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L.A. Phil efforts to keep subscribers happy hint at challenges ahead for arts groups

Violinist Carolin Widmann performs in one of the L.A. Phil's Weimar Republic programs in February at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Violinist Carolin Widmann performs in one of the L.A. Phil’s Weimar Republic programs in February at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Robert Rootenberg, 64, has been a fan of the Los Angeles Philharmonic since he was an usher at the Hollywood Bowl in his teens, and he regularly uses his parents’ subscription, which has been in the family for 17 years. He cherishes their two orchestra seats, about 10 rows from the stage.

Earlier this week, Rootenberg said, a box office representative told him he needed to resubscribe for the 2020-21 season by Friday or he could lose his beloved seats. The attendant’s message sent him into a momentary panic.

The L.A. Phil has since given him an extension, but the incident does highlight the sensitive work ahead for arts companies moving forward with the crucial subscription process as customers, even longtime supporters, are not entirely ready to commit to expensive season subscriptions — ticket packages that include fall performances that could be postponed or canceled.

“I don’t know I want to make a commitment to sit shoulder to shoulder with people in October,” said Rootenberg, an attorney in Joshua Tree. “It’s too early. They said they’d give me another month but that doesn’t address the issue. To push people to make a commitment in this time of uncertainty, to give their hard-earned dollars during a pandemic, it’s just not right.”

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L.A. Phil director of public relations Sophie Jefferies
said that while Friday is the renewal deadline, subscribers won’t necessarily lose their seats if they don’t renew in time. Subscribers received phone reminders this week about the deadline — the original deadline was March 27 and it has been extended multiple times — and they were told that if they didn’t feel comfortable renewing yet, they would not be dropped.

In such cases, the L.A. Phil said it would make “every effort” to hold seats, though it couldn’t guarantee subscribers would get the exact same location if they waited to renew. The orchestra will try to assign seats as close as possible to the original ones.

Lynn Harrell of Santa Monica brought an embracing sweetness and forcefulness to the cello that made him one of the world’s great players.

“The L.A. Phil is being flexible with our subscribers in order to give them as much time as they need in these extraordinary circumstances,” Jefferies wrote via email. “We have been accommodating the needs of all our subscribers on an individual basis because every personal situation is different.”

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Like so many other live entertainment venues and cultural institutions, on March 12 the L.A. Phil canceled events through March 31, citing safety and health concerns related to the coronavirus outbreak. On March 20, it extended cancellations through May 10. On April 8, it canceled the remainder of the 2019-20 Walt Disney Concert Hall season, which would have ended June 6.

The L.A. Phil can’t confirm the new season will start as planned on Sept. 25. It awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom’s directions for the state’s reopening.

The 2020-21 season will kick off a five-year Pan-American Music Initiative that includes new commissions and recording projects with individuals and cultural institutions from across the Americas. The season also includes a weeklong Seoul Festival featuring leading Korean musicians, composers and conductors.

Opening night will feature Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel conducting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

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Attending L.A. Phil events is a commitment, Rootenberg said, noting his drive from Joshua Tree, but he feels it’s worth it.

“It’s great to be connected to culture,” he said. “I’m especially looking forward to ‘Einstein on the Beach,’ the Peter Sellars opera. But everything is turned upside down right now. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

L.A. Opera officially cancels its last production of the 2019-20 season, but the effect on employees won’t be as catastrophic as you might think.


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