Classical Music

Colorado Symphony Looks Up — and Sees More Challenges

What do you want first – the good news? Okay. The Colorado Symphony finally posted a budget surplus for the first time in its history. It’s back from the brink of death, with a growing multi-million-dollar endowment and a raft of new and returning corporate sponsors. It’s got a peppy new music director designate. The symphony plans to expand not only its concert season, but its work in recording soundtracks and background music, its work as a backup orchestra for pop and rock musicians, and more.

The bad news? Well, the Symphony is mired in a long-standing and complex dispute with the American Federation of Musicians about these non-concert-hall gigs, for one. And the City of Denver’s going to tear down the symphony’s home, Boettcher Concert Hall, and shunt it into a new venue which is half the size and which the symphony must share with other arts groups. Given these challenges, can the symphony sustain its successful momentum?

Denver’s symphony orchestra has always ridden a sine wave of ups and downs. It originated as the Civic Symphony Orchestra, a volunteer community ensemble. In 1934, the group professionalized itself under the name of the Denver Symphony Orchestra. As such, it persisted until March 1989, brought low by financial woes. DSO musicians Terry Smith and John Weatherill led the initiative to regroup, and the Colorado Symphony sprang to life in the DSO’s place in May 1990.

However, the Colorado Symphony eventually faced financial hardships. A spate of financial problems threatened the organization in 2000. Eleven years later, a renewed shortfall of revenue triggered the cancellation of concerts and the resignation of two-thirds of the symphony’s board of trustees. The emergence of Jerry and Mary Rossick Kern, current co-chairs of the board, over the past fifteen years as problem-solvers led to the symphony’s newfound financial stability.

“It’s great to have cash in the bank,” says Jerry Kern, who serves as the symphony’s CEO as well. “The place was never adequately capitalized and adequately supported by the community. We have come a long way toward resolving that.”

On June 30, 2015, the symphony ended the season with $7,000 in cash – just enough to buy a 2006 Honda Civic, in theory. On June 30, 2016, the surplus stands at more than $1.7 million. Any organization, particularly an arts organization, that can demonstrate a higher net worth enjoys a more solid financial position and inspires greater interest from potential contributors.

“Erasing the deficit expands the prospective donor base,” Kern says. “It’s like the stock market. It takes money to make money."

Kern’s speech has the crackle and tang of old-school New York, where he plied a successful career as a lawyer (he's now in his late seventies). Extensive work with nonprofits and performing-arts organizations gives him a unique amount of experience and insight as to what works and what doesn’t in what is, after all, a branch of showbiz.

“We make music and that’s it,” he says. “We feel that it’s our obligation to create the best of whatever music is out there. We happen to make the best music in the state of Colorado.”

Much of the symphony’s success can be attributed to its adaptability. Kern was quoted in the Denver Post on October 12, 2011, as saying, “’The 21st-century orchestra is not going to be the same as the 19th- or 20th-century orchestra.’” Like many other symphony orchestras across North America, the Colorado Symphony has diversified its offerings to include a much greater portion of contemporary fare.

A flip through the symphony’s 2016-2017 season calendar tallies a near-even split between what would traditionally be considered “serious” concert-hall fare and crossover events – collaborations with contemporary groups and artists such as Elephant Revival, Stewart Copeland and Ben Folds, pop and jazz excursions and holiday shows. There is a Symphonic Tribute to Comic Con, The Music of Michael Jackson, and Pokemon Symphonic Evolutions. The symphony’s upcoming Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: In Concert sold out its first two performances, then added a third and promptly sold that out.

So what’s wrong with being popular? All of Denver’s symphonic leaders of distinction to date have been dedicated to popularizing the organization. Saul Caston, DSO music director from 1945-1964, took the orchestra on tour, initiated school outreach plans, and performed outdoors at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Brian Priestman, a beloved and ebullient Brit, led the orchestra from 1970 to 1979, garnering the greatest amount of community support to date. (Classical station KVOD and dry-goods giant May D & F used to raise money through a weekend-long annual marathon. The orchestra even used to have a kissing booth at the People’s Fair.) Marin Alsop, a disciple of Leonard Bernstein, scheduled new work, led engaging outreach programs, recorded extensively with the orchestra for the Naxos label, and effectively evangelized for the local classical scene from 1993 to 2005.

Now the musical directorship will transfer to the present associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, 37-year-old Brett Mitchell, who takes up the position formally on July 1, 2017. Is Mitchell the kind of committed, charismatic leader the symphony needs?

Kern is a staunch supporter, of course. “When you look at a guy like Brett Mitchell, who’s committed to spending no less than 25 weeks a year in Denver, to move here with his wife, well, we haven’t had that since Marin Alsop,” he says.

“It’s not my first rodeo,” says Mitchell, who’s currently braving Denver’s insane housing market. In a short span of years, the conductor has accumulated a significant amount of experience, ranging from opera to leading the Cleveland Orchestra’s Youth Orchestra. He’s excited about the challenge ahead, praises the musicians (“They’ve been doing their part in this place for so long that it’s a labor of love”) and looks forward to conducting the full range of concert offerings.

“Hey,” the Seattle native says, “I am not the guy who did nothing but listen to Mozart growing up.” He confesses to playing a little alto sax à la David Sanborn – “Hey, it was the '80s!” – but he didn’t really feel the impulse to conduct until his freshman year in college.

“At first I thought I would be a band teacher,” he says. “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Once he determined his career path, he studied extensively with such prominent conductors as Alsop, Kurt Masur and Lorin Maazel. However, he doesn’t disdain the popular fare.

“I think that, having been a staff conductor, I’ve played just about every kind of music there is for orchestra, and I love it all,” Mitchell continues. “I want to do the pop shows and the movies. My interest is to appear on every series, not just the masterworks. Those works need to be performed with the enthusiasm they deserve because they mean something. I mean, John Williams [composer of Star Wars et al.] was my intro to orchestra. That’s a gateway. Developing a broad footprint, having enormous diversity and variety — those are gateways.

“With an audience, you need to develop relatability," he goes on. "If you are doing the same thing over and over again, people can shut you out. The way that we have it is not as a museum, but as part of a continuum. How do you make music that opens ears in a new way that doesn’t make it intimidating? We want to be responsive, not reactive. We’re not dumbing down anything at all. The presentation is managed differently, and there’s more salesmanship to it. We’re just trying to have fun and share these extraordinary experiences.”

So far, so good. All is not beer and Skittles for the symphony, however.

The orchestra is awaiting the decision of an administrative-law judge in the wake of a September 14 hearing concerning points of contention between it and the American Federation of Musicians union. Oddly, Colorado Symphony musicians are on management’s side in the case. Much of the dispute stems from the symphony’s desire to diversify its revenue streams.

In its Consolidated Financial Statements of June 20, 2016, the symphony characterized the dispute as follows:

“Our collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) expired September 30, 2013, after which we attempted to negotiate in good faith a successor agreement with changes to certain terms governing the musicians' compensation for work on soundtracks, audio/video broadcasts and other electronic media, which were necessary to allow the Symphony to take advantage of new and emerging performance opportunities. We were unable to reach agreement with the AFM, and, therefore, we implemented the changes in October 2014.”

“The American Federation of Musicians tends to foster that ‘us versus them’ mentality,” says Kern. “It thinks that it knows better what’s good for the organization and the musicians. Management is viewed negatively – but that’s not what goes on here. We have more of a partnership with the musicians than any orchestra in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Michael Allen, president of AFM Local 20-623, writes that “Everything I know about this dispute fills up four 1.5-inch three-ring binders.” The allegations involved include unfair labor practice charges, employer domination and refusal to furnish information. Colorado Symphony musicians are also looking to exit AFM representation, but this idea can’t be pursued legally until the prior litigation is ended.”

“ . . .The matter currently before the administrative law judge is regarding the unfair labor practice charge and NOT the issue of representation,” Allen writes, “though the outcome of the hearings will certainly have on impact on the issue of representation.”

Then there’s Boettcher. It was the first symphony hall in the round in the United States when it was built in 1978, and since it opened, its innovative design was constantly overshadowed by acoustical problems and a lack of attendance. A $40 million project to upgrade the facility, funded by a 2007 bond issue, was scrapped by the city, and the funds were diverted to other projects.

Now the city plans to demolish Boettcher and relocate the orchestra to a new music hall, “supporting the Symphony and also a diverse range of other musical groups and forms. This hall replaces Boettcher Concert Hall, offering a better and more intimate experience, appropriate in size and form for traditional and contemporary groups,” according to the Executive Summary of the city’s Arts & Venues Department’s Next Stage plan.

Next Stage is a massive revitalization plan that intends to rework the cultural center in and around 14th and Champa Streets into an integrated, mixed-use neighborhood, leaving the Denver Center Theatre Complex, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House and the Buell Theatre unchanged, but making over practically everything else. Three newly designated “opportunity sites” will sandwich arts venues between ground-level retail spaces and commercial towers above.

“The new image of the Arts Complex is that of a community living room,” announces the 88-page Next Stage prospectus. “DPAC’s fortress-like enclosure should become a place that is always open and always active with informal programming.”

The symphony and the city have been at loggerheads on the issue since the plan was first rumored in 2014. The city points to the low seat counts, “changing demographics that have different cultural consumption patterns,” and the “declining audiences for traditional performing arts,” going so far as to cite the complex’s present “economic and racial inaccessibility” – a long way of saying its events are geared toward rich white folks.

Architect Hugh Hardy, who designed Boettcher and whose company is on board with the Next Stage plan, was more explicit. “The specific character of the Arts Complex will come from its emphasis upon use by the largest possible cross-section of the community, amateur and professional alike, and not upon the use by a favored few,” he writes. “The true innovation of the Music Hall will similarly lie in the fact that it is being built to encourage the citizens of Denver to share in the making of music. Such an idea is quite different from using the hall as a device for furthering the remote presentations of a musical aristocracy.”

In response, Kern has termed Next Stage “poor civic planning,” specifically referencing the Symphony's lack of sufficient voice in the planning process as well as the possibility of it having no designated performance space while the new hall is being built. Boettcher has 2,362 seats. The new music hall is slated to have 1,200. There sits the practical crux of two differing visions. If the symphony's revival continues and ticket sales and subscriptions rise — where will the patrons sit?

“We would like to see more seats, maybe 1,500. It’s a little unclear, or a lot unclear, what shape the Next Stage plan will finally take or how long it will take,” says Kern. “Right now, it’s a construct of the consultants.”

Bran Kitts, director of marketing and communications for the city’s Arts & Venues Department, says: “We are now in the post-conceptual, pre-practical stage. Recommendations on financing and governance are due to the mayor’s office by the end of the year.”

“One of the down sides of the performing complex,” Kitts continues, “is that it's busy on show nights, but not particularly inviting on dark nights. We are looking to make the area a focal point, to have good community facilities there, so that people feel they have a standing invitation to visit.”

As to the need to tear down Boettcher, Kitts identifies problems such as its flawed acoustics, staging and setup problems, and lack of attendance.

“If they’re not full to begin with now, you scale them down,” Kitts says. “You take some of these complaints into account, and you also look into the future. What does the technology look like? That factors in. We have to think about younger audiences, not just older audiences, and not just the musicians, but the patrons and fans.”

Kern says, “We need a home. We are happy to cooperate with the city – as long as people continue to listen to us and recognize our needs.”

The city states that “it is envisioned that the Boettcher Concert Hall will remain operational until after the construction of the Music Hall . . . at 14th and Arapahoe.” Whether the city is simply trying to monetize its underused property with its Next Stage plan, or whether it will trigger a new flowering of the symphony, a fresh intersection between the arts and all of the city’s inhabitants, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the symphony will continue to implement its own revitalization program, playing in the aging confines of its once-state-of-the-art home, waiting to see what its new digs will look like, hoping that its labor disputes will end, freeing it up to monetize new, non-standard musical opportunities.

And what about the traditional repertoire? Is the great orchestral music of the past doomed to fade out of the cultural conversation? Given the new political climate, the future looks bright for neither the arts nor the sciences. Is the concert hall, like the movie palace, merely a lingering cultural remnant where dwindling audiences still fetishize their antiquated cultural ceremonies?

Says Mitchell, "We are always lamenting that this tradition is going away, but it's not. Did you know that TIME magazine pronounced the death of classical music? They did! — in 1961."

It appears that the Colorado Symphony will continue to roll with the punches.