Nick Dobreff
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Someone Told Me It's All Happening At The Zoo

The Colorado Symphony teamed up with Denver Zoo for a special performance that gave their animals a front row seat to live symphonic music

By Nick Dobreff

Lions and Tigers and….cellos and oboes and violins, Oh My!

On a perfectly crisp fall morning, the howls, flutters, and roars of Denver Zoo were suddenly joined by the tranquil sounds of a string quartet. Zoo patrons and animals alike surely wondered what professional musicians were doing outside of their natural habitat in the concert hall. But this isn’t your typical fish out of water story. 

How do animals respond when introduced to live symphonic music? Do they become excited or nervous, energetic or curious while listening to the dulcet tones of a chamber orchestra? This question took center stage as the Colorado Symphony hatched a wild plan with Denver Zoo to do something special for their animals with the results proving that music is indeed a universal language.

“At Denver Zoo, we love finding unique ways to work with other community and cultural organizations, especially when there’s an opportunity to do something different and special for our animals and staff,” said Jake Kubie, Director of Communications for Denver Zoo.

As part of the event, three small ensembles made up of ten Colorado Symphony musicians traveled throughout the zoo to serenade different groups of animals. In one grouping, a trio made up of violinists Adrienne Short, Felix Petit, and violist Helen McDermott performed for a family of attentive Sumatran orangutans made up of Berani, 26, Nias, 31, Hesty, 9, and Cerah, 1. 

“I think Berani was the most interested. When they have this tiny little lift of the edges of their mouth, that’s a smile,” said Cindy Cossaboon, Primates Kepper. “He was spending a lot of time sitting there, smiling, enjoying his drink, and really listening and paying attention.”

In another grouping, a quartet including violinists Larisa Fesmire and Dorian Kincaid, cellist Danielle Guideri, and violist Phillip Stevens played for a herd of Giraffes.

Dobby, Denver Zoo’s two-year old Giraffe who was born premature and required extensive medical intervention to survive, was particularly engaged in the impromptu musical performance. 

“Dobby showed a lot of cool behaviors,” said Amanda Faliano, Giraffe Keeper. “He did seem to notice when there were changes in the music, and he started doing a little different behaviors. Sometimes he would kick, and sometimes he would just get on high alert to watch, which is another sign of excitement and interest.”

“I think they were really curious. I think it was interesting to see them when they first walked out. They knew something was going on and they were really observant,” said Fesmire.

“And when we were playing, one of them was leaning over a few feet from us. That was pretty awesome,” added Guideri.

“The more active the music, they seemed to react accordingly,” said Stevens.

And in yet another grouping, Assistant Principal Oboe Nicholas Tisherman, Assistant Principal Flute Catherine Peterson, and Assistant Principal Clarinet Abby Raymond played for Tensing, 11, the pregnant greater one-horned Rhinoceros.

“I think part of what made today so amazing and made Tensing so engaged was the actual physical presence of the musicians,” said Linda Kirkman, Assistant Pachyderm Curator. “We have played music for the rhinos before in their barn, but it’s really different when they don’t have something to look at, different sights and smells to make those auditory nuances stand out. So if you watched her, you could tell that she was listening, and she was also smelling – smelling the microphone, smelling the musicians – and really just trying to figure out what the whole package was all about.”

This collaboration with the Colorado Symphony fit perfectly with the Zoo’s mission of enhancing the lives of their animals by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to promote natural and healthy behaviors. In fact, Denver Zoo is one of only a few zoos in the country that has a full-time curator dedicated to animal behavior and enrichment programs.

“This is what I do all day long, trying to enrich these animals. They just love new things: they love sounds, they love scents, they love interactions so this was something that was really special,” added Cossaboon.

And for the Colorado Symphony, the opportunity to create a lasting memory for Zoo patrons, employees, and of course, the animals, was extremely rewarding. 

"We're so fortunate to have a robust group of local Arts, Non-Profit, and Cultural Organizations that combine to make Denver a vibrant and enriching city," said Parker Owens, Chief Marketing Officer for the Colorado Symphony. "We believe it's imperative to foster collaboration between these organizations and relish the opportunity to put our musicians in environments and situations that are outside the norm of performances in the concert hall. The opportunity to play music for these animals was a memory maker for our musicians; and we hope our fans, too, won't soon forget." 

“We value these kinds of partnerships because it allows us to combine our collective resources, passions and missions to make a far greater impact than we could do individually,” added Kubie.

For both Denver Zoo and the Colorado Symphony, it was a harmonious partnership forged by a shared sense of community, and an example of how two seemingly different cultural organizations can collaborate to do something fun, positive, and memorable.

Looking forward to more collaborations between the Colorado Symphony and Denver Zoo? The two organizations will join forces yet again on March 15, 2020 for Carnival of the Animals at Boettcher Concert Hall. One of the best-known pieces by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, each movement depicts a different animal, some of which will make appearances on stage during the performance thanks to the Zoo, making for a truly fantastic family experience for all ages. For tickets and more information about Carnival of the Animals, please click here.

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