Band on the Run

New players. New hall. New problems. Old audience. And as the Philadelphia Orchestra reaches for solutions, will it lose all that’s made it great?

ON THE 7TH of this month, go down to Dave and Buster’s, Philadelphia’s adult romper room on the Delaware, and you’ll see a private party with the same kind of people you see there every night. It’ll be a neatly, but not formally, dressed crowd of 20somethings out of school just long enough to have lost the saucer-eyed, eager-to-please look. They’ll be shooting pool, ogling the help, monkeying with the virtual-reality games.

Take a guess: a bunch of Sigma Chi thicknecks and their dates replaying worn rituals? A posse of entry-level CIGNA clerks readying themselves for a night of no-holds-barred karaoke? No, neither. Believe it or not, the kids who will make up this crowd are cultural guardians (some say paramedics), called upon to preserve their city’s most wondrous treasure, the Philadelphia Orchestra. They may not yet understand their calling; they just want to party.

The orchestra’s marketing experts, unfazed by the foggy weight of tradition, granite-faced dignity and myth that envelops their 95-year-old client, have boldly decided that Dave and Buster’s — rather than talk of "high art" — is the key to the hearts and minds of young Philadelphians. "We need to reach out any way we can," says the orchestra’s president, Joe Kluger, who helps mastermind such efforts to lower the median age of the organization’s subscribers — now between 55 and 60 and increasingly suburban. "And we need to approach the people who will make up the orchestra’s future lifeblood on their own terms." Depending on how you look at it, such a strategy can be seen as desperate, clever or both.

This month’s party will be the first of several (others will be at the White Dog Cafe and some players to be named) thrown in conjunction with orchestra concerts. It’s part of a package aimed at Philly’s youth, which the marketing mavens have appropriately dubbed ClassiX Live — a nod, perhaps, to Douglas Coupland’s meaningless moniker "Generation X."

The $25 deal aims to achieve the most difficult of tasks — that of convincing people on the brink of adulthood that they want to take on their parents’ habits. Like the New York Philharmonic’s informal rush-hour concerts, the four X events — two fewer than in any previous orchestra package — don’t demand much of a commitment. (Drifting, disaffected Xers hate the C-word.)

The juxtaposition of Dave and Buster’s and the Philadelphia Orchestra may seem a bit odd. It may also be fully self-aware. In recent years, classical music has come to be seen as hoary, re-creative art with a repertoire reflecting a "museum mentality," warns Time critic Michael Walsh — a mentality that, by deifying performers and ignoring composers, offers nothing new. Or, as Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind: "Classical music is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archaeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand" — like, say, grunge rock or rap.