Classical music is a hard sell almost everywhere you go these days, but that hasn't deterred the Colorado Symphony Orchestra from trying harder. On the brink of a new season, the CSO is also at a crossroads, anticipating the eventual loss of Maestra Marin Alsop and those new directions that will come with her replacement. (Though still a presence in the organization and throughout the coming season, Alsop has changed from music director into music director laureate, a subtle distinction that means less time in Denver, both on stage and behind the scenes with the CSO.) It's a lot to wrangle while still providing quality cultural entertainment, but CSO head Douglas Adams says the orchestra will do just that this year with improved marketing and an especially strong season-opening repertoire.
"We're hoping to get people engaged early on this year; then we can entice them to come back," Adams says of the season, which kicks off Saturday night with Tony Bennett for the pops crowd and digs into the classical mode the following weekend with pianist Yefim Bronfman performing Tchaikovsky and Alsop on the podium. Quick on the heels of those offerings come more pops shows with Doc Severinsen, Wynton Marsalis and José Feliciano; such tried-and-true programming as Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, Vivaldi's Four Seasonsand Mozart's Coronation Mass; and great soloists, including the crossover duo of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Mark O'Connor, Anne Akiko-Meyers and Midori.
Meanwhile, the hunt for a new music director is on. "The process of replacing conductors is a very long one," Adams says. "Most conductors, especially the ones in great demand, book years in advance. But we've been into this for two years already, and we've assembled a list of candidates. By next spring, we might actually be in position to make a selection; there isa light at end of the tunnel." But he concedes that Alsop is the proverbial hard act to follow: "She has all the skills you could want in a music director: on the podium, in terms of musicianship, in her ability to build an orchestra and to be able to turn around and speak to the audience. It's rare to find all that in one person."
And Alsop isn't leaving the building for two more years, at least. "I plan to spend these two years focusing more on the artistic aspects of the orchestra -- conducting and programming," she notes, with obvious pleasure at the idea of being able to stretch out. "It's more of a vision thing, rather than the day-to-day administration." And she remains ever enthusiastic about her time here: "It's been fantastic for me to watch the symphony grow and to be able to participate in that evolution. But I think the best testament I can make is to say that I intend to make Denver my home long after I'm finished as music director."
Denver, Alsop adds, boasts audiences both loyal and open-minded. "They like the things they know," she says, "but they love the things they don't know." For that reason, the CSO has had some success with the offbeat programming Alsop has always interspersed among more traditional offerings. "It's ironic that in the arts world, sometimes the idea of being conservative rules," Alsop laments. "You'd think it'd be the opposite, that the ranks would be filled with risk- takers. But for some reason, everybody hunkers down with the same old thing." Avoiding that, says Adams, "involves the vision of a music director who's not on autopilot. But while we await that appointment, we will continue to feature new music. Those things are not about ego of the orchestra; they're things that bring attention in a positive way." Put simply, this will be a season to savor.
"It really rocks!" Alsop enthuses. "Come and hear us."