Two weeks ago, Oregon Symphony President Elaine Calder took the stage before a rare, near-packed house at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. "How many of you are coming to an Oregon Symphony concert for the first time?" she asked. A couple hundred hands shot up, most of them no doubt there to hear Pink Martini leader Thomas Lauderdale as soloist in George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F. Calder grinned. "Portland, where have you been?" she exclaimed.

Orchestras across the U.S. have been asking the same question. Beset by declining budgets, dwindling cultural relevance and aging patrons (according to a 2002 survey, 73 percent of the Symphony's subscribers are over 55), how can they lure young listeners without losing existing audiences or artistic integrity?

The subject of endless discussion on arts blogs and at conferences, America's orchestral malaise has been attributed to everything from high ticket prices, stuffy concert halls (don't clap at the wrong time, and don't even think of dancing or drinking a beer) and the musicians' ridiculous formal wear to America's declining arts education budgets.

While some observers, such as The Oregonian's David Stabler, have noted that the orchestra's challenges transcend programming, critics usually focus on what the orchestra plays. Plenty of today's composers write listener-friendly, innovative works that speak to contemporary audiences. Orchestras in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Baltimore and elsewhere are programming and commissioning more new music, to great popular and critical acclaim. But of the 46 pieces the Oregon Symphony will play this year, only six are by living composers. While praising the upcoming OSO premiere of a new work by local composer Tomas Svoboda, Ron Blessinger, artistic director of new music ensemble Third Angle, recently wrote on the company's blog: "It's a shame that it will be the only piece in the entire season that is of our current century."

Although Calder can point to a couple dozen (mostly short) works by current or recent composers on OSO programs since music director Carlos Kalmar's arrival in 2003, the main courses on the symphony's menu tend to be creaky Romantic orchestral warhorses. "Over the course of the season, two-thirds of what we do—and it's no different at any orchestra—are performances of the broad and magnificent core orchestral repertoire," says OSO spokesman (and violinist) Carl Herko. "That's clearly what the regular ticket-buyers like most. Generally, the bigger the warhorse, the better the crowd size. There's just simply no evidence that the 'core' audience—that is, the audience who comes most frequently to most of what we do—has any interest in hearing more contemporary stuff. " By contrast, theaters, dance companies and museums present a vastly higher proportion of new works—as did orchestras until the 20th century. Since the dwindling current audiences resist anything new, sound unheard, couldn't orchestras attract new audiences by featuring works created by people of our time and place?

It's not so simple, Calder says. With 86 performances and 225,000 seats to fill each season, OSO faces financial challenges that innovative smaller orchestras don't. In a growing city like Portland, many listeners will be hearing those warhorses—like this weekend's performance of Tchaikovsky's "Coronation March"—for the first time. And with Third Angle, FearNoMusic and other new music groups in town, Portlanders have other options, although not for large-scale new music. "People aren't starved for new music in Portland," Calder says. "Our strength is the big orchestral repertoire." She expects the symphony's current mix of big standards with a few newish pieces to continue.

"If the idea is to find a new audience, doing new pieces will help," says orchestra consultant and Wall Street Journal classical music columnist Greg Sandow, who's been an eloquent proponent of reconnecting classical music with contemporary culture. "But you have to market it differently—find out who the people who might be interested are" and present the music in a way that doesn't feel so archaic. He notes that one-shot crossover concerts historically haven't brought listeners back for more usual fare. To attract younger audiences, orchestras need to lower ticket prices (OSO's are available for as little as $15) and make better use of online social networking. But he's sympathetic to OSO's dilemma.

"It's going to be difficult for an institution like this to invent a new mission for itself," he says. "With this economic crisis where everyone's endowment is hit, it's not a time when you could expect anybody to strike out in a new and untried direction that may not pay off. [But] if they don't do that, they're in big trouble in the long run."

Calder has made progress: The symphony's worrisome deficit is down, while attendance and ticket sales are up. The symphony is planning more niche concerts—a bluegrass show, the Portuguese fado singer Mariza, jazz diva Dianne Reeves, and Pink Martini in its first symphonic recording.

Yet pop crossovers do nothing to keep contemporary orchestral music vital. If the OSO doesn't connect today's audiences to today's sounds, how long can the music—and the orchestra that plays it—survive?

"[Portland has] a thriving scene in art, theater, dance and writing," Blessinger wrote. "The audiences are here, waiting for the right reason to start their relationships with this music. Are we ready to be that kind of matchmaker?"


The Symphony plays Tchaikovsky at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 228-1353. 7:30 pm Saturday-Sunday, 8 pm Monday, Dec. 6-8. $30-$98.