Music News

Jerry Kern Has Made a Lot of Noise With the CSO, But Can It Survive Discord With the City?

Page 2 of 5

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.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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

Latest Stories