Howland Music Circle Tries a New Approach

Introduces tiered pricing to draw new faces

At orchestral concerts, solo recitals and chamber music performances, a common denominator is that most attendees are middle aged or older and largely white. How, then, do organizers open the doors more widely?

These concerns are front and center for the Howland Chamber Music Circle, which has been presenting concerts at the Howland Cultural Center in Beacon since 1993. Its longevity has been forged by being able to attract a strong roster of musicians, drawn by the reputation of the Music Circle and the venue, which is architecturally appealing and acoustically revered. (The two nonprofits operate independently of each other.)

The concerts often sell out, and the audiences continue to be enthusiastic. But the Music Circle board members recently decided to focus on the issue of diversity. The early results are promising but there is more work to be done, reports Paul Stoddard, the president, and Jinny St. Goar, a board member.

“We’re still struggling to get the youngsters across the threshold,” St. Goar says, although the Music Circle does have a longtime series, Classics for Kids, in which a visiting group performs during the day before the later usual performance. There are also a program at Arlington High School and a residency program in the Beacon elementary schools. 

The Juilliard String Quartet performed at the Howland Cultural Center last month.Photo by Carl Gutowski

The Juilliard String Quartet performed at the Howland Cultural Center last month. (Photo by Carl Gutowski)

Young adults are trickier to attract, Stoddard says. “A lot of them find us while they’re walking in the neighborhood; they love the architecture and they come in to check it out and learn what’s happening.”

Still, a formalized approach was needed. “The board has been thinking about how to make concerts more accessible to a broader audience,” St. Goar says. “There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about diversity, equity and inclusion. There was a way for us to increase all these things.”

One strategy is to make the shows affordable to everyone. “Last year, for one concert, we experimented with a form of ‘pay what you wish,’ ” she says. “We reserved some of our tickets and a week before the concert we sent out a mailing letting people know they could buy tickets at whatever level they chose. We set a minimum of $5, then increments of $5 up to $35. Our thinking was that if you give them away for free, it cheapens the whole thing.”

This year the Music Circle has extended pay-what-you-wish pricing — which has been adopted in various ways by entities such as Mostly Mozart, the Minnesota Orchestra and many museums — to all of its programming.

“The last 10 tickets have been selling at the reduced prices,” St. Goar says, and buyers told the Music Circle they would not have attended at full price. “We have pretty clear results from our first concert, which was the Juilliard String Quartet,” she says, at which six tickets sold for $5 and the others for $10 or $20 each. 

Stoddard adds: “We wrote to our regular subscribers and got enthusiastic responses. One donated more money. It’s a tricky problem to solve, and it will take a long time to make a big difference.”

In another innovation, the Music Circle has been sponsoring new works. “When the Juilliard String Quartet performed here in September, it played a newly composed piece,” St. Goar says, with the composer, Tyson Gholston Davis, an undergrad at Juilliard, in the audience. The Music Circle is co-commissioning a composition by Davis, who is Black, that will be presented during its 2024-25 season.

The board has also looked at other ways to “stretch” the audience, St. Goar says, by “going beyond the canon and enlivening people.” On Sunday (Oct. 22), about a week before Halloween, it will present an experiential concert by Salon Séance.

The group will perform The End of Time, which combines music, Olivier Messiaens’ 1941 Quartet for the End of Time, storytelling and origami, to channel the spirits of four prisoners “who transformed an ending into a new beginning, focused on the notion of hope in a horrible circumstance.”  

On Nov. 12, violinist Arnaud Sussman and pianist Michael Stephen Brown will present a program called Jewish Voices, with works by composers whose lives were impacted by World War II. The concert draws inspiration from the survival of Sussman’s grandfather at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

The Music Circle’s more traditional programming will include piano concerts in January, February and March with Jonathan Biss; Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung; Conrad Tao and Ying Li; followed by performances by the Brasil Guitar Duo (Douglas Lora and João Luiz), the Merz Trio, the Isidore String Quartet and the Escher String Quartet.

For tickets and more information on the Music Circle, see

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