Colorado Symphony mixes standard fare and new sounds in its 100th year
The Colorado Symphony will celebrate its 100th year next season and, in some ways, it is starting over. There is a new principal conductor, Peter Oundjian, on the podium for major performances and a new CEO, Mark Cantrell, in the main office directing operations.
The two leaders, along with Tony Pierce, who programs music from the background, will lead an organization that seems to be in a constant state of mission redux. That is not unique; every serious orchestra in the country constantly shifts and wiggles trying to figure out how to make the music resonate and the money jingle in an era when tastes change continuously.
There is some stability in the organization. The musicians are, by and large, veterans who are tuned in to their work well by long-time concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams. The orchestra’s second public face, Christopher Dragon (who goes by the title resident conductor), has been around long enough that audiences know his skills, and he understands what makes them happy customers.
There is also the music, of course, and that has been around for what feels like forever. The orchestra unveiled its 2023/24 season this week and it relies, as this organization always has, on the great European composers of the past (though the orchestra does make efforts to shake things up where it can).
The lead-off concerts, scheduled for Sept. 15-17, are a little splashier than the norm, though they sum up the something-old, something-new, something-flashy strategy that defines the playbook.
Oundjian will conduct a program built around the showpiece of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Heating up the program, and the stage as they say, will be traveling piano star Hélène Grimaud, who will solo on Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. The fresh notes come from “Fate Now Conquers,” a recent work by of-the-moment composer Carlos Simon.
From there, the year will be powered by the usual names that bring out the crowds. Highlights include Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” Mahler’s Third and Beethoven’s Ninth.
The Colorado Symphony Chorus is also marking a milestone with its 40th anniversary and will perform programs featuring Mozart’s “Requiem” and Handel’s “Messiah,” and a special concert built around Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.”
The orchestra, which has presented some big-name performers over the years, will have three notable guests: Renee Fleming, probably the only opera singer most people could name, appears on Oct. 7 for a night of “opera favorites.” Yo-Yo Ma, everyone’s favorite classical superstar, comes around May 5 with Elgar’s magical Cello Concerto. A little off-topic, but most appealing of all, will be Broadway’s Audra MacDonald singing titles from the American musical theater songbook, on Sept. 23. It is easy to get excited over the prospect of one of the country’s most talented artists singing this material at a high point of her career.
The musicians will stay gainfully employed delivering the main season fare, plus all of the assorted concerts that the orchestra takes part in at places like Red Rocks Amphitheatre and other venues. Under Tony Pierce’s direction, the players have jobbed out with great frequency as backup musicians for a slew of pop stars, some of them worthy of players’ talents, some of them not, though nearly all of it sells tickets and pays the bills so the strategy goes beyond music.
Strategy is what is all about, really. Members of the leadership team, all very experienced in the field, know the challenges of the job well.
“The hardest part is sustainability,” said Cantrell in an interview last week as he was visiting Denver to hunt for a new house. “It is also the part of the job I love the most.”
Cantrell is an interesting figure, one of a handful of top orchestra managers who have real experience as a musician on stage. He spent years as a bass trombonist for the Boston Pops, Boston Ballet and Boston Lyric Opera. He moved to the management side over the years and comes to Denver after a stint leading The Florida Orchestra, which he helped navigate through the coronavirus pandemic.
Expect him to have a significant presence in the city. He is a likable, fast-talking guy, a hiker, fisherman, outdoors-type who once lead a team of 16 sled dogs in a 300-mile race in New England. He was also an airline pilot. And he hands out larger-than-life quotes.
“Great leaders always strive to foster an environment of possibility,” he said in a release from the orchestra. “I have never feared to be bold, take risks or dream, and those values align perfectly with those of the Colorado Symphony.”
In an interview, he talked a great deal about organizational flexibility and audience responsiveness, both things that the orchestra needs right now. His time on stage made him sensitive to the values of the musicians, he said, and he promises to keep their needs center stage.
“Everybody always thinks the musicians are the labor force,” he said. “They are actually the product we are trying to sell.”
It remains to be seen what that actually means. The musicians union and Colorado Symphony management have gotten along well over the years, relative to other orchestras, though there is always room for improvement.
It will also be interesting to watch how he positions the Colorado Symphony in Denver. He talked a lot about making sure the organization “has a place at the table” in local matters and figuring out how it can have a louder voice when it wants to be heard.
“We need to become true community leaders,” he said. “We need to be part of the conversation about how we can make the community a better place.”
For tickets and information on season 2023/24 concert programs, go to coloradosymphony.org or call the box office at 303-623-7876.
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