An October 2015 Beyond the Score program at Symphony Center focused on the work of composer Leonard Bernstein. Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Is there a future for symphony orchestras? That question was in the air a decade ago, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra hired British writer, broadcaster, and composer Gerard McBurney to launch an extraordinary experiment called Beyond the Score.

And it’s still hanging there now, as CSO ends Beyond the Score. Two performances scheduled for next month will be the last in this innovative, ambitious, and arguably most successful of the orchestra’s attempts at audience expansion.

In three original multimedia shows each year, Beyond the Score put great pieces of music into the context of the lives and times that created them. The shows include actors, a narrator, video, and the full orchestra; the result at its best is a powerful sort of documentary theater that anchors and enhances the music.

Gerard McBurneyCredit: Todd Rosenberg

The live events at Symphony Center have been one piece of a three-part strategy. Each new show was filmed, so that it could be posted online, free to anyone with a Web connection anywhere in the world. And each show was available for license to other orchestras for their own live performances—with the assumption that licensing fees would offset some of the original production costs.

The shows at Symphony Center were so popular that CSO eventually added a second performance for each. In the ten years since they began, McBurney has developed and narrated 30 different programs, presenting everyone from Beethoven to Bernstein. Last season included a much-praised tribute to the difficult music of Pierre Boulez, with stage design by Frank Gehry.

So why is the program now being axed?

Well, for one thing, there’s been a changing of the guard at CSO. McBurney—who was recruited for the job after he and his brother, actor and director Simon McBurney, created a piece for the launch of LA’s Disney Hall—says Beyond the Score was the idea of former CSO president Deborah Rutter and vice president Martha Gilmer, both of whom have since left. (Rutter is now president of the John F. Kennedy Center; Gilmer is CEO of the San Diego Symphony.) Rutter’s successor, Jeff Alexander, took over at the start of last year, after CSO’s iconic music director Riccardo Muti reportedly advocated for him.

Artistically, “we were all proud of it,” says Alexander of Beyond the Score, but “we just felt it was time, after ten years. It had run its course, and we really needed to move on. Not every project continues forever.”

And, he says, this program wasn’t hitting all its marks: CSO did an audience analysis of Beyond the Score about a year ago and “found that the majority of people who were coming were actually not new to the CSO.” (The majority weren’t when I wrote about the program in 2008 either, but Kevin Giglinto, then vice president of marketing, was pleased to report that “more than 35 percent . . . are first-time customers.”)

“It had run its course and we really needed to move on. Not every project continues forever.”

—CSO president Jeff Alexander­

The audience also failed to grow when the schedule was expanded, Alexander says, though he’s not citing any numbers.

“But the real problem was the cost of doing it,” Alexander says. “The cost of all the extra elements far outweighed the revenue from ticket sales. And the ability to attract large philanthropic funds to support the project after its third or fourth or fifth year became very difficult. For the last five years, it was losing quite a bit of money.”

How much? CSO’s not willing to say. (According to CSO’s annual reports, the symphony had a $1.3 million deficit on an operating budget of $72.7 million in 2015, down a hair from its $1.4 million deficit a year earlier.)

However, one part of the Beyond the Score strategy is getting a second chance. CSO is now making a “revitalized effort” on the licensing component, “because we have 30 of these wonderful programs in stock,” Alexander says. Until now, “revenue from the licensing was not enough to be particularly helpful.”

The final Beyond the Score show is focused on Nights in the Garden of Spain by early 20th-century composer Manuel de Falla. McBurney says it was inspired by the Alhambra palace in Granada. “It’s a piece about night and dreams,” McBurney says, “and the nighttime is always a good place to end a cycle of stories.”

As for the future of symphony orchestras?

Alexander says he’s been eyeballing the lobby crowd, seeing “more and more young people coming on a regular basis.” He thinks they realize that “to come hear a live classical music concert with a full magnificent symphony orchestra is a very special experience, more invigorating than all the electronics that they’re bombarded with.” The average age of CSO subscribers and single ticket buyers is 50, which, he says, “is the youngest average age of all major U.S. orchestras.” Also, 20 percent of the audience is millennials, 19 percent Gen Xers, and last year 17,000 student tickets were sold at $20 each.

His glass is clearly half full. v