vincent Melillo, 45, a Santa Ana employment consultant, signed up for his second season this year. "It makes for a lovely evening," he said. "You get dressed up, you come to the party and meet nice people, then you top it off with the symphony."
"The symphony attracts a better class of people than do bowling alleys," said 30-year-old Linda Jankowski, a computer programmer in Mission Viejo, jokingly explaining the reason for her presence. Does she bowl? "Well, I go to the Hollywood Bowl."
Neither Jankowski nor her friend, Deborah Grosher, had ever been to a Pacific Symphony Orchestra concert. "I thought it would be marvelous to mix socializing and the symphony," said Grosher, a consultant in Corona Del Mar.
Another newcomer was Mission Viejo resident Jim Durling, 29, an engineer. "I guess I've been too busy going to rock 'n' roll concerts to go to the symphony," he said. "I heard about this series and I thought, why not?"
With or without the benefit of Classic Encounters, Stanley Behrens claimed that he would frequent the symphony. "I love the arts," said the 62-year-old Huntington Beach sales agent. And, oh yes, he also enjoys the social aspect of the singles series: "I'm here to meet my dream woman."
Not all attendees were impressed by the specific party under way. Unlike previous Classic Encounters encounters, last week's took place in a noisy bar rather than a private room. The Dodgers game, blaring from an overhead television set, did not exactly enhance what is supposed to be a quiet, sophisticated gathering.
"We joined this thing to avoid the bar scene, and here we are--back in a bar," complained Elise Fillion, 41, a registered nurse in Costa Mesa. She spoke for a cluster of five women, the others preferring to remain anonymous.
Had Fillion met any interesting people that evening? "Sure," she answered, gesturing with a laugh at the surrounding women. "But we were hoping to meet men too."
"Their annoyance is perfectly justified," conceded symphony spokesman Gerald Ansel, himself distraught about the setting. Ansel vowed that future pre-concert parties would return to a private room, with a pianist in place of the baseball game and catered hors d'oeuvres in place of the pretzels.
The upcoming series of Classic Encounters parties and concerts will take place Nov. 23, Dec. 14, Feb. 1 and May 10. For more information, call (714) 973-1322.