In the vibrant cultural tapestry of the Mile High City, the Colorado Symphony has stood as a pillar of orchestral excellence and artistic innovation for a century. As the symphony embarks on its landmark Centennial Season, the stage is set for a year of breathtaking performances, cherished memories, and a celebration of the organization’s far-reaching impact on the community. It also provides an opportunity to reflect not only on the milestone, but on the incredible journey that has led to this moment and the significance of a symphony orchestra in today’s ever-changing world.
Since its inception not long after the conclusion of the First World War, change has been ever-present for the orchestra, as it was for the growing city it called home, necessitating continuous evolution and growth. As America rolled by like an army of steam rollers, the orchestra remained true to their core tenets by captivating audiences with exceptional musicianship and a dedication to artistic excellence that has stood the test of time.
“The Colorado Symphony’s Centennial is a testament to the enduring power of music and its ability to touch lives across generations.”
Mark Cantrell, President & CEO
The Colorado Symphony’s roots can be traced back to November 6, 1922 when the fledgling Civic Symphony Orchestra — a semi-professional precursor to the orchestra we know today — held their first performance under the baton of Horace Tureman.
In 1934 Helen Marie Black, the symphony’s volunteer publicist, along with Jeanne Cranmer and Lucille Wilkin founded the Denver Symphony Orchestra (DSO) in the midst of the Great Depression, consolidating all the musicians in the city and guaranteeing union wages. The DSO gave their first performance on November 30, 1934 under the Baton of Tureman. Meanwhile, Black became the first female symphony manager in the United States, serving in that capacity for the DSO for more than 30 years, twelve of them as an unpaid volunteer.
From 1934 to 1989, amid the rise of the United States as a global power, the Denver Symphony Orchestra gained national recognition while remaining a fixture in the city, even as other forms of music including Jazz, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Pop, and Hip-Hop rose in prominence and popularity.
After 55 years as the Denver Symphony Orchestra, the ensemble underwent another transformation after experiencing financial difficulties that resulted in bankruptcy in 1989 and was reorganized into the Colorado Symphony. The newly formed Colorado Symphony Association adopted a collaborative structure that required musicians to serve on the Board of Trustees and be active in the governance of the organization, making it unique among full-time professional orchestra nationwide. The new name also better reflected the orchestra’s statewide reach and mission to engage communities beyond the Denver metropolitan area.
To celebrate the orchestra’s Centennial, this season promises an array of captivating performances, educational programs, and collaborations alongside some of music’s biggest names including Yo-Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, and Audra McDonald. From Beethoven’s iconic symphonies to contemporary movies, the season’s repertoire represents a harmonious blend of timeless classics and groundbreaking new works.
“The Colorado Symphony’s Centennial is a testament to the enduring power of music and its ability to touch lives across generations,” said Mark Cantrell, Colorado Symphony President & CEO. “This milestone represents a century of exceptional artistry, tireless support from our community, and an unwavering commitment to enriching Colorado through the universal language of music.”
Principal Conductor Peter Oundjian echoed Cantrell’s sentiment and emphasized the importance of commemorating this historic moment: “This Centennial Season is an opportunity to reflect on the rich heritage of the Colorado Symphony and its contribution to the cultural fabric of our city. We have curated a season that pays homage to our past while embracing the future, showcasing our orchestra’s versatility and innovation.”
One of the pivotal moments in the orchestra’s history came in 1993 when Marin Alsop was appointed as music director for the newly minted Colorado Symphony, becoming the first woman to lead a major American orchestra. Under Alsop’s inspiring leadership, the symphony experienced a period of remarkable growth and artistic achievement, earning international acclaim and solidifying its reputation as a trailblazer in the classical music world.
Reflecting on her time as music director and the significance of the Centennial, Alsop remarked, “The Colorado Symphony holds a special place in my heart, and I am immensely proud to witness this historic moment in its journey. As we celebrate 100 years of music- making, it is vital to recognize the orchestra’s role in fostering cultural understanding, nurturing young talents, and bringing joy to the lives of countless listeners. This Centennial marks a milestone not only for the symphony but for the community it serves.”
Since its inception, this ensemble has traversed a century of remarkable achievements, significant milestones, and transformative moments that have shaped its journey. Here are some key moments in the orchestra’s illustrious history:
- 1922: The Civic Symphony Orchestra is established — a semi-professional precursor to the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Their first performance was Nov. 6, 1922 under the baton of Horace Tureman.
- 1934: On November 30, the Denver Symphony Orchestra (DSO) gives its first performance as a professional orchestra under the direction of Horace Tureman. Denver’s Broadway Theatre, Tabor Opera House, and Municipal Auditorium (now the Ellie Caulkins Opera House) hosted the ensemble’s first few decades of great events including notable guests like Sergei Prokofiev in 1938.
- 1944: Saul Caston is appointed as the music director, succeeding Tureman who led the orchestra from 1922-1944. Caston led the orchestra for two decades through 1964, contributing to its growth and artistic development. A 1951 Time article documented his leadership, declaring, “Last season the Denver Symphony was among the leaders in performing American music”.
- 1949: Bassist Charles Burrell joins the Denver Symphony, becoming the first African-American member of a major American symphony. For this accomplishment he is often referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of Classical Music.”
- 1964: Caston is followed as Music Director by Vladimir Golschmann, former conductor of the St. Louis Symphony.
- 1970: Brian Priestman succeeds Golschmann as Music Director, serving as the orchestra’s artistic leader through 1979. During his tenure, the orchestra experienced artistic and financial success, along with strong community support.
- 1972: Denver voters approved a bond issue to build a new performance space specifically for the symphony, what would eventually become Boettcher Concert Hall.
- 1978: Boettcher Concert Hall is completed and opened within the Denver Performing Arts Complex. It is the first U.S. symphony hall to be built in the round. The first documented performance was February 26 with Brian Priestman on the podium.
- 1988–1989: The 55th and final season of the Denver Symphony Orchestra. The final performance for the DSO comes on March 25, 1989.
- 1989–1990: The orchestra is reorganized as the Colorado Symphony Orchestra/Association. Both musicians and management agree to a collaborative structure that requires musicians to serve on its Board of Trustees and be active in the governance of the organization making it unique among full-time professional orchestras nationwide
- 1989: On October 27, the Colorado Symphony gave their inaugural performance in front of over 16,000 attendees at the former McNichols Arena performing works by Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Bernstein, Williams, Beethoven, and more.
- 1993: Marin Alsop becomes the music director, making history as the first woman to lead a major American orchestra. Under Alsop’s inspiring leadership, the orchestra experienced a period of tremendous artistic growth and international acclaim.
- 2001: In September of 2001, the Colorado Symphony had a scheduled performance with world-renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma. The 9/11 attacks prompted Alsop and Ma to change the originally scheduled September 12 program to offer an entirely new concert evening meant to offer solace and hope to the Denver community, still reeling with grief and confusion.
- 2004–2005: Marin Alsop announced her final season as the Colorado Symphony’s Music Director to take an appointment with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Alsop remains Conductor Laureate to this day.
- 2005: Jeffrey Kahane succeeds Alsop as Music Director serving in the role until 2008. The Denver Post described Kahane’s tenure as one “that has been marked by increased audiences and an uncommonly strong bond with the orchestra’s musicians.”
- 2013: Andrew Litton assumed the role of music director, bringing his distinctive artistic vision and further elevating the symphony’s reputation, recording and releasing three CDs, including the first under the Colorado Symphony’s own recording label: Beethoven Symphony No. 9 with the Colorado Symphony Chorus.
- 2017: Brett Mitchell began a four-season tenure as music director, helping to expand the symphony’s offerings to new audiences.
- 2020: In March, the Colorado Symphony made the difficult decision to cancel the remainder of their 2019/20 Season following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few months later, they will also cancel their entire 2020/21 Season as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on performing arts organizations around the world. Despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colorado Symphony played on, adapting swiftly and continuing to engage audiences through virtual performances, innovative digital initiatives, and socially distanced outdoor performances, ensuring that the power of music remained available to all Coloradans during an unprecedented period in history.
- 2021: On July 18, the Colorado Symphony performed in Boettcher Concert Hall for the first time with live audiences since March of 2020, performing their 2021/22 Season preview concert under the baton of Resident Conductor Christopher Dragon.
- 2021-2022: Colorado Symphony returned for their first full season since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- 2022: On February 15, the orchestra appointed Peter Oundjian as Principal Conductor, becoming the most recent artistic leader for the organization. Oundjian, who previously served as the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor from 2003 to 2006 and had been a frequent collaborator over two decades, joined the Colorado Symphony after a 14-year tenure as the Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
These milestones are only a snapshot of the symphony’s remarkable journey over the past century. As the orchestra celebrates its Centennial this season, it stands as a testament to the enduring power of music and the remarkable impact of the arts on society. Whether through annual performances at Denver’s Independence Eve in Civic Center Park, crossover collaborations with fellow cultural organizations and sports teams like Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, the Denver Zoo, and the Denver Broncos, concert events at venues throughout the state, or education initiatives that annually reach tens of thousands of Denver young people, the Colorado Symphony’s impact has never been greater. This season will be no exception, reflecting on the symphony’s past while also serving as a springboard into an exciting, vibrant future.
In recent years, the symphony has expanded its reach through groundbreaking collaborations with acclaimed artists like RZA, Brandi Carlile, Nathaniel Rateliff, Kristin Chenoweth, Gregory Alan Isakov, and more which have brought symphonic music to unconventional venues and to new audiences. This forward-thinking approach has attracted a wider demographic, nurturing a vibrant and diverse community of symphony supporters that will ensure the organization’s relevance in the decades to come.
Beyond the exhilarating musical offerings, the Centennial Season builds on the existing successes of the organization’s community engagement programs through enhanced outreach initiatives that highlight the symphony’s commitment to accessibility and inclusivity. Educational programs, partnerships with local schools, and community concerts further strengthen the symphony’s community impact.
“The Colorado Symphony’s Centennial Season is a time to honor our past, celebrate our present, and look forward to the future,” added Cantrell. “We are immensely proud of the symphony’s rich history and the profound impact it has had on our community. With the support of our dedicated musicians, visionary leaders, and passionate audience, we are poised to embark on the next chapter of our musical journey.”
“We are your symphony and this celebration belongs as much to you and our state as it does to our orchestra.”
Peter Oundjian, Principal Conductor
Above all, this celebration is a testament to this community, whose support over the last 100 years has ensured that Denver will always have a symphony orchestra to call its own, and without whom none of these achievements would have been possible.
“This celebration carries special significance for all of us because we could not have reached this milestone without the overwhelming and longstanding support of our community,” added Oundjian. “We are your symphony and this celebration belongs as much to you and our state as it does to our orchestra. As Denver has flourished, so has its orchestra and we’re proud to be one of the longest serving cultural institutions in the Centennial State thanks to you.”
As the Colorado Symphony takes center stage and looks ahead to the next 100 years of music, the spotlight shines on a century of remarkable achievements and a legacy that will resonate for generations to come. Consider a donation today and help maintain this thriving ecosystem of support for the next 100 years. The future of live symphonic music belongs to all of us and together we can make a lasting impact on Colorado for generations to come. For more information contact our Development team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Explore the Centennial Season
Join us throughout the 2023/24 Colorado Symphony season as we celebrate 100 years of music and look ahead to the next century of music making in Colorado.