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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.

See also: Colorado Symphony Orchestra's Pot Concert Begs the Question: Why Is This Still a Big Deal?

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. 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.
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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner

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