EDITORIAL: Symphony edict is tone-deaf

April 20, 2013

Krzysztof Urbanski is undoubtedly touched by genius. The 30-year-old music director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra conducts with a sensitivity to rhythm and expression that imbues works like Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” with startling vitality and chest-thumping soul.

That same sensitivity and ability to navigate the complex demands of music making would be appreciated off the podium, as well. Urbanski’s push this season to clear patrons from the Hilbert Circle Theater stage for his concerts is sadly tone-deaf.

For decades, ISO patrons have sat in the terrace above the stage, with an aerial view of the orchestra and the interplay between musicians and conductor. Close to 50 terrace seats are typically available for classical concerts. Dozens of patrons enjoy this perch for its clear acoustics and close proximity to the alchemy of orchestral music.

In Urbanski’s second season with the ISO, leadership has honored his wishes to clear those seats during his concerts. After buying tickets for the current season, 45 terrace subscribers learned in October that Urbanski considered their presence too distracting. Many were upset. The conductor graciously met with them in person to hear their objections, but held firm. (The ISO offered them terrific seats in exchange, and welcomed them back to the terrace for concerts by guest conductors.)

Urbanski and symphony leaders should reconsider. Displacing passionate paying customers who have found a powerful way to experience the symphony runs absolutely counter to the approach ISO should be taking to preserve and grow its audience.

The orchestra, like virtually all its brethren across the United States, is fighting for its financial survival as audiences and donor bases dwindle. The ISO has laid off employees and cut salaries. It locked out its musicians last year, canceling concerts during labor negotiations. Painful sacrifices have been made across the board.

In this matter, Urbanski must sacrifice, as well. He says patrons in his peripheral vision onstage divert his focus, and that the sound balance is better out in the main hall. But to rope off 50 of the closest seats in the house during concerts featuring your star attraction is absurd, as is presuming to know how those avid fans should best hear the music.

And it’s bad business. All arts organizations must strike a balance between artistic decisions and financial concerns, but to take away a perk that your subscribers have long enjoyed is simply terrible customer service.

ISO leaders know that to widen their base they must improve access to the orchestra, not limit it. They need to encourage more intimate connections with patrons, not hold them at arm’s length. They should be open to varying the experience, not prescribing it.

Searching for a new music director, the ISO found a young idealist with a commitment to quality and the courage to stick to his guns. In this situation, Urbanski should allow those who want it an even closer perspective on his budding genius.•

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