Walking through Center City on a warm, rainy morning this week, I have Schumann on the iPod - the

Overture to Manfred

. It's obvious to me and no one else what makes Schumann so great. Not just that wrenching chord progression that keeps coming back like some awful, implacable guilt. Schumann has this way of maintaining that everything in the world is safe, there to support you, now and always. You can hear nature in all of his music, pushing itself into the score like a reminder of man's idyllic origins. And then he takes it all back. The real truth about life, Schumann argues, is that your reality, everything you think is true, is a mirage.

Sounds trite or maybe overheated in a sophomoric way when you write it, which is what makes committing language to music as tough as it is. But the bigger point is this: Classical music is so large, so deep, so personal that we lack a common language to communicate what's great about it. Maybe the first paragraph of this piece meant something to you; maybe I lost hundreds of others after they saw the name Schumann.

And that, in a nutshell, is classical music's dueling asset and liability.

What does all this have to do with last week's announcement of the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2008-09 season? Think back more than a dozen years.

When it comes to cultural epochs, the thin end of the wedge is often hard to detect. It is pretty obvious, though, that the moment that classical music started to lose its hegemony was 1996, when recording companies began walking away from U.S. orchestras.

Around the same time, subscriptions to live concerts began to plunge, corporate underwriting fell, and incredulous orchestras had to explain to people what was so great about classical music. Explain? Justify? It seemed like a form of humiliation.

Though shaken, the Philadelphia Orchestra hardly stood by like a deer in the headlights. The orchestra has been tinkering with concert presentation since early in the Wolfgang Sawallisch era, putting live video screens in the Academy of Music; dressing musicians for Halloween concerts; devising Access concerts at which a guest takes apart the score with discussion, then puts it all together; holding social events for singles, and talks and postlude concerts to reward audiences for their loyalty.

But you get the feeling, with plans for 2008-09, that for the first time these experiments have been organized into packages with a lot of forethought about who the customer is and what her level of musical education might be. The orchestra's new brochure - designed and written, perhaps significantly, not by a hotshot ad firm but by in-house staff - is the cleanest and most sophisticated marketing piece I've seen come from them. Looked at another way, it's also a smart blueprint for the future.

In short, what the orchestra is now saying is that you can experience it any way you want. The orchestra has researched its audience as part of a larger study by nonprofit consultants WolfBrown, and has responded by crafting "collections" - series of concerts aimed at constituencies with distinct tastes and levels of expertise. The "masterworks" collection, for instance, focuses on warhorses - a curiously under-deployed ambassador for introducing novices to classical music.

If you're an expert, you can assemble a package of concerts that are exactly like the ones you've been hearing since Aunt Bippy took you backstage to meet Stokowski. But other concerts will use projection screens to show close-ups of playing musicians. Some will be followed by parties, or feature talking on stage.

To give you some idea of the scale of change, consider the fact that only half the orchestra's presentations next season will follow the traditional concert format. That's practically a revolution.

It's easy to criticize the glacial pace of change, but the orchestra is bound to the conservatism of its audience, and there's no more delicate balancing act than the one that leans one moment toward following public taste and the next toward leading it.

No question, next season follows the public. There's not a single world premiere in sight. The orchestra has a responsibility to advance the art form, so let's hope this is a brief retrenchment. Audiences love new pieces, too, and yearn to stretch their own definitions of music even if that attitude might not show up in audience surveys.

The same research that encouraged the orchestra to market directly to the stratified audiences with distinct "collections" shows another phenomenon, this one rather alarming.

Turns out young audiences who did not grow up with classical music are perfectly willing to try it. But the level of engagement felt by listeners with no preexisting connection to specific repertoire or artists is severely stunted. What these audiences are saying is: "We went to the orchestra once. We did it. Why come back?"

Art museums have answered that question with the blockbuster show, periodically luring audiences back with their newsiness. Orchestral analogues are harder to find. And anyway, blockbuster attendance has little lasting power.

Long-term education of audiences, especially while they're young, is a more promising if labor-intensive pursuit. There's just no getting around the fact that very few listeners appreciate

Manfred

very much if they're walking in the door hearing the music for the first time.

How many listeners in the six-county area can be given a deep feeling for how great Schumann is? The orchestra might not know how to answer yet, but now at least they're asking the right question.