Hidden from small

With a Little Help from Our Friends: the Young Friends of The Philadelphia Orchestra and the Academy of Music

January 04, 2017

Sure, the concerts are incredible. But wouldn’t it be great if, after a wonderful evening with The Philadelphia Orchestra, you could hang out with some of the musicians? Mitch Ginsburg gets to do that, several times a year. “It’s been really great to get to know them on a personal level, to talk about the concert, and their lives as musicians. We might not necessarily always talk about Orchestra stuff. Just the other night, I was speaking with [trumpeter] Tony Prisk about Star Wars toy collections from when we were kids! It makes you feel connected on a very personal level.”

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Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin joins members of the Young Friends at a post-concert reception at Bar Volvér at the Kimmel Center. Photo by Matthew Hall

Ginsburg and several thousand of his closest friends are the happy members of the Young Friends of The Philadelphia Orchestra, “created to introduce them to the magic of the Orchestra,” in the words of President and CEO Allison Vulgamore.

Meanwhile, just up the street, the Young Friends of the Academy of Music are ensuring that the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street stays grand, despite being, well, old (she made her debut in 1857). These two Friends groups are vitally important to maintaining two of Philadelphia’s most important and beloved cultural institutions.

The Orchestra’s Young Friends program began about five years ago as an effort to attract more young concertgoers. “We wanted to break down some perceived barriers to concertgoing,” Philadelphia Orchestra Vice President of Marketing Janice Hay says. “Before launching the program we talked to a number of young professionals and found out many of them didn’t know anything about The Philadelphia Orchestra. They weren’t willing to pay for something they weren’t familiar with. They had perceptions that concerts were always sold out, or not affordable. In addition, many people thought you had to dress up to go to a concert and felt the Kimmel Center might be an uptight scene. But it isn’t.”

The Young Friends program was the result. With free membership and the ability to purchase up to two tickets at a reduced rate for most concerts, it brings together dynamic and successful professionals between the ages of 21 and 40 who have a love for music and an interest in exploring arts and culture.

“It is now one of the largest and fastest growing young professional groups in the city, with almost 2,700 members, and it has served as a model for other groups,” Vulgamore says. “These are engaged and increasingly loyal young patrons who are looking for ways to become more deeply connected with our Orchestra and the city they love to live in. The program also serves as a wonderful stepping stone for our beloved eZseatU college students to ‘graduate’ into as they leave school and begin their professional lives in Philadelphia.”

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The Young Friends of the Academy of Music puts on a Monsters Ball Masquerade every October. This past year the event was held at the Petite Ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, Philadelphia. Photo by HughE Dillon

Hay mentions that the “elevator pitch” to potential members is simple. “Make going to a concert an event. Try it out. If you don’t like it, that’s OK. We want you to hear the most spectacular music anywhere, performed by some of the best artists in the world. And you can come to the Orchestra for a price that is competitive with other entertainment options and get past any perceptions you think exist.”

While Young Friends membership includes the ability to purchase tickets at a reduced rate, it isn’t just about affordable tickets. There are activities such as behind-the-scenes tours of the Kimmel Center and a vital social component, convivial pre- and post-concert drinks and conversation. Held at restaurants like Volvér at the Kimmel Center and popular pop-up beer gardens throughout the city, these events provide rare opportunities for Young Friends to meet like-minded, world-class musicians on a peer-to-peer basis, including Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Principal Guest Conductor Stéphane Denève, Orchestra musicians, and young guest soloists, like violinist Benjamin Beilman.

“I really enjoy having the opportunity to meet fans of the Orchestra over a drink, in a casual setting, where we can have a meaningful conversation about everything from music to great restaurants in Philadelphia,” Yannick says. “These are the next generation of audience members and donors, and we want to make them feel like they are welcome and part of our family.”

It’s a mission shared with the Young Friends of the Academy of Music. The hall, owned by The Philadelphia Orchestra Association, attracts audiences for Broadway, opera, and ballet. But none of the revenue from those programs goes to keeping the 160-year-old gem in peak condition. For that, there’s the Academy of Music Restoration Fund. Its main event is the Anniversary Concert and Ball, an annual centerpiece of Philadelphia social and cultural life. Its many committees, including the Young Friends, are the lifeblood of the Ball.

As Senior Director Claire Allamby explains, the Restoration Fund has relied very heavily on legacy giving. “We’re reaching the next pool of donors and new audiences by involving our Young Friends. The Academy is a historic landmark building and we are constantly trying to remind people of that. The Young Friends have turned into a wonderful tool to spread our story.”

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Members of the Young Friends of The Philadelphia Orchestra get together at a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop Up Garden prior to an Orchestra concert at the Mann Center.

Allamby says the attraction for Young Friends is two-fold: “First, it’s a wonderful cause. And second, the Young Friends program offers connections to people of similar professional status at various dinners and events. So you have the perfect mix of being civically engaged along with activities that give you a little bang for your professional-development buck.”

Unlike the Orchestra’s Young Friends, the Academy’s program has a membership fee. “The feedback we were getting was that people didn’t feel connected to, or invested in, the Young Friends,” says Allamby. “They’d join the committee and maybe go to an event, but very few of them would attend the Anniversary Concert and Ball. Then a couple of our more enterprising Young Friends recommended that we ask people to put money on the table, to make them feel invested. And that’s exactly what has happened. We’ve seen the involvement grow dramatically as a result.”

The Academy is trying to feed that feeling by adding more Young Friends events, increasing the number of ways to engage. Plans are also afoot to use the Friends’ enthusiasm to help drive the Academy’s social media and web presence.

Lynsie Solomon is co-chairman of the Academy of Music Young Friends’ Committee for this year’s Academy Concert and Ball. Her involvement began when friends invited her and her husband, Evan, to the Ball about five years ago. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew I had to wear a gown. But we had so much fun, we haven’t missed one since. We also decided to get more involved with the Academy.”

That meant helping to organize a host of events (which comes naturally to this event planner and real estate consultant). “We do a lot of things throughout the year, to keep everyone involved, everything from having a tent at the Radnor Hunt, to the Annual Monsters Ball, and a ‘Dinner at the Shore’ in Margate. It’s such a wonderful group of really amazing people I might not have otherwise met. We’ve all become really close.”

Solomon stresses that her group is just as much about friend-raising as fund-raising. “In the Young Friends age bracket, not everyone can write large checks on top of the annual membership fee. So first we try to get people involved. Then, as they start to have the means, they’re able to give back.”

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Members of the Young Friends of the Academy of Music gather annually at their tent at the Radnor Hunt Races. Photo by HughE Dillon

Ginsburg, our Philadelphia Orchestra Young Friend, was turned on to the Young Friends program by a friend when he relocated to the Philadelphia area, touting it as a way to get good seats at good prices. “It’s not only about going to a great concert though. At the post-concert events you get to meet people who share your interest in classical music. Or they’re just looking for a night out in Philly. Either way it’s great!

“One of my preconceived notions was that this must be a way for the Orchestra to sell unwanted seats. But once I signed up, I realized it helps them create a more integrated audience; subscribers and single-ticket buyers are all mixed together. And obviously the social events help build the audience. If you don’t know a lot about an orchestra, it can seem unapproachable. Young Friends makes me feel like a valued and essential member of the audience community.” It’s also led to friendships with people he’s met through the program, who now stay in touch about which concerts they’ll be going to next.

“These groups will become the next generation of leaders and influencers for the Orchestra and the Academy, as we build and expand upon the successes of each program,” Vulgamore says. “We all hold the belief that appealing to, and bringing in, a younger generation to replenish our audiences is imperative to the future. We see already that the Young Friends of today are growing and will mature over the years to become ‘fanatical loyalists’ for the legacy of classical music and the Academy.”

Steve Holt, managing partner at re:Write, is a veteran journalist and musician.