Israel Philharmonic is trying to lure more listeners with Bach and brew

TEL AVIV — I was flabbergasted when I recently walked into Mann Auditorium here and momentarily thought I had entered a pub by mistake. For the first thing I saw were hundreds of people holding glasses of beer or standing at one of the improvised bars for a refill.

They weren't there just for the drink — it was simply an unorthodox prelude to a special concert of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Given within the framework of a series called "The Philharmonic in Jeans," it was part of the orchestra's ongoing effort to interest new groups in classical music.

This is vital to the orchestra as the average age of its audience is 57 — most of whom acquired their taste for Mozart, Beethoven and Bach before coming to this country.

Though the philharmonic still has twice the number of subscribers as most overseas orchestras, the total is down from a peak of 36,000 some 15 years ago to 27,000 today. Its management is not taking this decline lying down, and is making an aggressive attempt to attract more subscribers.

The philharmonic is focusing on two main target audiences, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and younger people. There are many music lovers among the former group — men and women who don't purchase tickets because they can't afford them. So the newcomers are being offered a 50 percent discount on tickets for the first five years after they arrive in the country.

As for the latter group, the philharmonic has designed two major strategies to attract younger people. One is to offer programs that are "lighter" than the conventional ones, featuring, for example, Broadway and movie melodies, or popular singers and instrumentalists. Far more radical, however, is "The Philharmonic in Jeans" series.

It begins with the beer. Then the audience goes inside the auditorium to hear the orchestra perform. On the night I was there it played Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances" opus 46 and Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake Suite," and was conducted by German maestro Wolfgang Sawallisch.

While the music was certainly conventional, the milieu was far from it. Multicolored lights kept flashing on and off while slides were projected on to the ceiling of the concert hall. They included portraits of Dvorak and Tchaikovsky, as well as a series of paintings — the relevance of which was not entirely clear to me.

In addition, explanations about the music and the composers were given by glamorous TV presenter Merav Michaeli, who spoke both at the beginning of the concert and between movements of the "Swan Lake Suite." She was aided by conductor Sawallish, an extraordinarily young 77-year-old who seemed to be having a great time.

Because a regular concert had been held earlier in the evening, this one started at 10:30 p.m. and concluded at midnight. But that wasn't the end of the proceedings. Afterward, in the lobby, there was dancing to the accompaniment of loud and decidedly non-classical music. Also, more beer.

Members of the audience, many of whom were indeed wearing jeans, obviously enjoyed themselves. How many will purchase subscriptions to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra remains to be seen.