“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you … never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” — Harriet Beecher Stowe
There’s a rhythm to every season, a comfort in the familiarity of time-honored traditions, events, holidays, and social gatherings that become part of us like a well-worn sneaker. The crack of the bat at a Rockies game, the sight of fireworks on the Fourth of July, and the palpable electricity of a capacity crowd that precedes the appearance of your favorite performer on a warm summer evening at Red Rocks. In so many ways, this is the essence of the disruption COVID-19 has wrought upon all of us, altering or wiping away many of the rites of spring and summer that anchor us to a specific time and place in our daily lives.
The dulcet tones of the Colorado Symphony have been a part of yearly memories for so many in Colorado and across the country over the last century. A crown jewel of Denver’s performing arts landscape, the orchestra continues to be seen and heard by a growing and more diverse audience than ever before, and 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.
That included sold-out summer performances at Red Rocks alongside the likes of Tenacious D, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Josh Groban, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, and in one of his final performances, the late John Prine.
Tony® and Emmy® Award winner Kristin Chenoweth ushered in a fabulous fall concert season that also included a celebration of Yumi Hwang-Williams’ 20th Season as Concertmaster, and a concert dedication for the legendary “Jackie Robinson of Classical Music”, Charles “Charlie” Burrell on his 99th birthday, complete with an appearance from the guest of honor himself. A star-studded season was capped by a performance with the incendiary Tony®, Emmy®, and GRAMMY® Award-winner Cynthia Erivo.
In a season that offered something for everyone, the Colorado Symphony screened and performed the scores live for blockbuster films including The Goonies, Love Actually, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows™ Part One, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. And of course, there was a host of breathtaking classical performances including the Verdi Requiem and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis alongside the Colorado Symphony Chorus, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, while Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony kicked off a yearlong celebration for his 250th birthday.
Along the way, the Colorado Symphony collaborated with a host of Denver cultural peers including Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Colorado Ballet, Opera Colorado, Denver Zoo, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission, and the Mexican Cultural Center, fostering meaningful partnerships that expanded programming while pushing the boundaries of what symphonic music can be.
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 highly anticipated 2020/21 Season schedule was released to exuberant public reception, 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 US soil and was spreading quickly through the population. Like falling dominoes, events began cancelling throughout the country with the NBA and NHL pausing their seasons indefinitely, followed soon after by arena concerts, conventions, events, and the “March Madness” Basketball Tournament.
Despite limited information and a rapidly changing situation, the Colorado Symphony Association (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, which was set to take place on April 25. 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 can an ensemble 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.
The musicians of the Colorado Symphony, like everyone else across the state, were largely isolated in their homes, beginning March 23 with Governor Jared Polis’s stay-at-home order, which was in effect through late April. During that time, these musicians 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 “Ode to Joy”, which debuted on March 23, less than two weeks after the initial concert postponements. The video featured 49 Colorado Symphon musicians, each with a separately recorded part that was combined in post-production, for a virtual performance that captured the sound and essence of a full symphony orchestra.
The decision to perform this particular piece was purposeful given the pandemic’s effect around the world. Beethoven’s ninth and final symphony was composed as an ode to humanity, to peace over desperation, and, of course, to joy. In it, Beethoven returned to a poem by Friedrich Schiller that he had long wanted to set to music but for which he had never quite managed to find the right mode of expression: the “Ode to Joy”. The poem expresses universal ideals of brotherhood, peace, and freedom for all — ideals being yearned for by many during a time of great loneliness and isolation.
The video was an instant viral sensation, generating over 584,000 views on YouTube alone and with 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, your Colorado Symphony created the Virtual Music Hour series, a special weekend music event running Friday through Sunday each week, featuring free streaming performances from the Colorado Symphony archives and an introduction video from a Colorado Symphony musician or conductor. The 20-episode series included audience favorites from Beethoven, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Mahler, Ellington, Copland, Wagner, among others, and was enjoyed by over 13,000 listeners.
The Colorado Symphony also began a free streaming concert series titled “From Our Home To Yours”, a series of seven mini recitals featuring Colorado Symphony musicians performing from their own homes.
With an eye towards at-home learning, there was even specific content created for the young and young at heart with the creation of 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 the Colorado Symphony to be an integral part of their 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.
“Your Colorado Symphony has provided the soundtrack for Independence Day celebrations for nearly 100 years,” said Colorado Symphony Chief Artistic OfficerAnthony Pierce. “As our country grappled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, we felt it was more important than ever to bring the healing power of music and art to our community. By bringing together political leaders and local arts organizations, we provided a bit of comfort and joy during extraordinarily difficult times.”
In July, COVID-19 restrictions from the City of Denver loosened enough to allow limited capacity outdoor events, which led to a pair of July collaborations with the Botanic Gardens for their Evenings al Fresco series. These programs allowed small groups of guests to stroll outdoor while being serenaded by Colorado Symphony musicians scattered throughout the gardens.
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 20 scheduled 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 18 performances (two were cancelled due to inclement weather) 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 has been central to 25 in-person performances as of October 1, 2020, placing the organization at the forefront of an effort to bring live performing arts back to Denver, in whatever capacity it can.
However, while there have been numerous triumphs as the Colorado Symphony has fought to Play On, the total loss of events, concerts, and revenue is impossible to ignore.
To date, COVID-19 has forced the cancellation of 59 titles totaling 97 total events, including the Colorado Symphony Ball, and the CSA has postponed or cancelled all Boettcher Concert Hall performances through December 31, 2020. That includes an estimated $822,789 in lost ticket revenue from roughly 10,823 tickets. These cancellations and subsequent ticket refunds have had a dramatic effect on Colorado Symphony operations which rely on revenue from ticket sales for nearly half of its operating budget.
While many non-profit organizations across the country are facing heavy financial losses due to COVID-19, the CSA will likely end the fiscal year with a loss of approximately $100,000. While the organization was on track to finish with their fifth-consecutive year with an operations reserve prior to the pandemic, the immediate losses could have been much more severe if not for the quick and effective response of the CSA’s Trustees, musicians, and executive staff.
Despite the heavy loss in revenue, the CSA continued to pay their musicians through the end of their FY20 contract and continues to provide health insurance despite extensive musician furloughs. They also continue to employ a small executive staff that maintains the day-to-day operations of the organization.
As the Colorado Symphony confronts an uncertain future, a number of questions remain with little way of knowing when concert operations will return to normal. Despite those uncertainties, every opportunity and available avenue for continued performance will be explored.
Since the onset of COVID-19, the Colorado Symphony has been tireless in its efforts to bring 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 experienced on an almost daily basis. While being cognizant of those in greatest need, we have played on, raising funds for organizations, helping to combat the effects of this relentless virus. Our philanthropic partners have told us how meaningful this commitment has been to them and to their families. They believe in the power of music as much as we do.
While loosening restrictions have created opportunities for small outdoor performances with limited ensembles and allowed us to stretch our operations longer than many of our cultural peers, our resources have limits, and our margin for error is perilously slim.
It’s impossible to know when we’ll be able to perform again with our full ensemble. Nor can we know when we’ll be able to fill a concert hall with patrons again. Current restrictions make the feasibility of indoor performances an impossibility and with colder weather on the horizon, it will become too difficult to perform outdoors in any capacity in the coming months.
Without revenue from ticket purchases, the Colorado Symphony’s ability to Play On is heavily reliant upon philanthropy. In response to these challenges, we’ve started the Play On Recovery Fund, helping to pay salaries and health benefits for Colorado Symphony musicians who are currently furloughed. The fund will also provide infrastructure needed to present permanent streaming content, while continuing to allow the Colorado Symphony to support teachers and students who are dealing with the challenges of hybrid learning environments.
Now more than ever, these investments can make a huge difference in our community. We ask you to consider joining this mission by making your own investment in music and in the health and wellbeing of all Coloradoans. We need your help to persist during these extraordinary remarkable days.
“I truly believe that our symphony is more important now than ever,” said Christopher Dragon, Resident Conductor for the Colorado Symphony. “In times of great crisis and pain, music has the ability to heal and bring people together. Our recent performances at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Red Rocks, and at the DPAC Galleria have shown the need our community has for music and the hope that it provides to us all. Unlike other orchestras around the country that have unfortunately cancelled their entire upcoming season, we are determined to fight through this to provide music in safe and new creative ways. This is why your support is so vitally important right now to help keep the hope and music alive in Colorado.”
As the Colorado Symphony grapples with the momentous challenges presented by COVID-19, there exists a renewed sense of hope and optimism, that better days are ahead. But we need your help to weather this storm.
“We’re committed to continue bringing limited-capacity, socially distanced concerts to our community for as long as possible and as long as needed,” said Jerome H. Kern, CEO and Board Chair for the Colorado Symphony Association. “Along with our trustees and philanthropic partners, we will continue to navigate these challenging days with an unshakable commitment to create as many extraordinary live and digital musical experiences for Coloradoans as restrictions for public health and safety allow. We look forward to the day when we can gather together in Boettcher Concert Hall once again.”
Together, we will #PlayOn. For more information on how to contribute to the Play On Recovery Fund, please click here.