Jerry Kern Has Made a Lot of Noise With the CSO, But Can It Survive Discord With the City?
As the brass quintet launched into a sweeping rendition of an old Hollywood score, camera crews captured the historic action. This was one of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's controversial Classically Cannabis fundraisers, possibly the first-ever symphonic marijuana celebration anywhere -- even if the private event, held at the posh new Space Gallery on Santa Fe Drive, was for the most part unremarkable. There were no psychedelic numbers squeezed into the quintet's program of jazz and ragtime favorites, no noticeably pot-fueled shenanigans from the several hundred well-dressed attendees as they sipped wine and socialized.
Out on the gallery's open-air patio, though, patrons were free to smoke the marijuana they'd brought for the occasion -- and from the media's perspective, that was all that mattered. Reporters in attendance made note of the marijuana boutonnieres pinned to many of the guests' chests, the special green neckties the musicians wore for the occasion. Such details would end up in the New York Times, the Times of London, even on TMZ.
This was far from the first time the symphony had turned heads -- and it won't be the last.
The organization has hosted high-profile musical collaborations and experimental performances; it's launched out-of-the-box fundraising efforts, added big names to its board and hired a new, internationally recognized conductor to run the show. "I really feel that right now we have some of the most positive traction that we've ever had," says Catherine Beeson, who's been the symphony's assistant principal viola player since 1999. "It is a really dynamic and exciting time, not just for us to be working there, but also for the entire metro area that gets to be enjoying this organization."
That's quite a shift from three years ago, when the symphony was on the verge of collapse. So what triggered the turnaround? Who's responsible for such bold moves as the world's first marijuana-friendly symphony shindig?
The answer, says nearly everyone associated with the organization, is symphony CEO Jerome Kern.
The current layout of the Denver Performing Arts Complex (pictured here) may not last for long.
At one Classically Cannabis evening, Kern stood near the front of the crowd alongside his wife, Mary Rossick Kern, with whom he co-chairs the CSO's board of trustees. Standing next to them was Mikey, the fuzzy brown-and-white Havanese they take nearly everywhere they go, clad in a service-dog vest. When asked later if the service-dog vest was just a way to get their pet into events like this, Kern sidesteps the question, cracking, "The CEO of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra requires an emotional support animal to assist with the many psychological issues he has to deal with." But here at the fundraiser, Kern didn't appear to be struggling with any sort of psychological problems. He was cool and collected, his healthy 77-year-old frame draped in stylish, summery white pants and shirt. He didn't waste much time shmoozing or checking out the scene on the smoke-filled patio. ("Forty years ago, I may have tried it once or twice," he says of marijuana. "But I haven't had it recently.") Unlike most listeners, he didn't even nod his head along to the music. He just stood there, emanating quiet authority.
Once a high-powered New York lawyer, Kern built a lucrative career far from the world of nonprofits and performing-arts organizations, holding court in the executive boardrooms of corporations ranging from Tele-Communications Inc. to Playboy Enterprises. According to supporters, that experience makes Kern the sort of bold, no-nonsense leader the symphony needs. In fact, Kern and his wife steered the symphony away from financial catastrophe in 2000, and now he's doing it again -- even if he has to step on a few toes along the way.
"Has Jerry done a good job? Yes. Has Jerry miffed a couple of people? Probably," says former Denver mayor Wellington Webb, who became a symphony boardmember two years ago. "But overall, considering how much time Jerry and Mary have put in, they are working to broaden the symphony's appeal. And that's a good thing. So I think we're lucky to have him."
Justin Bartels, the symphony's principal trumpet player, who programmed the music for the Classically Cannabis event, agrees. "He saved the orchestra," Bartels gushed before the performance began. "Not only is he a friend of the musicians, he is the best boss I've ever worked for."
But the organization's challenges are far from over. While Kern's innovative and tenacious brand of leadership might have won him the support of the symphony's 79 musicians, over the past few months it's led to an increasingly rancorous relationship with the City of Denver, one that could culminate in the demolition of city-owned Boettcher Concert Hall, where the symphony performs. Kern's wheeling and dealing could once more get the symphony out of a bind -- or it could lead to the orchestra losing its home altogether.
No matter what it takes, Kern is adamant: The show must go on.
Jerry Kern came back as the symphony's board co-chair -- and its unpaid CEO.
Jerry Kern is not one to mince words. As Jack Finlaw, chief legal counsel to the governor's office and a member of the symphony's board of trustees, puts it, "Jerry is brusque, frank. He is not a diplomat." (Not that Finlaw sees a problem with that; he considers Kern a dear friend.)
Kern's bluntness extends to the way he runs the symphony. "His style of leadership and mine are completely different," says John Hayes, a former symphony trustee who chaired the board in 2010 and 2011. "Jerry represented very major clients as a New York lawyer. I am a Denver, Colorado, lawyer who represented local elected officials. I come from that particular side of things."
Kern's no-nonsense approach is apparent as soon as you walk in the door of his spartan, immaculate office, around the corner from the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Yes, he readily admits, he's rich, and he could be off traveling the world or playing golf full-time (if golf didn't bore him). He and Mary didn't need to move from their spacious home near Castle Rock to a downtown penthouse last year to be closer to the symphony, the two didn't need to become co-chairs of the organization's board for the second time in eleven years, and he certainly didn't need to become the symphony's pro bono CEO. But, as he says, "on a personal level, I love the challenge. If you are not challenged, you are getting old."
He's passionate about preserving the arts -- but that forthright part of him can't help admitting, "Before I met Mary, I had very little relationship with classical music. And the musicians today would tell you I still have very little connection to classical music." Although he now enjoys going to symphony performances, he says he still wouldn't call himself a classical-music aficionado.
Growing up in Brooklyn as the son of a small-business owner, Kern didn't have much time to appreciate music. He was too busy going places -- from the elite Stuyvesant High School to Columbia University to the New York University School of Law (where his tuition was covered by a public-service scholarship program that now bears his name). After law school, he clerked at the United States Court of Appeals, then worked at the law firm that would become Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, the most profitable firm in the world. For more than two decades, he was principal outside legal counsel for Denver-based Tele-Communications Inc. while it was the largest cable provider in the country, and helped structure its 1999 merger with AT&T. And for a short period in 2009, he was interim CEO of Playboy Enterprises.
Kern had been a Playboy boardmember since 2002, and his history of managing media companies made him a logical choice for the job -- even if his age and straitlaced corporate background did not. As the Chicago Tribune noted at the time, Kern would "probably be the one at the Playboy Mansion wearing silk stockings rather than Hef-style silk pajamas."
"Of course, it's the highlight of my career, if you talk to any male," says Kern with a smirk. "But I will say it publicly: There were no special perks." Instead, his role at Playboy was the same as it's been through much of his career: He was the fixer.
"I always had the ability to simplify issues," Kern explains. "I was always able to walk into a situation and say, 'Okay, what do we agree on, what are the real issues, and how can we resolve those issues?" At Playboy, the issue was that Playboy still had a great brand but was struggling to meet financial targets in the brave new world of online adult entertainment. So to Kern, the solution was to cut away the superfluous parts of the business that didn't support the core bunny brand.
Kern's no-nonsense approach would also prove useful when he first got involved with the Colorado Symphony. In 1997, he moved from New York to Colorado to get a divorce from his first wife (at the time, New York only allowed at-fault divorces, meaning one of the parties had to prove the other had committed serious wrongdoings), and soon after, he met Mary Rossick, who would become his second wife. "She's a very beautiful, talented woman," says Kern. "Plus she likes my jokes."
Mary was also passionate about the Colorado Symphony Orchestra; she'd served as its first director of development from 1990 to 1994. After the two were married, they decided in 2000 to give a $1 million challenge grant to the organization, the largest gift the symphony had ever received. But before parting with all that money, Kern wanted to see the symphony's financials. And he wasn't pleased with what he saw.
Like Playboy, the symphony had a strong brand. While it's rarely considered in the same league as the country's top orchestras -- the Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, many of which have hefty endowments -- fans argue that the CSO has a history of outshining its reputation and budget, and also of pushing boundaries.
"The symphony has long had this history and culture of being on the edge," says Gene Sobczak, who served as the symphony's executive vice president from 2002 to 2007. He notes that the symphony's predecessor, the Denver Symphony Orchestra, was among the first in the country to hire black musicians. And when the 55-year-old DSO collapsed into bankruptcy in 1989, the musicians left behind pulled another bold move: They founded the Colorado Symphony Orchestra as a cooperative, and the organization, with nine musicians on its board of trustees, has been known as a musician-focused orchestra ever since.
"We do not operate as a co-op anymore, but the really positive vestige of that is we have really great communication channels between the board, the senior staff and the orchestra members, and that is unusual," says Beeson.
But, as Kern saw when he looked at the books, the symphony's brand was tarnished by financial struggles. "Expenses were too high and contributions were too low," he says. So he and Mary decided to help fix things. In exchange for their $1 million gift, they became co-chairs of the symphony's board -- and soon they were shaking things up. They replaced the organization's CEO, implemented more careful budgeting procedures, and lured in new corporate donors. Finally, in 2006, the two bowed out. "That's a long stretch for board chairs for a not-for-profit organization," says Kern. Still, looking back, he admits: "We probably didn't do enough."
And that's why he's right back where he started.
Justin Bartels at the May 23 Classically Cannabis event.
Kern and his wife got the call from a group of symphony musicians in September 2011. The orchestra was in trouble, they said; they needed the Kerns' help.
The trouble had been all over the news. While Denver voters had approved a $60 million bond issue in 2007 to renovate Boettcher Concert Hall -- the largest part of the $550 million Better Denver Program passed that year -- the symphony hadn't come close to raising the $30 million in donations it needed to collect in order to take advantage of the bond vote. What's more, the orchestra hadn't had a music director for three years. Most troubling of all was an internal sustainability report leaked to the press that suggested the symphony had run up a $600,000-plus deficit and amassed a $1.2 million debt, and had "a high probability of demise within the next two years."
The Colorado Symphony wasn't the only orchestra facing tough financial times. In the wake of the 2008 recession, symphonies in Honolulu, Syracuse, Albuquerque and Louisville had all declared bankruptcy. Even powerhouse orchestras weren't immune: In 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the country's "Big Five," filed for Chapter 11. People didn't have the money to splurge on symphony tickets and concert subscriptions -- and, possibly more troubling, they didn't seem to have the interest.
"I think a lot of this has to do with the educational system in the schools," says Rachelle Schlosser, director of media relations at the League of American Orchestras. "Years ago, every kid would have had a solid music education, and that's not really the case now. Plus, younger people like their experiences, and their interests are different than those of baby boomers. These challenges are not just in the concert hall itself; it's also in the fundraising arena. Children are not necessarily giving to the same organizations that their parents gave to, and there is a lot more competition out there."
In 1937, audience studies in several cities suggested that the median age at classical concerts was around thirty. The same wouldn't be true today. According to Greg Sandow, a musician and critic who covers the symphony industry, at New York City's classical station WQXR, the current median age of listeners is 73.
And while Colorado might still have its fair share of older, wealthy classical-music fans, they aren't necessarily supporting the Colorado Symphony. "We have one of the wealthiest communities in the world in Vail, but they have the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival," says Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association. "Some of the big donors in Vail should pay more attention to the Colorado Symphony rather than just fly in the New York Philharmonic."
Making matters much, much worse was that in 2011, the Colorado Symphony appeared to be in danger of losing the very thing that made it unique: the collaborative atmosphere between the musicians and the management. At the time, musicians were fuming over salaries; two years before, they'd agreed to slash their base by 24 percent. Now, as part of contract negotiations, the trustees were asking for more cuts -- and the sustainability report suggested that the musicians should work even more. "There were members of the orchestra who were feeling more and more paranoid about what was going on," says Beeson. "It was a pretty toxic working environment."
At the same time, some deep-pocketed trustees had reached their financial breaking point. "The orchestra was unable to maintain a viable business plan that didn't rely on end-of-the-year six- and seven-figure contributions from various people," says then-board chair Hayes. "The angels on the board got to the point of saying, 'Not again. We have to make the orchestra self-sustaining.'"
It didn't help that the CEO at the time, Jim Palermo, wasn't the sort of unifying figure who could bridge the divide. "Jim Palermo was never very popular with the players," remembers Hayes. "He wanted to shake things up a bit, and he didn't give the musicians the kind of deference that they thought they should receive."
The situation came to a head on Friday, September 23: After the musicians put off a vote to accept additional pay cuts, twenty of the thirty community members on the orchestra's board resigned. (Hayes had already planned on retiring from the board, for personal reasons.)
"The board at that time believed the musicians would just pack up and go home," says Susan Rockey Boyles, who's been a cellist with the symphony since 1980. "Those who left the board did not know the strength or tenacity of our group. We do not give up or quit."
Instead, they turned to the Kerns.
At first the couple expected to have limited involvement. "When we re-engaged three years ago in October, we did not have any real desire to become chairs or boardmembers. Maybe we could be mediators, putting everyone in the room and having some rational thought prevail," Jerry Kern says. "But we tried that, and that atmosphere was so toxic, it became clear that unless we really got engaged, nothing was going to happen." So they agreed to again become co-chairs of the symphony's board. They brought back Gene Sobczak, who was then executive director of the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, to work as CEO; after a year, Kern himself took the job. While it's not common for an arts organization's board chair to also be CEO, there's local precedent: Daniel Ritchie serves a similar dual role at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. Adds Kern, "I may not have had the skill set, but I was priced right" (he doesn't take a salary).
Even so, the symphony continued to struggle with expenses that were too high and revenues that were too low. To cut costs, Kern asked the musicians to accept a temporary pay cut and more flexible work rules that allowed the symphony to perform in smaller venues in Arvada, Lone Tree and Parker. This time, the musicians accepted the concessions without rancor. "I think there was a level of trust that never went away," Kern says. "Why would they have reached out to us if they didn't trust us? The musicians were convinced that our interest was in preserving the institution, stabilizing the institution and growing the institution so their income would increase. They were willing to work together with us to make that happen."
Kern, in turn, refused to consider money-saving options that would have violated that trust, such as going with a proposal to cut the orchestra to just a handful of full-time musicians, with the rest of the ensemble filled out with musicians on a performance-by-performance basis. "It's a fatally flawed idea if you want a top-ten orchestra in the country," says Kern. "An orchestra gets better when they play together for a time. It's just like a football team."
So instead, Kern worked to increase revenues. He used $125,000 of his own money to spur a flurry of donations, large and small, and the organization ended the 2011-2012 season with a budget surplus. And while there were a lot of positions to fill on the symphony's board after the trustee shake-up, the Kerns knew their way around Denver's elite. Soon they'd landed big names like former mayor Webb and Rich Kylberg, vice-president of communications for Arrow Electronics. "I've known Jerry for a long time. He is entirely personally invested in this thing," says Kylberg. "When you have someone who is such a talented and respected business leader who is putting themselves into this thing 100 percent and is coming to you asking for help, the answer is, 'Yes. What can I do?'" Thanks to Kylberg's involvement, in 2013 the symphony composed and performed an Arrow theme song in exchange for $100,000 in corporate support, among other sponsor benefits.
Meanwhile, under the stewardship of Anthony Pierce, vice president of artistic administration, the symphony has been pulling out all the stops to reach new audiences. It has drawn crowds to Red Rocks Amphitheatre with high-profile musical collaborations with artists like DeVotchKa and the Lumineers. It's partnered with Denver Comic Con on sci-fi- and superhero-themed concerts, during which attendees are encouraged to live-tweet the performance. Last summer, at the Westword Music Showcase, the orchestra performed parts of alt-rock icon Beck's Song Reader sheet-music collection, packing Curious Theatre and picking up new fans who've gone on to attend more traditional symphony concerts. "We need to get in front of people," says Pierce. "We have got to engage them and show them the sublime power of what only a symphony can create. We do that in many ways now."
The symphony isn't forgoing its commitment to the classics, though. In 2012, it announced that it was filling its musical-director vacancy by hiring Andrew Litton, a celebrated conductor who leads symphonies all over the world. Litton wasn't looking for a new gig when Kern and then-CEO Sobczak began courting him for the job -- but then he came to Denver in early 2012 to conduct a series of masterworks performances with the symphony. "Andrew took to that orchestra like it was his own," says Sobczak. "Those performances were among the high-water marks of the symphony."
They also convinced Litton to take the job. "It is such a fine orchestra," he says. "Their level of playing is so much higher than their weight class." And the symphony had another thing going for it, he adds: Jerry Kern. "When he took over as CEO, basically as his retirement job, all the issues that usually come up between management and musicians in American orchestras simply vanished," Litton says. "It's wonderful when everyone is pulling in the same direction, and all too rare."
Kern doesn't meddle much with the artistic side of the operation, he says: "I don't add much value to the programming or marketing of the music." But his resolute, can-do attitude infuses the organization's overall approach. "Jerry is an energizing kind of guy," says Basil Vendryes, principal viola for the symphony. "He does things that have not been done before, and he embraces them. With Jerry at the helm, we are trying things we've never done before and embracing change."
Launch new fundraising initiatives, like a 5K run/walk and a "Beethoven and Brews" concert series? Why not? Work with the Colorado Rockies on a new team theme song? Sounds like a plan. Compose symphonic video-game music for the "OhHeckYeah" video arcade-cum-art installation that took over several blocks of Champa Street earlier this summer? Worth a try. Partner with marijuana businesses on the world's first pot-infused symphony fundraising events? Now, there's an idea...
For Kern, working with Colorado's booming marijuana industry was a no-brainer. "It was a very simple calculation on our part," he says. "It's a legal business here in Colorado, so as long as we're doing it legally, we are happy to have the financial support and exposure to this audience." That's why he didn't waste much time hemming and hawing over the decision to have the marijuana industry sponsor -- to the tune of $130,000 -- not just a series of small fundraising performances in town, but also a full, theoretically pot-free symphony concert at Red Rocks on September 13. "Jerry and the board discussed the concept of the cannabis series in board meetings in a general way before there was a concrete plan," says Laura Bond, the symphony's director of community and media relations. "Reaction was generally positive." But the board wasn't notified that the cannabis series was actually going forward until early in the evening of April 28 -- a few hours before the story broke in the Denver Post.
Denver officials were less than thrilled with the news. The events, they warned, risked violating laws prohibiting public marijuana use. (Vicente Sederberg, one of the leading marijuana law firms in Denver, reviewed the plans on a pro bono basis and "had full confidence in the legality of the event series," says Bond. The symphony, however, did not specifically consult city zoning laws relating to the events.) So the symphony worked with the city and came up with a compromise: The events would be invitation-only. Meanwhile, the controversy only increased media interest, turning the undertaking into international news.
But did that attention translate to a big win for the budget? A few regulars were turned off by the cannabis series, Bond acknowledges; roughly twenty households downgraded or canceled their subscriptions in part because of it, and about twenty regular donors walked away. But the season's attrition rate was no higher than usual, she points out, and the symphony is now actively courting the hundreds of people who attended the cannabis series, half of whom had no past history with the organization. Since the new season's tickets and subscriptions just went on sale, Bond says it's too early to determine whether the symphony will see an uptick in sales.
Even with all these creative efforts, the symphony is still far from stable financial footing, and it lost money the past two seasons. Part of the problem is that while the reinvigorated board is full of big names, those people might not have big pocketbooks. "You need to have people on the board who can write the checks, and people who are passionate about the symphony," says Heather Miller, executive vice-president of marketing communications for UMB Bank and one of the boardmembers who left in 2011. And right now, Miller adds, she isn't seeing on the board the typical heavy hitters from industries like banking, oil and gas and telecommunications who can write those big checks.
"We are watching every dime and every penny," concedes Vendryes. "We are comparable to some of the great orchestras of the world, and we don't make that kind of money. The managers are all at the top of their profession, and they are not making what they are worth." Currently, a symphony musician's base salary is around $43,000. While many of the players make significantly more than that, the base is still lower than that of many other symphonies. In Atlanta, symphony base pay is about $73,000, while in St. Louis, it's over $80,000.
Litton agrees that his musicians are unfairly compensated. "Orchestras that play as well in other parts of the country make at least twice as much money," he says. "There is something unjust about that." Still, he believes the right man is in charge to help: "If Jerry can't fix it, it's not possible to fix it."
Jerry and Mary Rossick Kern with Mikey.
When Boettcher Concert Hall opened in 1978 as the new home of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, it was celebrated as the country's first symphony hall in the round, the centerpiece of the new Denver Performing Arts Complex. Since then, however, Boettcher's reputation has soured.
"There is not a single good round concert hall on the planet," says Litton bluntly. "You need reflective surfaces, and the best concert halls are rectangular. The sound in Boettcher is uninviting, because it goes straight up. When you go to Carnegie Hall, the sound hits you straight in the chest. It's dramatic." The venue is also way too large, he adds; the symphony can rarely fill its 2,679 seats.
The 36-year-old hall is in desperate need of repairs, too. Since the symphony was never able to raise the $30 million required before it could use its $60 million bond issue, in 2012 the organization defaulted on its contract and the city distributed most of that money to other arts organizations. That leaves just $17 million or so for Boettcher's planned renovations -- and that won't be enough, says Kent Rice, executive director of Denver Arts & Venues, which manages the building.
"Seventy percent of that money would go to improvements that a patron would not see and that musicians would not see any benefit from," Rice explains. "We would be able to make infrastructure improvements like a new elevator, upgraded HVAC, a new lobby area and a couple new bathrooms, but when you got beyond the lobby, everything would look the same.
"People voted for improvements to the hall," he adds. "The conundrum is, what do you do with the money that is left that would be meaningful?"
In June, Arts & Venues convened a stakeholder group comprising various city officials and other parties to answer that question. The consensus was that a partial renovation of Boettcher wasn't tenable, Rice says. Instead, the group latched on to a far more radical idea: Tear down the hall and replace it with an outdoor amphitheater.
Not only would the move save money, but it could reinvigorate the Denver Performing Arts Complex, says Rice. First conceived in the 1970s, the four-block, ten-venue complex houses the symphony as well as the Colorado Ballet, Opera Colorado and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts (the latter owns and operates the stages in the Helen Bonfils Theatre building, home to the Denver Center Theatre Company). But the complex has struggled to hold its own as a vibrant urban space that attracts diverse audiences. An open-air venue where Boettcher now sits at the complex's southeast corner could be the perfect geographic and cultural draw. "It's not just about Boettcher; it's about finding something we could do that could get a demographic shift into the arts complex and help expose more people to the classical performing arts," says Rice.
The move would also leave the Colorado Symphony without a performing space. But the symphony wasn't invited to be part of the stakeholder group; according to Dan Rowland, assistant director of marketing and communications for Arts & Venues, that's because at the time it wasn't clear the organization would even be sticking around.
Early this year, the symphony asked the city to significantly cut its $323,000 rent for the 2014-2015 season, to help cover the costs of finding a temporary home during Boettcher's renovations, originally set for summer 2015. If the city declined, the symphony suggested that it might vacate the premises as soon as this September. The symphony needed the financial break, Kern says, especially since it already pays Denver several hundred thousand dollars through a 10 percent "seat tax" on each ticket sold. The city gave similar concessions to the Colorado Ballet and Opera Colorado when they had to accommodate renovations on the Quigg Newton Denver Municipal Auditorium -- now the Ellie Caulkins Opera House -- a decade ago, he notes.
Last month, the symphony got its wish. Denver City Council agreed to reduce the symphony's 2014-2015 rent to $1, and in exchange, the organization will donate $270,000 worth of tickets and sponsorships to the city. Those tickets will be donated to residents, in hopes of drawing in new audiences. "It was extremely beneficial to the symphony," Rice says of the deal -- but the standoff led city officials to question the orchestra's long-term commitment to its concert hall. "They were looking for another place to play because of the cost to stay in Boettcher," says Rice. "That weighed into our consideration of how to spend out the bond money. To spend $17 million for a partial renovation to a venue for a resident company that might not even being playing there -- that creates a business and public-service challenge for us."
But Kern insists that the symphony wants to stay at the arts complex, so when he heard in late July that the city was actively considering demolishing Boettcher, it was an unpleasant surprise -- especially since the news came from the directors of the Colorado Ballet and Opera Colorado, whom Arts & Venues had told about the plan before it had informed Boettcher's own tenant. "We met with the opera and ballet first so that we could inform them of the pending free-rent deal being offered to the symphony," says Rowland. "It was important to let them know about the deal beforehand so they weren't caught off guard by it."
Instead, the symphony was caught off guard by the news that it could be losing its home. Kern quickly fired back, releasing to the media an e-mail he'd received from Rice noting that demolition was "the leading idea" for Boettcher, along with a statement blasting the proposal for being "out of step with the spirit of innovation and visionary thinking that define modern Denver."
While the symphony might be the most forthright in its opposition to the proposal, it's not the only arts-complex tenant dismayed by the idea of scrapping Boettcher -- especially if that means the symphony might move into the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, which already houses the ballet and opera. "The Ellie is a beautiful hall, but it wasn't made for a symphony," says Gil Boggs, artistic director of the Colorado Ballet. The Ellie has a busy schedule from September until after Christmas with a variety of ballet and opera performances, he adds, including the ballet's lucrative annual Nutcracker run: Would these organizations have to tear down their sets after every performance to accommodate the symphony's season, which begins each September?
Besides, Boggs isn't sure an open-air venue will solve the arts complex's woes. "Just putting in an open-air amphitheater doesn't mean you will attract a younger crowd," he says. "If you have a dedicated space that is only usable for three to four months a year, are you really going to attract people and keep them attracted?"
Thanks to the symphony's media blitzkrieg, the Boettcher demolition proposal became major news -- to the dismay of the orchestra's landlord. "We didn't want to have front-page discussions or revelations, since we were just at the first step of the process," Rice says.
But that's the way Kern operates: He doesn't keep quiet. "It was our clear intention to make it a public conversation," he says. "I think a question like whether we should tear down Boettcher Concert Hall should be a public conversation, not a private one." Especially since these days, he's not optimistic that the city is looking out for the symphony's best interest.
"There were times in the past when the city administrations were much more economically supportive of the symphony," Kern says. "It was true that both the Webb administration and the Hickenlooper administration were much more economically supportive than the Hancock administration. And when there were conversations about how to handle a variety of problems, there was real dialogue between the administration and the symphony."
Even if the demolition plan blows up, Kern doesn't think the symphony will have to move out after the coming season to accommodate renovation work. "Based on how the city is forced to plan capital projects, there is no way it will be ready to begin working on Boettcher Concert Hall on July 1, 2015," he says. "If it is going to be deferred for another year, we would like to remain in the hall for 2016, at a venue cost that works for us."
Eventually, the symphony will have to decamp, at least for part of its season, and play in places like the Paramount Theatre, the Newman Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Denver, and Macky Auditorium at the University of Colorado at Boulder. But after that, Kern would like to see the symphony back at a new and improved concert hall at the arts complex -- and he's working on a plan to make that happen. While he's not ready to divulge details, he says, "We are working on a bigger idea that would solve some of the great problems of the complex, such as how to draw people in and turn the campus into a 24/7 area."
Kern warns that if he can't push through his plan, the symphony might leave the complex for good -- and he suggests that it might not be the only organization to do so. "We are having threshold conversations with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Opera Colorado and the Colorado Ballet, to see if it made some sense for more than one of us to move out," he says.
The fate of Boettcher Concert Hall is far from the only challenge Kern is tangling with these days. Last week, he began tough negotiations with the American Federation of Musicians. The symphony's integrated media agreement with the national musicians' union expired a year ago, and Kern is hoping to renegotiate the contract to allow his musicians more freedom to participate in commercial and electronic-media recordings. "The recording rules were constructed to favor larger organizations that can pay their people higher salaries and generate a larger portion of their sales from recordings," says Kern. "I have some of the best musicians in a thousand-mile radius. How do I help them make money from making music?" (Jay Blumenthal, director of the AFM's Symphonic Services Division, says he can't comment on matters that are the subject of ongoing negotiations.)
Then there's the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, the special metro-area tax district that generates more than $40 million in funding a year for hundreds of Denver organizations. The SCFD is scheduled to come up for a vote again in 2016, and Kern would like to see the symphony -- which received $926,818 in fiscal year 2014 -- get a larger piece of the pie. "I believe the formula as it is now constructed is prejudicial against the symphony," he says. "I think it's time to analyze the way it has worked, the pluses and minuses, and decide whether the current distribution is fair."
In-the-round Boettcher rounds out the Denver Performing Arts Complex.
But the symphony faces an even bigger challenge, one that won't be solved by savvy political moves, innovative programming or even the sheer force of will that is Jerome Kern: At a time when fewer than 10 percent of American adults attend even a single classical concert all year, when classical albums account for less than 3 percent of all music sales, and when orchestra players account for just 2 percent of all working U.S. musicians, does it still make sense for communities to be subsidizing symphonies?
"The city isn't responsible for insuring the long-term life of the symphony," says Rice. "The people who are very concerned about what will happen to the symphony -- those people, I hope, are the season-ticket holders and major donors. And if they are not, it is tough for me to see how the burden should shift to all the taxpayers in the city. Should every taxpayer and property owner have to pay additional money to keep alive the symphony or the opera or the ballet? The community needs to decide that."
For Kern, the answer is clear: The show must go on.
"These truly are the best musicians that our society turns out, and they play some of the best music ever written," he says. "While modern taste in music changes reasonably frequently, classical music is still classical music. And what's interesting about it is that classical was once popular music. When you go back to the beginning, it was everybody's music.
"That's what we're trying to bring back," he concludes. "This is everybody's orchestra."
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