William Brittelle sat in his balcony perch in Hilbert Circle Theatre early this month and watched the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra perform the premiere of his musical interpretation of a trek through Death Valley.
Brittelle’s composition, “Dunes,” starts with a jolting clash that conjures images of the omnipresence of the desert before the piece moves into trembling wails from the string section that depict the “frighteningly strange” ambience of the arid desolation he visited.
The piece—a far cry in styles from the Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Beethoven classical numbers later that evening—was the ISO’s first under a new partnership with New Amsterdam Records, a label that prides itself on not fitting into traditional niches.
Attendance during the two-night debut suggests a lot of promotion work remains to be done. About half the seats of the 1,781-seat Hilbert were vacant during the performance.
The ISO hopes that occasionally featuring classically trained artists who stray from traditional symphony conventions will tap new audiences and fill empty seats.
The organization just raised $5 million by a Feb. 3 deadline, an achievement that put it on stronger financial footing and cleared the way for five-year contracts with performers to kick in. But the ISO’s long-term viability also hinges on attracting new fans, people who don’t fit within traditional symphony demographics.
“The idea is that we attract another, new audience,” said Beth Outland, the ISO’s vice president of community engagement and strategic innovation. “Specifically, it’s about attracting an audience with an entirely different background in music.”
New Am, a subsidiary of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based not-for-profit New Amsterdam Presents, represents dozens of musicians and composers with backgrounds ranging from chamber string ensembles to avant garde noise rock bands.
The ISO will periodically feature the label’s artists over the next two years as a way to diversify its offerings beyond standards such as Bach or Bernstein.
Outland said the goal is to address one question: “What is the role of the orchestra in a contemporary society?”
Brittelle, a co-director for New Am, described the almost 50 artists and composers his label represents as without genre.
“There’s kind of a void or gap between different genres of music. And we’re kind of like this blob that dropped in there, and [we’re] finding these different crevices where we can be useful,” Brittelle said minutes before the ISO’s musicians went on stage to perform his composition.
“We spend a lot of time deciding what iTunes page our music has to go on because it’s usually not an obvious choice.”
ISO officials, like those of many arts organizations, are stretching their boundaries to try to broaden their appeal beyond the older, core audience.
Doing so should not only boost attendance, but also broaden the base of potential contributors. Now that the ISO has successfully raised $5 million in just three months, it is kicking off efforts to roughly double fundraising over the next five years.
About 44 percent of the ISO’s revenue in fiscal 2011-2012 came from its endowment. The draw of 13 percent, or $11.4 million, was almost triple the recommended rate of 5 percent.
Contributions, meanwhile, were 26 percent of revenue and earned income 30 percent.
Longer term, the ISO wants those three sources of funding to represent about one-third each.
That means it needs to find a way to boost ticket sales for the earned revenue leg, which is where New Am comes in.
The ISO and New Am are still hashing out terms of their partnership, including the number of performances over the next two years.
Dates will largely depend on the New Am artists’ touring schedules and the set-up of the rest of ISO’s season. New Am will both play with the ISO musicians and solo.
The first step will be introducing New Am’s musical styles to the Indianapolis market.
New Am will boost familiarity by sending its artists to Indianapolis to speak and to perform in small venues around the city.
“I think one of the main objectives is really developing a presence in the community,” he said. “It can be off-putting to encounter something where you don’t have your bearings. So it’s our job to give people their bearings or at least a chance to get their bearings.”
Chicago-based consultant Drew McManus said the increasing popularity of orchestras partnering with contemporary artists has helped them maintain relevance in modern culture.
But he said orchestras need to watch ticket sales to make sure they are not turning away regulars by not performing enough of the classics and fan favorites, McManus said.
“Nothing can kill the new effort than to have a 60-percent attendance rate,” he said. “That’s going to suck a lot of energy out of the room.”•