Argovia Philharmonic on increasing subscriptions

Intendant Christian Weidmann says Argovia Philharmonic is enjoying more visitors than ever before. The secret to his success? Likeability. Maria Roberts finds out more

When I speak with Christian Weidmann he’s very happy to tell me that Argovia Philharmonic can boast five times more subscribers than it had three years ago. “Which means that for most of the concerts we are sold out or we are very close to being sold out,” he adds for clarity. The turnaround came, he says, from bringing in Magnus Still from Still Arts to adjust their strategy.

“Magnus is right in what he says about subscriptions, exactly right. There is no magic, there is no secret, it simply comes down to the basic rules of marketing. You have to believe in subscriptions as a model, you have to believe that it is what people want. People are in the habit of subscribing due to apps, computer software, Spotify and so on – even more so now than ever before. Many people prefer subscription offers because they are busy and love to plan for the year ahead. We also understand that it is not the young people, aged 20 to 25, but the 55-plus age group that make use of our subscription offer. With this in mind, we focus our efforts on building up a customer relationship with that demographic.”

Weidmann continues that it is important to present something that suits the environment. “We are not in New York, we are not in Zurich, we are in Aargau. We’re working to match the ground supply here: that is why we have a focus on Beethoven, but we also feature chamber recitals with new artists. If people want to come to a concert, and listen to modern music, they can (though if we programmed 50% of every concert with modern music, it would be hard to sell). And if they want something else, they can have that too.”

Argovia Philharmonic in the new venue
Argovia Philharmonic in the new venue

This kind of pick’n’mix approach suits Argovia Philharmonic because it means they can take risks on new repertoire. Like the world premiere of a new composition for clarinet by American jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. Shorter’s Sherwood Forest, commissioned by Argovia Philharmonic and Julian Bliss, premiered on 17 September 2017 in Aarau, followed by dates in Aarau (19 September) and Baden (20 September). The programme included Beethoven’s Symphony No 3: Eroica alongside Girga by contemporary Swiss composer Martin Jaggi.

“We are not just trying to sell them the music, we are trying to sell them us”

“That concert sold out. Usually these sorts of concerts happen in the bars of the big Swiss cities, but not in Aarau, a little town of 20,000 people.”

What makes the difference? “We are not just trying to sell them the music, we are trying to sell them us, the programme, the orchestra. Our brand has always been connected with a focus on who we are. We let audiences see the motivation of who we are, and what we do, and it is from that point that they buy a subscription to Argovia Philharmonic – because they like us.”

Presently Arogvia Philharmonic is looking for a new chief conductor with ambitions to match their own. 2018-19 will be British conductor Douglas Bostock’s last season with the ensemble. His outgoing programme will feature a guest concert by Krzysztof Penderecki, who will lead the orchestra in a special programme a few days before his 85th birthday.

Weidmann and his team have just finished producing their first children’s opera, Fell and Feder, a story of friendship between a chicken and dog, which they hope will be performed in Switzerland for years to come and uses simple staging, costumes and song to reach its young audiences (the world premiere was on 4 March).

Adds Weidmann: “Fell and Feder shows how motivated we are to find ways to reach out to our audience and to children. Everything for this production can be easily toured in an opera box we designed, which contains a set, lighting and stage. We can take it with us wherever we go: we need to be versatile because we have to play in a geographically wide area, often in places with small venues and not a lot of space on stage. This attention to finding new ways to bring music to people builds a lot of love for our orchestra. Outreach such as this might be common in England, but not so in Switzerland.

Argovia Philharmonic might be based in the small town of Aarau, but it’s ambitions are far from provincial. Weidmann is currently in the middle of a campaign to renovate an existing building into a new concert hall (pictured above). “We have finalised the plans and calculations, which the people of Aarau will vote on in a referendum on 10 June. If everything goes well, the new venue will open in October 2020.”

This feature appeared in the April 2018 issue of IAM.