Guilty Confession: The Symphony Calls Every Night and I Never Pick Up

Davies Hall

You call me every evening this time of year. You want to remind me in the nicest possible way that it’s time to renew my San Francisco Symphony subscription.

You want me to set aside five, seven, as many as 14 evenings stretching into the summer of next year when I know I’ll be free and in the mood to hear some great music. And put down at least several hundred, maybe more than a thousand, dollars when I do.

In an age of instant availability of almost everything you have become almost unbelievably demanding.

So I just don’t pick up.

Subscriptions used to secure tickets I couldn’t otherwise get. But the way audience trends have been going I’ve learned that I can pretty much decide to hear what I want on my own timing, and more often than not get a g0od-enough seat long after you’ve stopped calling me. And if I wait I often get offered seats at a hefty discount.

This crystallized for me one night last fall when for $20 (normal price: $75) I sat in a front-row, first-tier seat for an absolutely astonishing performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Talk about a bargain: A giant ensemble of about 125 players, with a thunder machine, a wind machine, a glockenspiel, double tympani, double harps and a whole bunch of brass onstage and off! All for a few bucks more than the latest lame 3-D blockbuster at the multiplex.

A great deal, including the glockenspiel.

Don’t get me wrong. I love you. The older I get the more I revel in the immediacy and power of a great piece of music performed live by people at the top of their game. I am incredibly grateful to live in a city with awesome performing arts institutions that have been working hard for more than a hundred years to compete with the best in the world.

Ticket sales in the 2011-12 season (per the most recent IRS form 990) generated about $30 million against $78 million in expenses. But with generous donors you continue to pay your musicians well and avoid the kinds of woes that have befallen orchestras in places like Philadelphia, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Honolulu. I appreciate what you’re up against. The situation hasn’t changed much since economists William Baumol and William Bowen outlined the economic plight of the arts in 1966.

That $20 concert ticket is a steal. Almost literally. It’s not quite early Napster, but I do feel guilty. And more than a little worried that we can’t keep carrying on this way.