Columbus Classical Music Groups Expand Their Reach, Find New Audiences

Classical music groups that found new listeners in 2020 will continue to woo the community with innovative programming.

Peter Tonguette
Columbus Symphony

This fall, if all goes according to plan, the Ohio Theatre will be filled with young people, there not for a movie or a pop concert but to hear orchestral music.

During the coming season, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra will provide free admission for children ages 6 to 16 to its Masterworks concerts, which kick off Oct. 22–23 with guest violinist Stefan Jackiw. The decision was prompted in part by observations orchestra leaders made during the past season of limited-capacity, reduced-price concerts, which drew new faces to the performances.

“A couple of [families] told me it was the first time they’d ever been to the symphony,” says CSO executive director Denise Rehg. “It did certainly start to stoke the fires in our brains that we should be more accessible to our children and to families.”

The move is consistent with an overall shift within the CSO—a commitment made prior to the pandemic—to focus more attention on serving the community beyond tried-and-true concertgoers. This past summer, in addition to Picnic With the Pops, the orchestra presented an ambitious slate of Summer Night Music concerts in neighborhoods throughout Central Ohio, and in August, held a series of free performances in underserved or unserved communities. “Had COVID not happened, I don’t think we would’ve moved as fast,” Rehg says.

Related:Columbus Symphony Wants to Serve More Communities with New Initiative

The orchestra is not the only classical-music group to find new fans thanks to pandemic-related innovations. The ProMusica Chamber Orchestra will return to the Southern Theatre on Oct. 10, but since the summer of 2020, its musicians have performed all over town—from parks to event venue The Fives.

“We actually ended up performing more programs in the pandemic year than we would in a normal year,” says CEO Janet Chen. Along the way, the group added to its audience base thanks, in part, to some longtime patrons who “gifted” virtual concerts to a friend. Those newcomers, in turn, often came back to buy tickets to the next digital concert.

“We definitely have created new accounts for new ticket buyers, new donors,” Chen says.

Julia Noulin-Mérat

Opera Columbus, too, found that livestreamed performances extended the group’s reach. At its May performance of “La Bohème,” in-person attendance at 400 West Rich was limited to 120 people per show, but the livestream brought in 685 viewers.

“It helps us grow our audience in our community online,” says Opera Columbus general director and CEO Julia Noulin-Mérat.

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“La Bohème” was part of a flurry of activity from Opera Columbus toward the close of last season: In just five weeks, the company also produced “Don Giovanni” at COSI and the Cooper-Bing vocal competition. “We actually presented what we typically do in eight months,” she says.

All of that activity gave Noulin-Mérat, who joined the organization in January, confidence that the company is ready for its ambitious coming season, which opens with “Tosca” Dec. 18–19 and wraps up in May and June with the multisite “40 Days of Opera,” in which singers will fill the city with high notes. The group’s pandemic-era performances whetted the appetites of opera lovers and newbies alike.

“People are more willing to follow us, and they’re actually super-curious: ‘Oh, now I want to see this ‘[La] Traviata’ in a hotel, because I know it’s going to be amazing,’” Noulin-Mérat says.