At first glance it might seem like the Wichita Symphony Orchestra is trying to break with tradition.
Its last concert featured an electric violin, sound loops and improvisation. A concert in March will be synchronized to images of Norman Rockwell illustrations projected above the stage.
And concerts next weekend will feature live murder mystery theater unfolding while the orchestra plays.
A typical classical music concert it's not. And, according to the symphony, that's a good thing.
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"It's a way to break down the passive environment that orchestras have traditionally presented," said Mitchell Berman, the symphony's executive director.
The orchestra has presented this kind of concert at least once every season since 1992. It bills them as Popular Classics — not a pops concert, but a classical concert that's fun, a bit edgy or slightly out-of-the-box. A Blue Jeans concert — where people are encouraged to dress casually — is often part of the Popular Classics experience.
In recent seasons Sylvia McNair has sung hits from "The King and I," Swedish pop sensation Robert Wells has played "Crocodile Rock" and the trio called Time for Three has jammed bluegrass. Film clips and slide shows have played as the orchestra performed; dancers have danced the tango. In 2007 audience members chose the pieces the orchestra would play.
Next weekend, the Magic Circle Theatre Company will act out a murder mystery — with everyone in the audience (and some special guests) a suspect. The orchestra under Andrew Sewell will play classical pieces associated with film noir — from Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony to the theme from "Casablanca."
With concerts like these the Wichita Symphony is responding to the contemporary cultural landscape. Great composers have lost some of their name recognition; classical music is no longer an automatic selling point. Orchestras must compete for audiences with a myriad of entertainment options — home theaters, sporting events, the Internet.
"Preferences are changing," Berman said. "There are unfortunately fewer people who just want concerts the way it has been for 200 years. We have to do new things to engage new audiences."
Some complain that concerts like this can cheapen the orchestra-listening experience. But the bulk of the Wichita Symphony's eight-program classical season still features concerts in the traditional overture-concerto-symphony format.
"We're not trying to blow up the system," Berman said. "We're trying to find ways to keep us fresh, introduce variety, bring in new people and have a good time."
Sales figures support this direction.
"At the beginning, some of our subscribers and especially some of our orchestra members were shaking their heads and saying this is not a good thing," Berman said. "But ticket sales for those Popular Classics concerts were far better than anything else we would typically do during the year."
Berman said 11 of the last 13 Blues Jeans programs sold out, and the two that didn't were near capacity.
"Eventually our no-show counts began to drop, which told us that subscribers put value and enjoyment in these concerts, too," Berman said. "We don't get as many people calling and complaining about Popular Classics like the way we used to."
One reason Popular Classics shows are a hit with both new and long-attending symphony-goers is that the orchestra is featured prominently, whether playing single movements of classical standards, accompanying a soloist, or playing complete works with visual enhancements.
"We will not sacrifice quality," Berman said. "Every one of these concerts, the orchestra has had a pretty big role."
The upcoming "Death on the Downbeat" program, for instance, was designed with the orchestra — not the theatrical storytelling — in mind. The show was first performed by the Chicago Symphony in 1995.
"For every concert we do, we feel that the music has to stand on its own," said Douglas McIntyre, who with Maggie Petersen founded Magic Circle Theatre Company in 1978. "If for some reason we didn't show up, it would still be a satisfying concert. The concerts have their own drama musically."
Magic Circle Theatre Company presents nine orchestra-theater programs, each with a different theme. The troupe of two or three actors performs with symphonies 18 to 22 weeks each year. Magic Circle has performed three times with the Wichita Symphony on youth-education concerts.
"We thought this was an absolute perfect fit for what we are trying to do," Berman said. "There is going to be a lot of fun on this concert, and a lot of fooling around. But we are going to have great music."
If you go
wichita symphony orchestra
What: "Death on the Downbeat" with Magic Circle Theatre Company
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: Blue Jeans Concert is 8 p.m. Friday; other concerts are 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Jan. 31
How much: General admission tickets for the Blue Jeans concert are $15. Tickets Saturday and Sunday are $20-$42, discounts available. For more information, visit www.wso.org or call 316-267-7658.