The rain fell in sheets and gusty waves last Saturday night in Burlington, jeopardizing the outfits of anyone going to the Vermont Symphony Orchestra performance at the Flynn. That is, unless a doorman-scale umbrella and Wellies were part of the ensemble. At the Green Room on St. Paul Street, however, a dozen or so well-heeled, cocktail-toting twenty- and thirtysomethings lounged in fitted shirts, evening dresses, French cuffs and fashionable knee-high boots.
In a city where wearing a sports coat can be a fashion statement, the sartorial display seemed slightly out of place, even discounting the weather. One of the women in the group, Megan McIntosh Frenzen, alternately glanced nervously out the window and chatted with her friends.
“Six-thirty . . . I was expecting more people by now,” she said. “But then, a bunch are notoriously late for these events.”
Frenzen was referring to a gathering of the Yo Pros (short for Young Professionals Group), a pre-VSO social conclave she organized as part marketing device, part networking tool and part opportunity to — as a Yo Pro entry on the VSO blog puts it — “be awesome.”
Frenzen, a marketing professor at Champlain College and VSO Champlain Valley regional board member, came up with the Yo Pro idea in response to a problem discussed at several board meetings. Namely, the symphony audience is aging, and not enough younger people are filling vacated seats. Without a novel plan to attract new classical-music lovers, the livelihood of the VSO is in question.
“This is a situation that Burlington shares with many other cities,” Frenzen pointed out. “Not only are audiences getting older, but traditional marketing vehicles that used to get people through the door — like direct mail or working the phones — just aren’t producing the way they used to,” she explained. “I needed to find a new way to introduce people to an artistic resource that they might not have even been aware of.”
Frenzen felt certain that, in an arts-friendly city like Burlington, she could identify a supportive new audience for the symphony. Yo Pro, an open-door, dues-free social club, would help boost attendance and broaden the VSO experience “beyond simply attending a performance and then going home,” as she put it.
Lacking funds for a full-bore advertising plan, Frenzen went viral with an email and word-of-mouth campaign. She sent announcements to friends, who sent them on to other friends, and a core group quickly formed. Arrangements were made for Yo Pro members to receive a 20 percent discount on concert tickets in a seating area not far behind the top-tier “Gold Circle,” as well as at the local restaurants where they gather about an hour and a half before shows.
In time, Frenzen’s efforts paid off. Attendance at the three Yo Pro events last year grew from a few to more than 30. And, according to VSO Development Director Michael Peluse, the group has slightly invigorated attendance overall. “It has brought in more people in the younger demographic, and beyond Yo Pro members, too,” he says. “Word seems to be out.” Yo Pro participants “aren’t necessarily going to become serious subscribers or come to every single concert, and we don’t expect that,” Peluse adds. “What Meg and her group do is help build more of an appreciation and increase the tendency to come back.”
So, what exactly defines young and professional? “Well, our blog reads that membership is restricted to anyone younger than 60 and not in jail,” Frenzen explained with a laugh.
As inclusive as that description may be, the Yo Pros in circulation on Saturday seemed plucked from pretty high up the pedigree tree. Conversations flitted from banking to law to lighter topics, but the overall impression was of a rarefied social stratum.
Hannah Sachs, a consultant for April Cornell Holdings and first-time Yo Pro’er, said she had long wanted to attend a VSO performance. But she admitted she might have taken longer to buy a ticket without a pre-concert event to motivate her. “I’m not certain what to expect from the symphony performance,” she said. “But, let’s face it, how many opportunities are there to dress up in Burlington?” Her voice trailed off when she spotted a former classmate from St. Michael’s College. “I haven’t seen that guy in almost 10 years!”
Tim Curtin, a test engineer for IBM and a three-event Yo Pro veteran, credited the group with making him “a born-again classical-music lover. I wandered away for a long while, but this was a terrific excuse to learn how ridiculously great the VSO really is,” he enthused. “Plus, the networking possibilities are definitely there.”
To Frenzen, however, the art of attracting younger people to the symphony isn’t just about socializing and discounts. She writes her own program notes for Yo Pro members, partly to address the complaint that VSO programs sometimes seem more suited to a music theory PhD than to a novice, or even intermediate-level, listener. A passage from the VSO’s online notes for Saturday’s performance of Chasing Light, by Joseph Schwantner, is a case in point:
The strings present a theme derived from the pedal point rhythmic gesture and the brass three-note figure leading to an extended series of upward thrusting six-note sonorities.
“I took 15 years of classical piano and I find that confusing,” Frenzen said, laughing. Her notes combine humor and history in a way that stands in stark contrast to standard VSO material. Take this excerpt from her introduction to the same show:
So, the concert on the 25th is going to be dope. [Music Director] Jaime Laredo (who happens to be très cool) will be conducting (that’s the guy with the stick), and this super young violinist (Augustin Hadelich) is going to be the guest soloist — just to remind us all how much talent we lack.
“We have to assume that the people we invite to these events are newcomers to the symphony experience,” Frenzen said. “And if we don’t speak to them in a different way or make the environment more welcoming, we’ll just add problem to problem. Besides, who decreed that you couldn’t joke around in program notes?”
As the Yo Pros signed bar tabs and prepared for the short walk across City Hall Park to the Flynn, the rain let up slightly. Giulia Eliason, who works in pharmaceutical sales, gathered her bag and coat and looked relieved that her flaxen hair would remain un-drenched. Asked what prompted her to join the Yo Pros, she smiled and said, “Well, my mother is the music director for the Library of Congress, so I feel a little obligated. But really, it’s just nice to add a little blond to that sea of silver in the audience.”
The next scheduled Yo Pro event is on January 24, before the 8 p.m. Vermont Symphony Orchestra performance of works by Sergei Prokofiev, Jorge Martin and David Ludwig. For more info, call the VSO office at 864-5741, ext. 10, or consult its blog.