TAFTO 2010 Contribution: Brian Wise

Why limit TAFTO to friends? Why not Take A Date to the Orchestra (TADTO) or perhaps Take More-Than-a-Friend to the Orchestra (TMTAFTO?). Freelance music journalist and WNYC Radio producer Brian Wise was wondering the same thing and being the proactive producer-type of guy that he is, decided to do something about it. His results are infinitely better than reality television and chocked full of useful feedback to the question “What steps could an orchestra take to reach the culturally curious young couple who might otherwise choose a museum as a date venue?” ~ Drew McManus

Do Orchestra Concerts make for good Dates?

In New York City, where a whopping one in three homes contains a single dweller, there are a lot of single people looking to meet, and presumably, to go out on dates. While it is not a place lacking in suitable date options, one thing remains consistent: in over a decade of attending orchestra concerts here, I’ve noticed that the number of young couples out for a night at the concert hall is startlingly low.

Indeed, it was with some trepidation that I considered an orchestra date in preparing my contribution for Take a Friend to the Orchestra month. One never wants to make a social faux pas, even in the name of journalistic inquiry. But I wanted to resolve a nagging question: do orchestras routinely undersell their worthiness as date venues? If “music is love in search of a word,” to quote the French novelist Collete, what can orchestras do to better position themselves for a romantic night on the town?

Certainly, the recording industry has recognized classical music’s sex appeal, with albums like “Classical Candlelight” and “99 Most Essential Romantic Masterpieces” dotting the iTunes classical chart. And relationship experts often tout concerts as surefire date options. In her book Dating for Dummies, Dr. Joy Brown clinically observes how “a concert lets you relate to each other while the music plays, or in the midst of a break.” In the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Dating author Judith Kuriansky offers this tidbit: “If you’ve ever been to the opera, symphony, a rock concert, or karaoke or piano bar, you know that music brings people together. Also, chemicals flow in the body that psychologically create a feeling of relaxation or excitation, making sure you are more open to falling in love.”

Fair enough. For the more bookish and reserved among us, a concert is an activity that lets someone else do the entertaining for two hours.

For the present experiment, my concert-going companion and I had been out only once before for drinks at an Upper West Side wine bar. I deemed it a modest success, enough to warrant a second date. Fortunately, I had an extra ticket to a New York Philharmonic concert featuring the violinist Joshua Bell and because she enjoyed classical music, it wasn’t a major risk on my part (a relationship expert might deduct points here for providing a better-looking, wealthier, and more talented guy for my date to gaze upon, but that’s for another column). Tonight, I had a pair of prime press seats: Row X, Seats 1 and 2. This ought to be impressive, I figured.

We met near the recently restored fountain at Lincoln Center Plaza. The unusually balmy, early spring evening was refreshing after a particularly punishing Northeast winter. Then we entered Avery Fisher Hall. A crush of stressed-out patrons pushed through the congested lobby like cattle to the ushers with ticket scanners. There, the scanners weren’t working properly and some ticket-holders were being sent back to the box office. There was also the obligatory security bag check jamming up the process (does anyone really think a terrorist is going to target the Philharmonic?). Then came the effort to find a Playbill, by which time it started to feel like the TSA screening at LaGuardia.

Once we settled into our seats, there were other issues any would-be Casanova would have to contend with. During the first piece, a woman to our left launched into an uncontrollable coughing fit, which led to the familiar sequence of events: the painfully slow unwrapping of the cellophane-covered hard candy, the inevitable glares and shushes from fellow patrons, and so forth. Surrounding us were people mostly our parents’ age – and many who were older. Some nodded off during the Brahms Fourth Symphony on the second half. Not exactly a way to inflame the passions.

My date, a Juilliard graduate in piano performance, sat through the entire two-hour program without any obvious signs of boredom and she later expressed how much she enjoyed Bell’s performance in particular. Granted, she had home court advantage. A few rows down and to our right, another date was underway, and the warning signs were much clearer. At several points the young couple, probably in their early 30s, seemed ill at ease, whether clapping in the “wrong” places or almost tripping down in the isle in their ill-fitted formal wear and uncomfortable shoes. While I knew nothing about what brought them here, it struck me that they were not fully enjoying themselves or feeling at ease.

If that is the case, I thought, would they be happier at a movie, a restaurant or perhaps a museum? After all, museums have adjusted their programming to the changing lifestyles and tastes of younger patrons, with later hours and special events to create casual, date-friendly environments. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta offers the occasional “Single Mingle,” with wine tasting and such innocuous activities as scavenger hunts and art-themed bingo. The Minneapolis Institute of Art puts on Romantic Third Thursdays. The series includes gimmicks such as speed-dating and mini-French lessons. Here in New York, several museums stay open into the evening at least one night a week and attract huge crowds.

So what steps could an orchestra possibly take to reach the culturally curious young couple who might otherwise choose a museum as a date venue? A few suggestions:

  • Allow patrons to bring drinks to their seats. If moviegoers can eat popcorn and soda, why not let a couple enjoy a glass of merlot during a performance.
  • To that point, make the concession areas in the lobbies more user-friendly. Many concession stands are drab, utilitarian affairs, geared to high volume turnover rather than fostering a fun and relaxed social environment. Consider some themed cocktails that match the program. Turn down the lighting and set up a few strategically placed low-slung sofas for couples to hang out on.
  • On stage, ditch the tuxedos and formal gowns. Yes, these Victorian holdovers might inspire images of steamy Edith Wharton novels among a few imaginative concert-goers. But to many young couples, tuxes connote stuffiness while doing little to enhance the music itself.
  • Beef up ancillary activities. Keep the lobby open afterwards and offer drink specials and hors d’oeuvres. Invite some orchestra members out to mingle with the crowd. Hire a DJ to spin remixes of orchestral pieces from the program before and after the formal concert.

A few orchestras have taken tentative steps in this latter direction including the Toronto Symphony with its after-party events and the Detroit Symphony with its sadly discontinued “8 Days in June” festival. But it requires orchestras at all levels to think much more creatively about the kind of experience they provide patrons, which goes far beyond repertoire, soloists, and whether or not there’s convenient parking nearby.

As for how my date experience went? A gentleman doesn’t “kiss and tell” but something tells me something more interactive would be the next step in a post-orchestra relationship. Bowling anyone?