Colorado Symphony Chorus at 35
Explore the storied history of the Colorado Symphony Chorus as they celebrate 35 years of choral excellence
By Nick Dobreff
Throughout time, many of history’s greatest symphonic compositions — from Orff’s Carmina Burana to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the Verdi Requiem — have reached transcendent levels of beauty through the marriage and interplay between instrument and voice. For nearly 35 years, audiences in Colorado have had the unique pleasure to witness many of these masterworks and more in large part because of the Colorado Symphony Chorus.
The 2018/19 Colorado Symphony season marks the 35th year of the Colorado Symphony Chorus (CSC). Founded in 1984 by Chorus Director Duain Wolfe, the CSC has earned a reputation as one of the finest symphonic choruses in the United States, performing annually in Boettcher Concert Hall and across Colorado.
In a situation unique and exceedingly rare to many United State orchestras, the Colorado Symphony supports their own chorus as an integral element of the organization, giving it the ability to perform works that are otherwise too expensive or logistically impossible to achieve.
“As Colorado Symphony audience members and music-lovers all over the state know, we are so fortunate to have a world-class symphony chorus right here in our own backyard,” said Brett Mitchell, Music Director. “Duain Wolfe, Mary Louise Burke, the singers of the Colorado Symphony Chorus, and their entire team put an enormous amount of love and dedication into every performance, which is why it’s always a thrill and an honor to share the stage with them.”
The storied history of the Colorado Symphony Chorus begins with Wolfe, who was charged with forming the ensemble in 1984. Known then as the Denver Symphony Chorus, the 140-voice ensemble made its debut October 25, 1984 in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem.
“The Music Director of the Denver Symphony Orchestra at the time, Gaetano Delogu, wanted a chorus whose primary purpose would be to collaborate with the orchestra on the great masterworks,” said Wolfe. “I was asked to form this chorus, so we held auditions, set a rehearsal schedule for the debut piece, Verdi’s great Requiem, and the rest is history.”
For 35 years, Wolfe has provided consummate leadership and an unparalleled artistic vision for the ensemble, helping it to achieve a distinguished reputation throughout the world. The recipient of two Grammy® Awards for Best Choral Performance and Best Classical Recording (Verdi Requiem), Wolfe has also served as director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus for 25 years. In addition, he founded and conducted the Colorado Children’s Chorale (CCC) prior to retiring from the position in 1999 and now serves as conductor laureate for the ensemble.
“We have, in chorus director Duain Wolfe, a musician with remarkable training and talent and he sets the bar for excellence in choral singing exceptionally high,” said Eric Israelson, Chorus Manager. “His sense of correct style, impeccable rhythm and uncompromising attention to detail has brought widespread acclaim for this chorus of volunteer singers.”
Today, the Colorado Symphony Chorus is made up of 200 volunteer musicians — 130 women and 70 men — who are selected through an audition process. Among them are eight husband and wife couples, two mother/daughter duos, and one father/daughter pair. There are also nine charter members of the ensemble who still sing with the chorus today.
In addition, the Colorado Symphony Chorus includes four conductors (Duain Wolfe, Associate Conductor Mary Louise Burke, and Assistant Conductors Travis Branam and Taylor Martin), three pianists (Brian Dukeshier, Hslao-Ling Lin, and Danni Snyder), and two managers / librarians (Eric Israelson and Barbara Porter) who enable the chorus to fulfill its mission year after year.
Chorus rehearsals are held at Trinity United Methodist Church — the oldest church in Denver. In an average season, the Colorado Symphony Chorus participates in 50 rehearsals supporting 30 performances. For each chorus member, that can mean as many as 240 hours per year.
“To meet the performing needs of the Colorado Symphony concert season, the members of this chorus dedicate an enormous number of volunteer hours,” added Wolfe. “Not only do they commit to their weekly rehearsals on Tuesday evenings, they also contribute six more evenings during each concert week. This is a commitment that touches not only the singers themselves, but also their families. The essence of their dedication becomes a family investment, an extended investment in the arts that reflects the dedication of many more people than we see on stage.”
Many chorus members live in Denver but several travel greater distances in order to sing in the ensemble including members from Erie, Brighton, Fraser, Castle Rock, Evergreen, Fort Morgan, Longmont, Fort Collins, Boulder, Parker, and Greeley.
“Through careful recruiting, auditioning, orientation, and training, we have assembled an ensemble of singers who are willing to follow Maestro Wolfe’s direction, devote up to 240 hours a season, and maintain a sense of collaboration and fellowship unique in volunteer ensembles,” added Israelson.
Starting with Gaetano Delogu in 1984, the Colorado Symphony Chorus has performed under six Colorado Symphony music directors, including Philippe Entremont, Marin Alsop, Jeffrey Kahane, Andrew Litton, and currently under Brett Mitchell.
While many Colorado Symphony Chorus performances take place at Boettcher Concert Hall, the chorus also performs at numerous venues throughout Colorado. For 25 summers, the CSC has performed at the Aspen Music Festival and 12 summers with the Bravo! Vail Music Festival. The chorus has also performed with the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson and the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder. They’ve also appeared on stage at many of the top venues in Colorado including the Buell Theater, Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre, Macky Auditorium Concert Hall, Pepsi Center, Chautauqua Auditorium, Newman Center for the Performing Arts, Arvada Center, Vilar Performing Arts Center, and Fiddlers Green Amphitheatre.
The impact of the Colorado Symphony Chorus has also been felt outside the state including performances in nine United States cities and seven cities in Europe. That included a two-week tour in 2009 celebrating the chorus’ 25th anniversary with Wolfe conducting the Verdi Requiem in Budapest, Vienna, Litomyšl, and Prague and a 2016 concert tour through Paris, Strasbourg, and Munich.
“I have always been impressed by the singers’ level of excellence, and also by the tremendous commitment involved,” said Mary Louise Burke, Associate Director, Colorado Symphony Chorus. “Our members come from all walks of life, and bring to our chorus a great variety of past musical experience. Both individually and as a group, they make an ongoing commitment to excellence in many areas: vocal, musical, and dramatic. Furthermore, off the stage, our singers are powerful ambassadors in the communities of Denver, Colorado, and Europe.”
In addition to their performances with the Colorado Symphony, the CSC has shared the stage with a host of renowned orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, Dallas Symphony, Aspen Festival Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra. They have also performed masterworks under the baton of notable conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Alan Gilbert, David Zinman, Robert Spano, and Jaap Van Zweden.
The CSC has been featured in seven Colorado Symphony recordings, including the Berlioz setting of Hymne des Marseillais (1988), Too Hot to Handel (2004), Harris: Symphonies No. 3 and 4 (2006), Denler: Portraits of Colorado – American Symphony No. 1, Six Variations for violin and piano (2013), Vaughan Williams: Dona nobis pacem | Stephen Hough: Missa Mirabilis (2015), Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (2017), and William Hill’s The Raven (2018).
None of this would be possible without the time and efforts of a dedicated management staff that oversees all 200 musicians as well as the scheduling of rehearsals, distribution of music, travel planning, and more.
“Our management team is able to foresee and accommodate the needs of both the director and the singers, providing a conducive environment with the necessary space, materials and organizational detail,” added Israelson. “The result is a chorus of singers, which, with their associated orchestra, provides to the audiences of Colorado and beyond, a resource equal to any, and better than most, in the world. Adept at presenting the music of film scores, the best of Broadway and Hollywood, as well as the enduring classics of the choral literature, it serves to enrich the lives of all who have occasion to experience it.”
With a group of dedicated musicians, a renowned chorus director, and a dedicated support staff, the Colorado Symphony Chorus continues to excel nearing their fourth decade of existence.
“Over the course of the 35-year history of the chorus, many singers have made this commitment to excellence,” added Burke. “In the next 35 years, we look forward to including many new singers in our Colorado Symphony family of wonderful musicians, celebrating many more decades of memorable performances.”
“I am extraordinarily proud of this chorus and what it has become over the decades – a first class ensemble that performs at very high standards, complementing the standards of this remarkable orchestra,” said Wolfe. “It has continued to mold and maintain its classical sound while also meeting the diverse challenges of other repertoire – films, Broadway musicals, and pops. This is not an easy feat, but it is a significant hallmark of this chorus."
For the last 35 years, the Colorado Symphony Chorus has shared the great musical masterworks of the world with hundreds of thousands of arts patrons from Colorado to Europe. In performances with the Colorado Symphony and other renowned orchestras, they’ve helped spread an appreciation for symphonic music across the Centennial State and beyond. As the ensemble looks towards the future, they'll continue to bring the best in symphonic choral music to audiences at Boettcher Concert Hall while upholding an artistic standard that is second to none.
This article first appeared in the 2019 winter edition of Soundings, the Magazine of the Colorado Symphony.