My Kind of Town

The former mayor has been sent to prison. The city now has an emergency financial manager. Parts of downtown present images that resemble Berlin in 1945.

These details are what make the headlines day in, day out. Detroit would seem to be the one place not to be.

But the city I know paints quite a different picture for its inhabitants and visitors.

My venue is Orchestra Hall, just a scant half-mile away from the Canadian border. Neighbor to our sports arenas, historic theaters and new businesses, the Max M. Fisher Music Center is home to the 125-year-old Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Two years ago a very bitter, public work stoppage took place and a vast majority of cultural commentators wrote it off as yet another coffin in the city's ever-growing graveyard. We were the new ground zero for the continued decline of the arts. Nationally, other organizations were experiencing similar troubles, but none seemed worse than in the Motor City.

Perhaps what differentiated us from the rest was that we had a plan. When we resumed playing, despite a highly concessionary contract and similar givebacks from music director and staff, there was a common goal: make the music mean something.

During the strike, the members of the orchestra went out into the community. They played in small ensembles as well as a full symphony, thereby reaching many of our audience members who had been supporters in the past, as well as a new base of fans. Now, the DSO plays regularly in six metro Detroit suburbs with a subscriber base of over 2,500 people. Many have never been to a DSO concert or have not been in more than 10 years.

Back at Orchestra Hall, we initiated a radical pricing structure, slashing ticket prices and introducing "Soundcard." If you are a student, regardless of age, you can buy this for $25 and are entitled to entrance to any concert. Present the pass two weeks before the scheduled event, and you are in. Oh, I should have mentioned that this is $25 for the whole season, not just a single concert.

Did it make sense fiscally? Surprisingly the answer was yes. Now we are seeing noticeably fuller houses at our presentations, and despite the drop in prices, an increase in average price paid for a ticket, as well as a more diverse audience demographic. There is vitality to our constituency that did not exist before.

In February, we presented a three-week Beethoven Festival, which played to the highest number of people in the history of the orchestra. You might ask, "How hard can it be to sell Beethoven?" This is Detroit, and in February most of our loyal patrons have fled south. We have to attract a new breed of listeners. And this festival did the trick.

Nearly every subscription program is broadcast via a series of free HD webcasts. Last season we became the first orchestra in the world to offer such a product, with viewers in 75 countries and a cumulative audience approaching 300,000.

There is so much more, but that will have to wait until another time. In the meanwhile, you will keep reading about the blight of the city, another corrupt politician, leadership changes and the like. But I am here to tell you that this is a thriving cultural metropolis. It is a testament to the resilience of Detroiters. It is why the city will overcome its many obstacles.

It is why Detroit is my home.