With ‘Casual Fridays,’ L.A. Phil lets down its hair

Special to The Times

For decades, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s marketing strategy relied heavily on images of the orchestra’s “artistic"-looking maestros.

There was the young Zubin Mehta, his exotic features seemingly about to explode in a passionate fury; the patrician Carlo Maria Giulini, a black scarf flung poetically around his neck, a soft Fellini-esque hat atop his elegant head; and, more recently, Esa-Pekka Salonen, his sweetly perfect face tilted skyward like an archangel’s, a baton in his raised hand.

But all that has changed.

In today’s advertising arena, we see poster art of a percussionist leaning toward us over his kettle drum, and, yes, he’s wearing a plaid shirt and jeans. “I’m like you,” the picture is saying. “Not some rarefied ‘other.’ ”

Across the country, in fact, symphony orchestras are on an outreach kick -- searching for a sense of community with a wider public, hoping to lure into the concert hall a new generation to replace the graying heads who often subscribe as a social ritual, trying to de-emphasize the notion of the classical audience as an upper-class private club.

Enter “Casual Fridays,” a Philharmonic concert series that began in 2003 when Walt Disney Concert Hall opened. Like similar initiatives undertaken by other U.S. orchestras that have discovered the benefits of popularizing their commodity, the series’ stock in trade includes programs shorter than regular subscription concerts; musicians dressed not in formalwear but in mufti; personal remarks delivered from the stage by conductors and players; and post-concert meet-and-greet receptions.

Says Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic Assn.'s president: “The key idea is to scrape away all these layers of tradition. That’s how we convince people to take the risk of attending. We must make our music events accessible. Is it OK to wear flip-flops? Of course. And you won’t even look different from the orchestra players. Once an audience is comfortable, it can begin to discover the music.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, the onetime L.A. Phil principal guest conductor now at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, concurs.

“What we’ve been needing to do,” says Tilson Thomas, whose orchestra first cast its players as ordinary mortals 13 years ago, “is to break down that sense of iconic remoteness associated with classical music in every possible way.” In other words, “try to make something that’s exclusive -- the music -- inclusive.”

Across the board, orchestra administrators and conductors seem to agree that no matter how transporting Beethoven and Mahler may be, there is a certain intimidation factor that many would-be music lovers sense in the realm of concert formality. After all, concertgoers supposedly must dress according to a certain code and applaud only at specified times.

By contrast, says Russell Jones, marketing vice president at the League of American Orchestras, “these ‘cocktail concerts’ are very popular, very attractive events.” He adds that in urban centers, “their appeal is to the after-work downtown population that may want to hear a little music and have a drink before heading home.”

San Francisco, for example, calls its series “6.5" -- not after a reading on the Richter scale but after the concerts’ 6:30 p.m. starting time. The Los Angeles Philharmonic spreads its net beyond downtowners, so -- out of deference to the freeway crawl -- it begins “Casual Fridays” at its concerts’ regular starting time, 8 p.m. And, says the orchestra, the six “Casual Fridays” so far this season have drawn an average of 2,000 attendees, up 7% over last year. When music director-designate Gustavo Dudamel headlined the last one, three weeks ago, Disney Hall was sold out.

Unlike the San Francisco musicians, who have not been persuaded to adopt informal attire, the L.A. players can create a surprisingly uncoordinated picture. Fashionistas would probably not approve of the motley look these 100 men and women create together onstage.

Violinist Mitchell Newman, now in his 21st year with the Philharmonic, brings up a deeper point, though.

“What’s casual is really not the dress,” he says. “It’s the talking, the fact that audiences can see us as human beings. We speak to them from the stage” -- at each concert some player offers a capsule autobiography or a brief humorous anecdote -- “but we also mingle with them afterward and share a glass of wine.”

Some concertgoers may wonder whether gaining a personal story is worth losing an important piece from the program that audiences hear on other nights -- especially if the story is merely a pleasant account of “how I joined the orchestra.”

On the other hand, departing music director Salonen, who will oversee this season’s concluding “Casual Fridays” this week and May 30, has offered intriguing self-revelations that bear on the idea of being one with the players, not an authority figure. Thus he’s in sync with the “kumbaya” attitude of these community concerts.

“I’m no longer using a baton,” he explained in a witty, self-mocking story from the stage in early 2006, “because I want to be a colleague, not a policeman.” (That pledge, by the way, went by the boards.)

And just being privy to such little progress reports has great appeal to audiences, says violinist Newman. He has only one caveat: “Do not bore.”