SALT LAKE CITY — As many orchestras throughout the country battle a dip in attendance, the Utah Symphony is getting ready to test one potential solution: wear jeans.
To drive that idea home, the symphony musicians will soon be swapping tuxes and dresses for casual wear — but not all the time. The first wardrobe experiment comes Saturday, March 23, when the symphony performs Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring Ukrainian-born pianist Alexander Gavrylyuk, and contemporary composer Andrew Norman's work, “Play.”
“I think the symphony business … industry-wide is wrestling with declining attendance over the long term,” said Jeff Counts, former general manager of the Utah Symphony who will be the host for Saturday’s concert. “We've had a pretty good year certainly since the calendar changed to 2019, but we're always looking for more people, and these days, artistic institutions have to be a little bit more creative about the way they offer up their work.”
For the Utah Symphony, that creativity comes most recently in the form of its new concert series “Unwound,” which features more than musicians and concertgoers mingling in jeans — on Saturday, the Utah Symphony will host a Fatty Tuna food truck and pre-concert activities including trivia (hosted by Jimmy Martin and Shannon Barnson of the “Geek Show” podcast) as attempts to liven up its classical music concerts.
“The idea is just to take the concert experience and deconstruct it — take the rules away. Some of the barriers of participation in classical music and in high art in general can be a little off-putting because it seems elite. There’s too many rules, there's too many traditions (and) it's not flexible or welcoming,” Counts said. “I don't believe that it truly is that way, but I think that perception exists, so we're trying to remove those things. We want people to wear what they want. We want people to clap when they want (and) we want them to just be themselves and enjoy the music.”
As someone who “despises formality,” Mark Wait, a longtime announcer for KBYU’s Classical 89, said he welcomes this experiment.
“I would like to see the concert hall be a less formal, more welcoming and inclusive experience. … Personally, I’d love to show up in jeans and a T-shirt and not feel like I was being judged or that I was being ostracized by not being part of that formality," Wait said. " … Great music has nothing to do with the tux and tails. … It’s an artificial connection between formal dress and great music that we have imposed over the past century that really doesn’t need to be that way.”
But not all concertgoers feel that way — which is why the Utah Symphony is doing things the traditional way on Friday. But so far, according to Counts, the Utah Symphony hasn’t received any criticism or pushback for this new effort.
“I think people will vote with their feet, so we'll have to see how many people decide to try this out,” he said. “But I think people understand that it's about giving people a new way in and I think everyone appreciates that. The fans of the Utah Symphony want to see the Utah Symphony be successful. … We haven't gotten any complaints and I'll be really interested to see what people think after they've experienced it.”
And while a lot of changes are taking place during Saturday night’s concert — including large screens that give concertgoers an up-close view of the musicians — there’s one thing that remains unchanged: the quality of the performance.
“Informality is a nice foil for a business that is as formal as (the Utah Symphony),” Counts said. “(The musicians are) certainly never casual about the way they perform, and I think that the orchestra, knowing people are out there taking this in in an open and free way, is going … to play even better.”
“The hope is that the people who experience us in this way will do one of two things: They'll continue to look for those casual experiences and attend those concerts or be interested enough by what they see that they'll attend other of our offerings,” Counts continued. “We're just hoping people will decide to make us part of their cultural profile — to get some new faces and give our old friends a chance to see us in a new way.”
If you go …
What: Utah Symphony's “Unwound” performance
When: Saturday, March 23, 7 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $20-$69