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Classical Bargains: The $20 Challenge

April 21, 2009

Economic times are tough these days, for sure. But watching expenses doesn’t necessarily mean giving up one of the finer pleasures of life: music performed live. Research suggests that listening to music has a beneficial effect on the listener, even stimulating the release of serotonin, which leads to a sense of well-being. So, if you like classical music, it makes sense to keep reading, especially if you’re a little agitated by current events. Perhaps you even have a bit more time for concerts while you’re “in-between opportunities.” With this in mind, SFCV set out to discover just how affordable classical music really is in the Bay Area.

For the purposes of this article, we investigated single-ticket prices for adults, looking for concerts priced at or under $20. All presenters have good deals for full-time students with a valid I.D., as well as senior discounts that can trim up to 50 percent off regular prices. Also, subscribers always get a cheaper per-concert price, as do groups of 10 or more in many cases. So, without diminishing the work of the fine groups who charge more to cover the high costs of presenting music, we launched the $20 classical challenge.

Chamber music lovers should try Salon at the Rex, a series of eight concerts at the Hotel Rex conceived by top-notch presenter San Francisco Performances. The intimate 75-seat venue and shorter concerts make it possible to keep the price at $20. Triad, a trio of San Francisco Symphony/San Francisco Opera Orchestra musicians, performs Wednesday, May 6, at 6:30 p.m. Across the bay in Berkeley, Cal Performances, which presents both solo and chamber music, offers rush tickets for $20 to the general public, but not until two hours before the show. Sure bets for affordable chamber music happen to be the smaller series.

Great Music Off the Beaten PathOld First Concerts charges $15 per ticket to hear underrecognized artists, as well as a few established ones, such as the Ives Quartet on May 29, at 8:00 p.m. At the Noe Valley Chamber Music series, patrons can enjoy groups like the Cypress String Quartet, the San Francisco Piano Quartet, and others for $18. The acclaimed contemporary chamber music group Earplay puts on a good show for $20. Wonderful solo and chamber music by visiting artists and faculty is on offer at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for $20; student concerts are free.

The San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Simon since 2002, is a real gem, with absolutely free concerts by an ensemble comprising outstanding area freelancers and steady members of the area’s most respected ensembles. The group operates on a membership model, asking for contributions of $50 for an individual or $95 for a family per year. They earned praise in Scott Foglesong’s Examiner blog on a similar subject. Foglesong also encouraged folks to seek open rehearsals. San Francisco Symphony, for example, occasionally offers open rehearsals on Wednesday mornings at 10:00 for $20 per ticket.

Moving on to the larger symphonic experience, it appears, from a cursory review of the regional orchestras, that you can hear excellent concerts seated in the lower-priced auditorium sections for under $20 — among them the Oakland East Bay Symphony, Santa Rosa Symphony, Stockton Symphony, and Monterey Symphony. And don’t miss the experience of hearing the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall for $20 if you are able to grab an adult rush ticket — an advantage offered by most others to students and seniors only.

“We have a terrific Rush ticket hotline, giving updated information on availability each day at (415) 503-5577,” said Nan Keeton, the Symphony’s new director of marketing, communications, and external affairs. She also described a three-concert Youth Orchestra and a three-concert Organ Series in the 2009-2010 season, with subscriptions starting at $14 per ticket. For an operation that must pay a fortune each month in its PG&E bill alone, these types of discounts are commendable. And SFS is known for Adventures in Music, its free educational concerts to some 22,000 elementary school children in San Francisco annually.

Opera From the Nosebleed SeatsWhat about opera, the grande dame and most expensive of all the musical arts to present? You would be surprised: The San Francisco Opera sells tickets in the side, top balcony for just $15 during the week, $20 on the weekend (bring your opera glasses). Standing-room tickets are just $10. Berkeley Opera, with the word affordable in its mission statement, offers side seats with a partially obstructed view for $20 one hour before curtain on the day of performance. The budget-minded voice aficionado should also consider the Schwabacher Debut Recitals, which provide a chance to hear the next Thomas Hampson or Anna Netrebko from the S.F. Opera Center’s training programs for $20.

The smaller opera companies could not meet our $20 challenge, most likely due to the high overhead, while lacking the advantage of economy of scale, and not having the large donor base of generous, wealthy patrons who enable San Francisco Opera’s low-price program. But, on the other hand, the best seats in the house at the smaller opera companies’ performances are often within reach. Many of these companies have a single general admission price, which means that you can reserve two on the aisle, front and center, for half (or less than half) of what major companies charge for top seats.

The summer brings numerous free concert opportunities, some of which have not yet been announced (but watch SFCV Music News for early warning). S.F. Opera presents its fifth, free, live simulcast since David Gockley took the helm as general director: Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, starring Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, performed on Friday, June 5, at 8 p.m. at AT&T Park. Said Gockley of the $200,000 effort: “It’s a way to reach out and touch people in ways that will encourage them to come to a live performance and become lifelong operagoers. The arts organizations should use every occasion possible to demonstrate that they are not elitist, but populist and accessible.” Save your money for garlic fries and beer. Webcore Builders and others are providing generous corporate support.

Stern Grove announces its 72nd season of free outdoor concerts on May 1, a lineup that usually includes a classical choice or two among world, jazz, and pop music. The S.F. Symphony will soon announce two free summer concerts — stay tuned. The 2009 Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, running May 2 through October 31, presents some classical in addition to world and jazz music. Plan on attending the Sunday, July 12, Schwabacher Summer Concert where you’ll hear the aforementioned singers from the Merola Opera Program perform semistaged, extended excerpts from opera favorites.

Entertainment is a costly business. A ticket to pop singer Britney Spears at the Oakland Oracle Arena this month will set you back $37.75 to $150. All but bleacher seats to the San Francisco Giants baseball games run $35 to $100. Yet while covering overhead and expenses is a constant worry for all arts organizations, classical presenters manage to think of their audience’s pocketbooks. Lessons learned from SFCV’s $20 classical challenge: If you’re willing to be flexible and wait for rush tickets, or explore some slightly lesser-known venues and artists, fine music won’t cost you an arm and a leg — and you might be delighted with what and whom you discover.

Lisa Petrie is a writer and specialist in marketing and public relations for arts and education organizations. She earned a DMA in flute performance from SUNY, Stony Brook, and is the mother of two musical kids. Lisa was the Content Manager for the Kids and Families section of San Francisco Classical Voice during 2011.

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