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Burlington Ensemble Tries New Model for Bringing Classical Music to Crowds

State of the Arts


A curious thing is happening in the world of classical music: Audiences appear to be graying, yet conservatories are as packed as ever with young musicians training for a career in performance. How, in their professional careers, do they get people to listen?

Three Vermont musicians — violinists Michael Dabroski, 42, of South Burlington and Sofia Hirsch, 39, of Middlebury, and pianist Samantha Angstman, 19, of Williston — have hit on a way to gain new audiences for this centuries-old art. The three are cofounders of the new Burlington Ensemble. According to Dabroski, BE — “as in ‘be kind, be inspired, be involved’” — represents “a new paradigm of arts management.”

Here’s how it works. BE plays a series of “90/10” fundraising concerts for area nonprofits. Instead of selling tickets, each nonprofit collects $5 minimum donations at the door and keeps 90 percent of them, while BE keeps 10. In return, the charities provide BE’s marketing by sending out email blasts, tweets and Facebook updates to their donor lists and member bases. And they do this collectively: Not only the hosting nonprofit but all future and past hosts notify their supporters each time a concert approaches.

Those combined contacts already number in the thousands. By contrast, says Dabroski, the main brain of the project, “If I do it the traditional way — give a concert and leave an email sign-up list at the door — my list would probably be 50 people.” And those people would have come because they’re already fans of classical music — whereas the larger pool is likely to include individuals with little exposure to the art who will show up simply to support the nonprofit.

The low minimum donation is meant to appeal particularly to families that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford a night of classical music. “That’s where we began: Make this ridiculously available,” recalls Ed Wilkens, development director at the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston, which hosted the first BE 90/10 evening in mid-September.

Entitled “A Precocious Prodigy,” that concert, which drew 125 attendees, honored the center’s support for gifted, special-needs children by including three quartets composed by 14-year-old Beethoven. As Stern’s marketing coordinator, Kate Stein, who is also a bassoon player, notes, “These are works that you don’t get to hear in Burlington very often.”

“What’s fascinating is why people are coming to these concerts,” Dabroski muses with an intensity that’s no doubt augmented by the cup of Speeder & Earl’s coffee he’s drinking. With his round glasses and sheaf of paperwork — including graphs of BE’s operating plan — the downstate New York native comes across more businessman than professional musician. Yet Dabroski started with the violin in public-school kindergarten, played Carnegie Hall at age 13 with the New York Youth Symphony, and studied at the Manhattan School of Music.

After earning a master’s in music history at Temple University, Dabroski founded the Adirondack Ensemble in tiny North Creek, N.Y. — the Adirondack Park’s first year-round source of classical-music performances. He ran it for the next 10 years using traditional means: federal and state arts grants, traveling performances in area towns, and marketing coups, such as a benefit concert featuring jazz-pop pianist Harry Connick Jr.

Moving to Vermont in 2005 “for love” — his wife is a Burlington pediatrician — gave Dabroski the chance to rethink that model. He joined the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, where he met fellow BE founder and violinist Hirsch. (Both are also Burlington Chamber Orchestra members.) The two gave an experimental benefit concert for the South Burlington nonprofit Common Roots in August 2009.

Hirsch, a Vermont Youth Orchestra alum who grew up in Shelburne, recalls thinking, “This is a great idea to raise money for great causes” and told Dabroski, “Why aren’t we doing more of these?” Particularly attractive was the idea that, instead of competing for limited audiences with other local groups, an ensemble might be able to use the charity model to increase audiences for all of them.

Soon Hirsch and Dabroski recruited pianist Angstman, the older sister of two of Dabroski’s private-lesson students. Now a sophomore at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Angstman was eager to gain professional experience. Compared with her classmates, says the piano performance major, “I’m getting a head start for sure.” She operates BE’s Facebook and YouTube pages, and notes, “We have 216 Facebook fans. I’m proud of that.”

Burlington Ensemble’s upcoming, wittily themed benefit concerts include “Giving Bach” for the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation and “Large Czechs” for the Committee on Temporary Shelter. The latter is a program of Czech composers, including Bedrich Smetana, who experienced homelessness.