The Music Never Stopped
How innovation, determination, and the power of music drove the Colorado Symphony’s pandemic success story
By Nick Dobreff
Adversity is as revealing as it is inevitable. While unpredictable, overwhelming, disruptive, and chaotic, it nonetheless has the power to illuminate a wellspring of resolve previously obscured or unknown to us altogether. The entire world has spent much of the last year and a half grappling with the effects of the COVID-19 health pandemic, causing disruption on a previously unimaginable scale; isolating people from their families, friends, and loved ones; and irrevocably altering the lives of countless millions.
Against a seemingly endless series of obstacles, the Colorado Symphony Association (CSA) refused to go dark, fold, or cease music making even as the pandemic surged around it. From the very beginning, the CSA pledged to bring desperately needed entertainment, comfort, and distraction in the form of virtual and live symphonic music as a salve for the seemingly endless deluge of uncertainty and emotional distress being endured by society. While being cognizant of those in greatest need, the CSA played on, taking a leading role in the community by raising funds for other organizations in need, bringing awareness to the realities facing performing arts and live music organizations, and pioneering methods for safe, in-person performances when deemed safe to do so by state and local health officials.
So where were we back in March 2020?
With an incredible concert lineup that included the likes of Kristin Chenoweth and Cynthia Erivo, the dulcet tones of the Colorado Symphony were once again bringing joy to countless Coloradans as the orchestra continued to be seen and heard by a growing and more diverse audience than ever before.
The 2019/20 season was on track to expand the orchestra's presence to projected record-breaking numbers, as 276,466 patrons enjoyed live symphonic music in Boettcher Concert Hall and across the state from July 2019 through March 2020. Everything was on track for one of the most memorable and successful Colorado Symphony seasons in recent memory, including the fifth straight fiscal year with a healthy operations reserve. On February 28, the 2020/21 Season schedule was released and the future for live symphonic music in Colorado had never looked brighter.
But on March 13 everything changed.
As the orchestra prepared for two sold-out Boettcher Concert Hall performances of The Music of Queen, news began to break that COVID-19 had reached a level of international concern, so much so that it would soon force an unprecedented national stay-at-home order. Despite limited information and a rapidly changing situation, the CSA made the difficult, but ultimately correct decision to postpone The Music of Queen on March 13 and 14 as well as all concerts through April 12. On March 17, the postponement timeframe was extended to May 11, and a few days after that, the Colorado Symphony was forced to cancel their largest fundraiser of the year, the Colorado Symphony Ball. A few weeks later, the organization announced the postponement of all remaining 2019/20 Season performances through May 31.
Just like that, the season was over. Boettcher Concert Hall lay silent. And many were left to wonder what would come next.
Live performances are the lifeblood of any orchestra, so what was an ensemble to do when faced with the difficult prospect of not being able to gather, practice together, or perform live with an audience for the foreseeable future?
For the Colorado Symphony, there was only one answer: Play On!
Through rapid ingenuity and innovation, the organization pivoted into the virtual realm, broadcasting desperately needed content into the homes of Coloradans and people around the world. It started with the #PlayOn campaign — a series of over 70 online videos created between March 13 and August 31, 2020.
Colorado Symphony musicians, like nearly everyone else across the state, were largely isolated in their homes and during that time they created a staggering amount of creative content, providing needed comfort and diversion during a time of incredible uncertainty and fear for people everywhere.
One of the earliest video creations was a digital performance of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, which debuted on March 23, less than two weeks after the nationwide shutdown. The video featured 49 Colorado Symphony musicians, each with a separately recorded part, which was combined in post-production for a virtual performance that captured the sound and essence of a full symphony orchestra.
The video was an instant viral sensation, generating nearly 600,000 views on YouTube alone and millions more through national media exposure in features on NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Nightline, and CNN’s virtual Independence Day broadcast, along with online print acknowledgments by The Washington Post, Boston Globe, USA Today, National Geographic, among many others.
In addition to the individual #PlayOn videos, the Colorado Symphony created the 20-episode Virtual Music Hour series, seven free streaming concerts titled “From Our Home To Yours” featuring Colorado Symphony musicians performing from their own homes, and the MusiCurious Instrument Interview Series — a collection of seven educational videos which explored the wonders of the orchestra through video demonstrations featuring Colorado Symphony musicians and their instruments.
In all, the Colorado Symphony accumulated over 1.5 million views and listens of organic content through its website and social media channels with millions more seeing content through NBC, ABC, CNN, and local news stations as the organization provided open content sharing for broadcasts and third-party websites throughout the pandemic.
Perhaps the most moving moment of the summer came on July 3 and 4, at a time on the calendar when communities nationwide annually look to their professional orchestras. For nearly a century, Colorado has called upon their symphony to be an integral part of its Independence Day festivities, including the last decade as part of the Independence Eve celebration in Civic Center Park where the Colorado Symphony has regularly performed for crowds of over 100,000.
COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the in-person event in 2020, but the Colorado Symphony was not deterred, spearheading a collaborative initiative with a group of local artists, arts organizations, and local charities to create an arts focused performance connecting Colorado and national communities, while providing music to a separated, frustrated, and grieving community.
A handful of small socially distanced ensembles gathered to record performances in recognizable areas around Denver including Civic Center Park, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, the Colorado State Capital Building Rotunda, Denver Performing Arts Complex Galleria, and Boettcher Concert Hall, creating an event that was uniquely Colorado.
The performances featured Colorado Symphony ensembles alongside collaborative cultural partners including Colorado Ballet, Opera Colorado, and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, with special guest speakers Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Michael Hancock. The Colorado Symphony was also joined by renowned vocalists Rajdulari, Kira Dills-Desurra, and Michelle DeYoung for performances of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Star-Spangled Banner, and God Bless America respectively. Anchors Anne Trujillo and Shannon Ogden emceed the event which aired live on KMGH Denver7 on July 3 and was replayed on the Colorado Symphony’s YouTube channel on July 3 and 4.
The virtual event was designed specifically to help those most impacted by the pandemic. All proceeds from the virtual event went to support the Center for African American Health, The Center on Colfax, Civic Center Conservancy, Food Bank of the Rockies, Food for Thought Denver and Rose Andom Center through event partner Community First Foundation. In all, $19,715 was raised and donated to these organizations.
In July 2020, COVID-19 restrictions from the City of Denver loosened to the point where limited capacity outdoor events could take place, which led to a pair of July collaborations with the Botanic Gardens for their Evenings al Fresco series.
At the end of July, the Colorado Symphony became the first ensemble to perform in Red Rocks Amphitheatre since the start of the pandemic with the debut of “Acoustic on the Rocks” — a series of 18 performances featuring ensembles of 20 Colorado Symphony musicians conducted by Resident Conductor Christopher Dragon in front of limited and socially distanced crowds. Each of the performances could accommodate 175 patrons spread throughout the seating bowl and each sold out within a matter of hours. These once-in-a-lifetime, live acoustic performances at Colorado’s most iconic outdoor venue brought live music back to Red Rocks, providing a small sense of normalcy to an otherwise turbulent summer. By the end of summer, the Colorado Symphony had set a record as the musical outfit with the most Red Rock shows in any single season, a fitting demonstration of the organization's commitment to the community.
The Colorado Symphony also held three cello quartet performances in the Denver Performing Arts Complex Galleria, again with socially distanced crowds. In total, the Colorado Symphony was central to 25 in-person performances from July through October 1, 2020, placing the organization at the forefront of an effort to bring live performing arts back to Denver.
The holidays felt and sounded a bit different around Colorado in 2020, as colder temperatures prevented the organization from hosting outdoor performances. The CSA was also unable to host their annual collection of holiday programming including perennial favorites Holiday Brass and A Night in Vienna. However, the Colorado Symphony would not be deterred, determined to bring the Christmas spirit to families and concertgoers across the state. With guidance from UCHealth and without the presence of audiences, Colorado Symphony musicians gathered in Boettcher Concert Hall for the first time since March, using socially distanced orchestra seating and wearing masks. Joined by Colorado native Devin DeSantis, the orchestra recorded a virtual Colorado Christmas performance which debuted on the CSA’s virtual content platform, Virtual Stage, on December 18, 2020.
The CSA partnered with UCHealth again, along with the virtual reality company Rendever, to bring Colorado cancer patients a special virtual concert presentation of their September 2020 performances of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at Red Rocks. Rendever utilized virtual reality cameras and recording equipment positioned directly within the orchestra, creating a captivating virtual concert experience that put patients inside the orchestra with the use of virtual reality headsets.
The Colorado Symphony Education Department was also hard at work, developing a groundbreaking virtual program that could be utilized by teachers in their virtual classrooms. Taking inspiration from the anthem of hope from which it derives its name, the CSA developed their 2020/21 education curriculum around the theme of "Lift Every Voice", delivering a message of unity, social justice, and creative self-expression through an inclusive virtual concert experience featuring uplifting repertoire from a diverse array of composers and artistic performers.
The youth concert’s musical soundtrack featured compositions from legendary figures like Mozart and Beethoven as well as performances from composers like José Pablo Moncayo, Ernesto Lecuona, Florence B. Price, Duke Ellington and modern works by Anna Clyne and Omar Thomas. In addition, collaborations with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Fiesta Colorado Dance Company, spoken-word poet Frankie Le’Troy, and visual artist Javier Flores elevated the youth concert experience in creative and profound ways. The program debuted in February 2021.
Between May and September 2021, the Colorado Symphony once again led the way by holding 22 outdoor performances across the state including at Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre, Arvada Center Outdoor Amphitheatre, Dillon Amphitheater, and in the Denver Performing Arts Complex Galleria. Their performance of The Music of John Williams at Red Rocks on May 23 was the first Red Rocks performance with full audience since the beginning of the pandemic. And on July 18, the CSA held their 2021/22 Season Preview concert in Boettcher Concert Hall in front of a capacity crowd, the first performance in the hall with audiences since March of 2020.
Which brings us all the way back to today. As the Colorado Symphony begins its first concert season in 18 months, you’ll notice some things may look a bit different. Additional health and safety protocols have been implemented within Boettcher Concert Hall for the safety of our patrons and musicians. You’ll also notice our new branding logo throughout our printed materials. We took great care in considering all elements of our past to carry us into our dynamic and exciting future. With this new mark we truly become Colorado’s Symphony.
This special moment in time presents a once-in-a-century opportunity, for a jubilant revival of live concerts and a reaffirmation of our standing as an inventive and forward-thinking orchestra. As the Colorado Symphony and music lovers around the state look back, they can be proud of obstacles overcome and successes enjoyed over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the organization embarks on an exciting new season replete with incredible performances, educational programming, and exhilarating collaborations, the future for symphonic music in Colorado has never looked brighter. Welcome home!
This article first appeared in the 2021 fall edition of Soundings, the Magazine of the Colorado Symphony.