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Pittsburgh music group drops the S-word -- Society -- from name [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette :: ]
[March 23, 2014]

Pittsburgh music group drops the S-word -- Society -- from name [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette :: ]

(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 23--For the past 53 years, it has been the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society. But at Monday's concert featuring the Artemis Quartet, it will announce its new name: Chamber Music Pittsburgh.

The word "society" will not be in attendance.

The rebranding is more than cosmetic, said executive director Kristen Linfante. The chamber music organization wants to convince concertgoers that classical music is not just bad-tasting medicine -- "good for you, but not necessarily enjoyable." "We do want to send the message out that music, chamber music, classical music, is a bit more unbuttoned than perhaps people's perception of it is," Ms. Linfante said.

In a world where the most recognizable CEO wears a hooded sweatshirt, casual fine dining isn't an oxymoron and fans instantly connect with celebrities on social media, classical music is looking to break down barriers to entry.

At classical music organizations, "society" signifies club status, a group of people with a common interest. Although the term has for centuries been adopted or abandoned for cultural, linguistic or just plain bizarre reasons, in modern times, it has developed an air of exclusivity. Use of the word has declined at classical music groups in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the United States, in recent times as part of efforts to make the genre seem less elitist.

Local societies include the Steinway Society of Western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Recorder Society and the Pittsburgh Concert Society, but those ranks have dwindled by design or due to the fate of the organizations themselves. For instance, the Pittsburgh Opera Society became just Pittsburgh Opera when the organization incorporated as a nonprofit, in the late 1940s, said Debra Bell, director of marketing and communications; the Y Music Society, the third oldest recital series in the country, ended operations in 2008.

The decision to adopt or abandon "society" reflects social or even political trends, as several orchestras, including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, demonstrate. Founded in 1896 as the Pittsburgh Orchestra, the ensemble disbanded for several years in the early 20th century and returned in 1926 as the Pittsburgh Symphony Society, said archives consultant Molly Tighe.

The new name was chosen in an attempt to skirt Pennsylvania's blue laws, which banned ticket sales for secular concerts on Sundays. The musicians had other jobs during the week, so the Sabbath performances were a necessary evil. By calling themselves a society and charging dues to audience members (which included two "free" season tickets), the orchestra thought it had found a loophole.

Still, on April 25, 1927, the symphony's manager, concertmaster and several board members were arrested for playing on a Sunday, according to orchestra documents. They were each fined $25 for the crime, but the decision was eventually reversed.

The label Pittsburgh Symphony Society remained on the ensemble's concert programs until 1952, when it began using the label Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. That was the same year William Steinberg took over as music director and, curiously enough, that the orchestra performed U.S. Steel-sponsored "Industry Concerts" in industrial communities. There is no evidence those events were related to the orchestra's decision to abandon "society," Ms. Tighe said.

While the PSO formally dropped "society," the New York Philharmonic is still legally called the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, Inc. The original Philharmonic Society of New York, founded in 1842, was cooperatively run by musicians, who paid dues. Later, associate members -- the audience -- were added, said archivist/historian Barbara Haws.

"Instead of calling themselves a club, they called themselves a society," she said.

In 1928, the philharmonic merged with the Symphony Society of New York to form the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York. The decision, in 1957, to slim down that mouthful resulted from several factors. Walter Damrosch, former director of the symphony half of the joint venture, had died in 1950.

"He would've absolutely rejected the change in the name," Ms. Haws said.

In addition, advertising executive David Ogilvy was on the orchestra's board and modernized its marketing for a new age of advertising and communications. It was likely that he influenced the move to a shortened name -- the New York Philharmonic -- which looked less clunky in a program or a newspaper. It appeared in a program for the first time in 1957, coinciding with Leonard Bernstein's first season as music director.

The sense of 'society' The term "society" applies to several types of organizations, such as film and historical societies, but it has labeled classical music clubs since the early years of musical performance in the United States and appeared in the English language long before that.

"Society comes to English by way of Middle French but traces back to [the] Latin [word] socius, meaning 'companion,' " said Emily Brewster, assistant editor of Merriam-Webster.

The oldest meaning is from 1531, but the usage that pertains to a musical society -- "a voluntary association of individuals for common ends" -- dates from 1548. The elitist denotation -- "a part of the community that sets itself apart as a leisure class and that regards itself as the arbiter of fashion and manners" -- arrived in 1693.

"What's not apparent, though, is how the connotations within a particular meaning have evolved. Tracking that kind of thing is, I'm sad to say, beyond the scope of practical lexicography," Ms. Brewster said.

Groups of mostly amateur musicians had been creating chamber music societies in Europe since the 18th century, presenting house concerts among friends, said Margaret M. Lioi, CEO of Chamber Music America, the national network of chamber music professionals. Following that example, American chamber music societies began cropping up in the United States in the 20th century, especially in university towns where professors demanded them.

"As those kinds of organizations began to proliferate in this country, that word was carried forward because many of them ... were really started and run by volunteers," Ms. Lioi said.

While Ms. Lioi hasn't observed members of the national organization dropping the word society, she also hasn't noticed any new entities taking it on. And she could see why Chamber Music Pittsburgh wanted to do so, given the "stuffiness" that the word connotes and efforts within classical music to be more inclusive. Groups have taken on new tactics, such as serving food and drinks, and started eschewing the traditional model, even if they maintain the traditional name.

The Handel and Haydn Society, a historically informed performance organization in Boston, was founded in 1815 by five musicians and businessmen who wanted to bring better music to Boston and create a community of music-lovers, said executive director Marie-Helene Bernard.

For Handel and Haydn -- the oldest continually performing arts organization in the country -- "society" is a part of the brand, and it has never considered dropping the word.

"With us, there's definitely a positive connotation with our name, but because we have made it so," said Ms. Bernard.

In the beginning, singers in Handel and Haydn's chorus became members of the society (well, except women, who gained membership in 1967). Music education has always been an important part of the organization's mission, Ms. Bernard said, which is why she says it "was never about the elite." "I think it's no different from what it was in 1815. Obviously what has evolved is the language," she said.

For example, the society altered the focus of its marketing efforts; began advertising in subways and taxis; and created a young professionals group that pairs concerts with networking opportunities at a nearby restaurant. Since 2007, the percentage of audience members under the age of 40 has increased from 16 percent to 30 percent.

"I don't know what is wrong with the word 'society,' because we are a society in large and small ways," she said.

When, in 2008, early music organization Renaissance and Baroque Society of Pittsburgh dropped the last three words of its name, the shortened label did not accompany a change in approach, said general manager Gail Luley, who assumed leadership following the name change.

"There was a feeling that the word 'society' ... was an inhibitor to people coming to concerts," said Ann Felter, executive director at the time, who now heads up Early Music America. In retrospect, "I don't think that's a valid enough reason to change your name," she said. "Without 'society,' it's just two historical terms, which makes it even more unclear." Since taking over the organization, Ms. Luley has wrestled with getting the new brand to stick in places such as legal documents and phone books. "It's still out there in the universe that our name is Renaissance and Baroque Society of Pittsburgh," she said.

The organization has had no difference in ticket sales since the name change. Although they have stabilized in the past four years, subscriptions have declined over the past decade, Ms. Luley said.

Ms. Linfante hopes Chamber Music Pittsburgh's new feel will have the opposite effect.

Founded in 1961 by local businessmen, university administrators and cultural bigwigs, the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society has featured some of the world's most renowned chamber music ensembles, such as the Juilliard String Quartet, the Emerson String Quartet and the Beaux Arts Trio.

That's a long and storied history, so rather than just alter its programming, Chamber Music Pittsburgh plans to expand it. The organization has scrapped the S-word as part of a broader effort to renew its commitment to the community, broaden its audience and "remain relevant," particularly in the wake of declining ticket sales, said Ms. Linfante, the executive director.

Subscriptions had bottomed out in 2012-13, to roughly 390 packages, an almost 60 percent decline since its 15-year peak in the 1999-2000 season. It's partly due to the bad economy, she said, and partly because concertgoers prefer the flexibility of single tickets.

"We are looking at absolutely every aspect of the organization, from what our printed materials look like to our ticket prices to what day our concerts are presented," Ms. Linfante said.

The process has already begun. Last year, the organization inaugurated Just Summer, its genre-bending concert series with shorter, more casual performances and complimentary food and drink. The current season marks the first rise in subscriptions since 2004, a bump Ms. Linfante attributed to the first iteration of Just Summer.

"It's not just about changing the name," she said. "It's about a new attitude." Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

___ (c)2014 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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