Symphony concerts have rules: They start at 8 p.m. There are two halves of 45 or 50 minutes. You applaud only at certain times that may seem arbitrary to the uninitiated.
The Richmond Symphony wants you to forget all that, grab a drink — it’s included with your ticket — and relax during its new series of recitals, Summer at CenterStage.
“Last year we sold out pretty much every concert,” says Scott Dodson, the symphony’s director of advancement and patron communications. “The programs are stylistically looser this summer, even more accessible.”
The idea seems to have been drawing more of an uninitiated audience. Dodson guesses that about half of the attendees were new to the Richmond Symphony.
The hour-long performances will pair pieces by Claude Debussy with other French romantic composers. And at the Gottwald Playhouse, with only 200 seats on risers and along the wall, the setting is more casual.
“One of the things that was really attractive to me about this particular program is the Gottwald space being very intimate, very different than Carpenter Theatre, and closer to musicians,” says Darryl Harper, chairman of Virginia Commonwealth University’s music department. “The social interaction makes the experience a lot more meaningful.”
The series is a collaboration with his department and the University of Richmond School of Music. Each concert features a member of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and a faculty member at one of the universities.
“This series is so wonderful because it showcases fantastic instrumentalists and is a terrific opportunity to see what they can do up close,” says Joanne Kong, the coordinator of chamber ensembles at UR. This summer she’ll perform with symphony cellist Jason McComb.
Developing new audiences is an ongoing exercise when you play music whose composers aren’t on Twitter or Bandcamp. But the summer series is only one of the symphony’s recent efforts to expand to venues beyond the Carpenter and Altria theaters.
The symphony recently secured funds for a 70-foot-tall tent that will hold its 70-member orchestra and 150-person chorus for outdoor concerts beginning this fall.
Because of the effort and cost of setup, the tent won’t go up just for one night. “We’ll work with the local community to build a multiday festival every time,” says Dodson, citing Chimborazo and Abner Clay parks as potential locations.
Along with symphony concerts, the festivals might include school performances, local bands, multifaith prayer services, and other organizations’ presentations, depending on neighborhood input.
Some years ago, many symphony lovers were disappointed when plans for a dedicated concert hall in the Richmond CenterStage downtown complex fell through. These days, the lack of a brick-and-mortar home is freeing.
“Location has become less important over time. A big orchestral work will still sound best in a concert hall,” Dodson says, but “a concert hall can be a barrier to attendance.”
With that in mind, the symphony also is moving the fourth season of its Rush Hour series to Hardywood Park Craft Brewery this fall. Like the summer series, Rush Hour features shorter, more informal weekday performances.
With 45 to 50 musicians staged amid brewing equipment in the tasting room, the performances will be “much closer to what classical music was like when it was written and composed,” Dodson says. Classical music, it turns out, didn’t always follow such formal rules.
“It’s a recent phenomenon, being absolutely quiet and still at the symphony, and it has its value in certain contexts. But it doesn’t make sense for every presentation to be that way,” Harper says. “The main concert series are a two-hour commitment and later in the evening. With kids the logistics of that are difficult. [The series] makes it more of a social occasion.”
Hardywood Rush Hour and the outdoor tent undoubtedly will engage a new audience, many of whom are less familiar with the music. “One of the challenges that musicians with specialized training is that it’s easy to forget other people don’t spend eight hours a day in a room practicing Brahms,” Harper says. “You have to provide context for an audience.”
While Gottwald Playhouse may not offer the smell of fermenting hops, the summer series promises a different listening experience than a large theater venue — and more to come from the 58-year-old symphony.
But if you’re new, you should probably still wait for everyone else to start clapping. S
Richmond Symphony’s Summer at CenterStage series, Debussy and the French Romantics, is every Thursday in July and August, starting July 9, at 6:30 p.m. in the Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse. The entrance is on Grace between Sixth and Seventh streets. A ticket costs $20 and includes a drink.