function get_footer() { echo "test"; } February 21, 2006

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A Guide to the
Bay Area's Classical
Music Scene
February 21-March 6

By Janos Gereben,
Mickey Butts, and
Michelle Dulak Thomson



Gold Mountain in Gold Country ...
David Babbitt
in Memoriam ...
Babbling Libretti ...
And More

By Janos Gereben



Honing Their Skills

By Scott MacClelland

Opera San José
La bohème


Never Sitting Still

By Jules Langert



A Striking Lescaut

By Janos Gereben

West Bay Opera
Manon Lescaut


Virtuosically Human

By Michelle Dulak Thomson

Pacifica Quartet


Ukrainian-Style Bravura

By Heuwell Tircuit

Guzik Foundation
Award Winners
Dinara Nadzhafova
Ilya Petrov


Two for the Show

By Rebekah Ahrendt

Ensemble Galatea


Nuanced Beauties

By Anna Carol Dudley

Christine Brandes
Laura Dahl

An early-18th-century horn

Mickey Butts, Executive Director and Publisher

SFCV welcomes letters to the editors. Voice your opinion
about what you've read in SFCV by e-mailing
We'll publish the best next week in the Listeners' Box.

The (High) Price of Music

By Lisa Hirsch

Often in life, you get what you pay for. But these days, with the ticket price for one of the best seats at the Opera approaching the cost of dinner for two downstairs at Chez Panisse, even the most affluent audience member may begin to blanch at the ever-rising price of admission.

Ticket pricing has been a hot topic of discussion recently among arts management professionals, and among journalists and bloggers who cover the classical music scene. Consultant Drew McManus has discussed the topic extensively at his blog, Adaptistration, where a search on "ticket prices" will retrieve numerous postings and links to newspaper articles and other blogs. Greg Sandow has discussed the cost of concerts and what it means for the future of classical music at his ArtsJournal blog, as has Andrew Taylor at The Artful Manager. Among other things, there's concern over the role of high ticket prices in the declining interest in classical music and the difficulty of attracting younger audience members.

One visible manifestation of the declining audience for classical music is the fact that seats too often go unsold around the country (60 percent to 65 percent is the average attendance at most orchestras, according to McManus). Here at home, as reported in SFCV, the San Francisco Symphony held a "sale" in January with rock-bottom prices of $25 and $50 — to "honor the 25th anniversary of Davies Symphony Hall." The sale generated considerable attention and certainly made the concerts financially accessible to more audience members.

There's no denying that high ticket prices influence whether people buy single tickets or subscriptions. In 2004, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced new subscription prices that raised the cost by 15 percent overall (much more than the usual 3 percent to 4 percent annual increase), but increased second-balcony seats by 80 percent. Within two weeks, the BSO received 35 subscription cancellations and 200 letters; it quickly adjusted prices downward for 1,400 subscribers most affected by the increases.

Prices around the Bay

To see where things stand in the Bay Area, let's look at some cold, hard numbers. A survey of single-ticket ticket prices at a few representative organizations is illustrative. Keep in mind that season subscriptions usually result in significantly lower per-ticket prices:

If you frequent concerts these days, you probably won't be surprised by such numbers. But what are the prices like around the country? Orchestra ticket prices are fairly uniform: The Los Angeles Philharmonic costs $15 to $129 at home in Disney Hall (the high end was significantly cheaper when they visited San Francisco recently). Boston Symphony Orchestra tickets range from $28 to $108. The New York Philharmonic costs $26 to $92. At Carnegie Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra costs $25 to $99, while the Vienna Philharmonic is a pricey $58 to $195.

Elsewhere, opera prices are a bit more varied at the major companies: Metropolitan Opera tickets start at $42 for the Family Circle, and go as high as $320 for center parterre boxes. At Chicago Lyric Opera, the low end is $30 and the high is $175.

The stated price is not always the final price, of course. Don't forget those pesky per-order surcharges, often called "convenience fees." They're sometimes charged for the "convenience" of phone orders, but are often added for Web purchases, even though online sales cost presenters much less to administer. These surcharges range from no fee (Soli Deo Gloria) to the outrageous $8 charged by S.F. Ballet and $9 charged by the S.F. Symphony. (The L.A. Philharmonic uses Ticketmaster for Web sales, and Ticketmaster adds a fee on top of a $9 surcharge. A test purchase of one ticket resulted in an additional Ticketmaster fee of $4.10, for a total of $13.10.)

Fairness in pricing?

Are these prices unreasonable? Your reaction might depend on what you compare the prices to. Tickets for most concerts in the Bay Area are undeniably higher than renting a DVD ($3) or attending a first-run film ($10). They're in the same price range as a ticket to the Oakland Raiders ($26 to $101). Or compare them to rock concerts for big-name acts: The Rolling Stones charged from $60 to $450 for seats at a concert in Inglewood, California, making a box seat at the Opera look like a bargain. Coldplay tickets run $40 to $80 in Chicago, while Sheryl Crow will set you back $16 to $300 in Houston.

Some observers feel that busy audiences today are less willing than in the past to commit to a subscription and the planning ahead it entails. That may well be true, given the range of entertainment and arts events in competition for our attention. But a patron who lives out of town, or who works in Contra Costa County, may not be able to subscribe to the San Francisco Symphony and isn't in a position to walk into Davies and buy in advance from the box office. Buying the day of the show may be too uncertain to justify a trip into the city. For others, the stated ticket price may be perfectly reasonable, but a $9 fee on top of an already high ticket may begin to look like highway robbery.

While we won't decide in this article whether prices and surcharges are too high or low for your individual tax bracket, we will shed a little light on the economics behind the price of that simple-looking ticket stub. As in all things in life, there's probably a reason why you pay what you do.

The spectrum from amateur to professional

It's a truism in the classical music business that income from ticket sales rarely covers more than 50 percent of the cost of putting on a performance, and our look at some representative Bay Area groups supports that. Given this fact, every organization, regardless of its size or prestige, has to do a lot of fundraising just to break even.

But how those prices are determined can still be a mystery to the concert-going public. To learn what goes into a ticket price, let's start with the musical side of things.

For amateur choruses, the musical costs will be comparatively low, because the chorus itself isn't paid. Soli Deo Gloria, which gives three sets of concerts each year and has 35 to 45 members for any given concert, pays its conductor about $9,000 per year. A particular program may require hiring an orchestra of freelance musicians for a rehearsal and two to three concerts, which can cost $10,000 or more, even if it's a small orchestra. A program of unaccompanied music, or one requiring only a pianist, is less costly to present. If a chorus needs a rehearsal pianist, that can run $2,500 or more per season, depending on the length and complexity of the repertory and the number of rehearsals.

Berkeley Opera, which stages consistently interesting opera performances on something less than a shoestring, spent about $34,000 on solo singers (its chorus consists of volunteers) and $43,000 on orchestral musicians during the company's 2003 tax year. Music rental for the year ran about $4,000, and the music staff received $9,200. Additionally, the drama staff, presumably directors, received a total of $12,000. You can't tell from the company's 990 tax return, a public document, how much Artistic Director Jonathan Khuner was paid. (Figures cited in this article are largely from the most recent 990 I could find for a particular organization; figures for the San Francisco Opera are from the financial statement for the year ending July 31, 2005.)

At the other end of the musical spectrum are financial behemoths such as the San Francisco Symphony and San Francisco Opera. Donald Runnicles, the highest-paid member of the Opera's musical staff, makes nearly $600,000, while concertmaster Kay Stern is paid about $126,000 per year. Orchestral salaries for the year were $8,865,444. Members of the chorus and ballet earned a total of $4,572,851. Payments to solo singers, conductors other than Runnicles, directors, and designers ran $7,282,228.

Across the street at Davies, it's more difficult to determine the total cost of orchestra salaries and fees for guest conductors and soloists. The 990 format allows the organization to report orchestra salaries in a category that also includes administrative and other salaries. Fees for guest conductors and soloists appear to be subsumed in a general category covering program expenses. Still, given the number of musicians and a base salary at or exceeding $105,000 per musican, the total expenditure is likely to exceed $12 million annually. (That doesn't include benefit and pension costs, of course. And the 990 used is for the Symphony's 2003 tax year and does not reflect current base pay.) Some of the musicians make well over the minimum, such as concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, at just over $345,000, and principal oboist William Bennett, at about $187,000.

Far and away the highest-paid entity is the independent contractor listed on the 990 as one MTT Inc., the compensation for which is $1,582,460. The second-highest entity is Columbia Artists Management Inc. (CAMI) at $958,250, which represent fees the artist representative charges for SFS soloists, but not the fees paid to the artists themselves.

Add production and administrative costs

If you're running an opera company, though, your production expenses go far beyond paying the musicians who are on stage and in the pit. Opera, with all of its grandeur, costumes, and sets, involves many people you never see, whose names don't make it into the programs. They're the staff members who build sets or get them on and off stage, run the lighting system, sew and fit costumes, dress or make up the stars and chorus. At San Francisco Opera, "scenery, properties, stagehands, and technical staff" make up the biggest line item on the "Production and Artistic Expenses" page of the financial statement, at $11,397,561. Some individuals make large salaries: Technical carpenter Robert Urban earns $155,000 and master audio engineer Max Christensen makes $133,000. Costumes, wardrobe, wigs, and makeup cost $3,512,980.

Without sets, lighting, costumes, and props, though, we'd be listening to concert opera, and the physical side of a new production can cost millions. San Francisco Opera reportedly spent about $4 million on Louise, for example, and Seattle Opera's magnificent Ring cycle cost more than $16 million. Berkeley Opera, though, spent $7,565 on sets, $3,637 on lighting, $3,468 on costumes, $3,454 for props, and $11 (yes, eleven dollars) on wigs and makeup, for a grand total of $18,135, which might pay one San Francisco Opera soloist for a couple of performances.

And there's another side to putting on classical music performances: the cost of administration. This doesn't just include the salaries of top administrators and their staffs, such as the Opera's David Gockley (whose predecessor Pamela Rosenberg made about $400,000) and the Symphony's Brent Assink ($357,663). Large organizations have large costs for marketing and fundraising. These expenses include advertising, fees to advertising agencies, printing and postage costs for season prospectuses and other marketing materials, and staff salaries. For example, the Symphony's Web page lists 28 administrators between the development and marketing/sales departments, and only 13 in the artistic planning and education programs/Youth Orchestra departments. The cost of fundraising is listed on the 990 as about $3.5 million.

Why spend so much money on fundraising? Because the San Francisco Symphony's annual ticket revenue amounted to about $21.5 million and overall annual expenses came in at about $52 million. Now, the Symphony has sources of income beyond ticket sales and donations: more than $2.8 million from dividends and interest on securities, and more than $8.4 million from the sale of assets (presumably income from the sale of stock or other financial investments). That still leaves an enormous gap to be filled, and the gap between ticket sales and expenses is a significant one for all classical music organizations, regardless of size. Soli Deo Gloria, with a budget of $40,000 annually, gets less than half its revenue from ticket sales, just like the giants. There's very little government support for the arts in the United States, so every organization hustles as best it can to raise funds.

What's the alternative?

It's easy to see a lot of great classical music in the Bay Area without spending a lot of money, however. In general, you will be able to hear the music well from the lower-priced seats in the house, so it's reasonable to economize by buying less-expensive tickets. There are many excellent choruses (amateur, semi-pro, and professional) whose concerts cost no more than $20 to $30 per seat for general admission. Most organizations make discounts available for seniors and students. Same-day rush seats are available from many organizations, too. San Francisco Opera has $15 rushes for students, $30 for seniors and military personnel, plus $10 to $15 for standing-room tickets. Berkeley Opera offers side seats for $16 one hour before the performance. San Francisco Symphony's center terrace seats are sold for $15 to $20 two hours before the performance; additionally, student rushes may be available for $20. (Call the organization's box office the day of the performance to ask about the availability of rush tickets.)

Some organizations simply feature low prices: For example, Old First Church in San Francisco offers a well-programmed series, Old First Concerts, featuring excellent local and visiting musicians for the bargain price of $15 general admission and $12 seniors/students. University and conservatory music departments often have inexpensive or free concerts given by faculty members and students. (Next week's Music News will list additional tips to economize your musical dollar.)

So where does this leave us? An overview article such as this can't cover every organization or every facet of how ticket prices are determined. A series of articles would be needed to delve deeper into the topic. But our initial examination has revealed that those seemingly high ticket prices might not be so high after all: If ticket prices were required to cover every expense of programming classical music, they'd be twice as high as they are, in the aggregate.

Ticket prices also don't appear to be significantly out of line with what's charged to see a rock band, and the low end of many ticket scales delivers great value for the price. Whether you get what you pay for at any particular price point is another question, of course. A box at the Opera gets you some privacy, a great view, and a lot more leg room than you can find elsewhere in the War Memorial Opera House. But you'll be able to hear perfectly well in that $42 balcony seat, too.

(Lisa Hirsch is a technical writer who studied music at Brandeis and SUNY/Stony Brook.)


Do you have thoughts about ticket prices? Voice your opinion about what you've read in SFCV by e-mailing We'll publish the best next week in the Listeners' Box.

©2006 Lisa Hirsch, all rights reserved


SFCV is a not-for-profit enterprise supported by foundation grants and individual contributions. If you enjoy what you find here and want to see our work continue, please consider making a contribution. By virtue of a generous matching grant, it will be doubled. Your contribution (tax-deductible) may be made by credit card by clicking here, or by a check made out to San Francisco Classical Voice and sent to the San Francisco Foundation CIF, (San Francisco Classical Voice account), 225 Bush St. # 500, San Francisco, CA 94104.

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From September 1, 1998 to September 13, 2005, SFCV has published, in addition to the Music News, feature pieces, and weekly editorials, 2,182 reviews of Bay Area performances by: 52 symphony orchestras (459 reviews), 89 chamber groups (267), 36 new-music ensembles and programs (234), 39 opera companies (306), 29 choral groups (133), 15 music festivals (101), 33 early-music ensembles (170), 24 chamber orchestras (88), 6 musical theater groups (14), as well as numerous world music groups (14), recital presenters (374), youth music ensembles (10), and other organizations (12).


Mickey Butts, Executive Director and Publisher
Michelle Dulak Thomson, Editor
Richard Thomas, Associate Editor


We welcome commentary, suggestions, and reactions to anything you see on this site. Simply click on to send your response by e-mail. Unless permission is specifically not granted, letters sent to this address may be used in the Listeners' Box. Letters may be edited for length, clarity, grammar, and style.

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