An Orchestra of Many: How the Colorado Symphony Stays in Tune with the Times

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by Brian Casey Goetzinger
WRIT 1133: Writing and Research | Professor Brad Benz

When I was in the third grade, I played violin in my first orchestral concert. The riveting program consisted of such masterpieces as “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” “Up On the Rooftop,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I’d never felt such elation and excitement before. Sure, our intonation was a bit sharp, and we weren’t perfectly together, but playing as a group and creating beautiful music out of thin air was thrilling. Though we weren’t playing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, I was smitten. I knew that music was going to be something I’d want to pursue for the rest of my life.

As I matured, I played in more and more concerts with orchestras somewhat better than in third grade and went to as many symphony concerts as I could. Going from concert to concert allowed me to experience many different orchestras and start determining what makes an orchestra fabulous and what makes an orchestra slightly meh. I’ve found that it’s the togetherness of the players, the variance of colors and timbres they produce, and, more than anything, the emotional wallop they manage to strike with audiences.

Under those criteria, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is without a doubt one of the greatest symphonies in the US. They play perfectly in tandem, they’ve got a color palate that would make Bob Ross envious, and they’ve walloped me on more occasions than I can count. The CSO, along with almost every other American symphony orchestra, requires dedication to survive and reach its creative and artistic goals—dedication on behalf of its musicians, its donors, and, most importantly, its audiences. This dedication isn’t always easy. Performers have to spend countless hours honing their craft to be offered a position with the CSO. Donors have to dig deep in their pocketbooks to ensure the continued survival of this musical tradition. Audiences have to decide to spend money on tickets and to spend time to see the concerts. But there’s one consolation that the CSO offers to all three: it’s worth it.

As a hopeful future orchestral musician myself, I found this question to be particularly interesting. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the theory that any skill could be mastered with 10,000 hours of directed practice and referred to it as “the magic number of greatness.” Sure, 10,000 hours seems like an ample amount of time to become a master in any field when given in that giant lump sum. However, on closer inspection— and on a music major’s inspection—that simply doesn’t add up.

Consider this: an average collegiate music major practices three hours a day, six days a week. That amounts to sixty-four hours a month. Seven hundred sixty-eight hours a year. Given that math, it’d take thirteen years of playing to become a master. As a dutiful violinist of twelve years, I’ve put in my fair share of daily hourly practice, and I know I’m nowhere near the mammoth musical and technical abilities required to win a job. I wager that most of my colleagues agree.

“I know it’s going to be a while before I play with an orchestra like the CSO,” said Matt, a fellow violinist at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. “Auditions stress me out. Everyone in school for this all across the world wants the same thing, and there’s only, what—twenty jobs available? Twenty jobs and thousands and thousands of applicants. It’s like the Oscars, only worse. You get paid less.”

Emily, a graduate of the University of Southern California in flute performance, is now living in the daunting world of orchestral auditions. She’s currently auditioning for a position in the South Dakota Symphony and has just passed the résumé round, the only round that can be likened to a regular job interview. The symphony board peruses résumés and throws out any candidate lacking orchestral or performing experience or a slew of awards, scholarships, and appropriate teaching background.

I ask Emily if she’s excited and ready for the audition. “Excited, yes. Ready, God no. There’s only so much practicing you can do before you just wing it and hope for the best.” Given the combination of nerves that creep up in any audition room, she’s not totally wrong. Hands get sweaty. Bodies get shaky. Heartbeats pound. Self-doubt gets magnified to the nth degree. It’s awfully hard to play perfectly and keep absolute rhythmic accuracy under those conditions.

One person who was able to control all this and receive the best possible outcome was Basil Vendryes, the CSO’s current principal violist.

Basil completed his undergraduate studies on the viola at the Eastman School of Music. As a sophomore at Eastman, he landed a position with the Rochester Philharmonic. The musical equivalent of Meryl Streep, Basil casually talks of going from Rochester to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, to the New York Philharmonic, and then to the CSO. Any aspiring young musician knows how globally well-respected these symphony orchestras are and how extremely difficult it is to land a position with them without mammoth determination and talent. Basil is so good, however, he makes it seem easy.

He came to the CSO over twenty years ago, accepting the position of principal (or first chair) viola, one of the highest-ranking positions within the orchestra. Because the CSO ranks as one of the best orchestras in the US, his principal position is all the more impressive.

I ask him about the audition process.

“Well, it was trying. There were very high-level players only. Your playing must display a forthright personality.”

Auditions are like job interviews, only if the pitch of your voice is a millimeter too high, you’re yelled at to stop. Or if the rhythm of your words is a millisecond off, they clap behind a screen and say, “THANKS FOR COMING.

Positions in orchestras like the ones that Basil has played with pop up extremely rarely. Hundreds of players show up, ready to do battle for the coveted job. This competitiveness means that everyone is exceedingly well prepared, and their audition materials are virtually flawless.

“Certainly, there was a lot of talent there, and I suppose a degree of pressure,” Basil says. Ultimately, though, his audition combined the technical perfection required with a certain forthrightness and, let’s admit, the je ne sais quoi that the audition panel was looking for. He won the job.

It’s not always a straight path from music student to performer. Certainly, Matt and Emily exemplify the dedication and drive required to eventually be considered for a symphony like the CSO. But along his path to first chair at the CSO, Basil has had to rely on more than just practice and drive. There were also immense personal and financial costs. He paid airfare to attend auditions. He had to account for the loss of free time as a result of practicing. The physical drain that comes from performing. The emotional toll of losing an audition.

There is also the cost of buying an instrument, which can range anywhere from $15,000 to $500,000 or more. Basil plays on a viola made in 1887 by Carlo Cerruti, and comparable violas for sale at Robertson and Sons, one of the preeminent luthier shops in the US, start at $100,000. The list price isn’t even given, as only extremely dedicated and talented players inquire.

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It is no secret that American symphony orchestras have been through the ringer. The recent recession has stretched symphonic survival to its breaking point. “As people make less and things get more expensive, they get more frugal with their disposable income and entertainment dollars,” Basil explains. Several highly esteemed symphonies have been forced into bankruptcy—the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, Louisville Symphony, and Syracuse Symphony, to name a few.

And the CSO was very near joining the list as well.

In an article published in Coloradobiz, journalist Cathie Beck states, “In summer 2011, the CSO came close to extinction. With $1.2 million in debt, a cash reserve of $16,000, and a deficit of $650,000, the symphony’s financial crisis provoked an emergency committee meeting.” The meeting determined that if the CSO didn’t restructure its finances, it would face “a high probability of demise within the next two years.” This crisis led to the hiring of a new CEO, Gene Sobczak, who had recently led the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra out of a similar bind.

It also led to a 14% pay cut.

This chart, compiled from the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), shows base symphony salaries from 2008–2011 (see figure 1). Note the drastic pay cuts to the CSO, which marked a terrifying turning point in the orchestra’s 25-year lifespan.

It takes a certain kind of commitment to your craft and community to take a $6,000 pay cut from an already low-starting salary, but the players’ dedication to both the music and the audience won out. CSO bassist and Lamont faculty member Susan Cahill had this to say about the 2011 pay cuts: “There is a long road yet to sustainability, but we the musicians believe we made huge sacrifices along the way to ensure that Colorado has a top-rated, world-class, full-time professional symphony orchestra.”

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In an article from the Journal of Cultural Economics, Jonathan Munn and Lawrence Tamburri describe in detail the various methods of funding American symphony orchestras, saying, “Orchestras have four principle sources of revenue as follows: earned income, private contributions, endowment funds, and government support.” With government subsidies being cut left and right during the recession, it’s no surprise that orchestras relied on alternative sources of income to make it out on the other end.

Creative programming to bring in audiences became one such source. And yet, an orchestra’s repertoire is also its main literature, its bread and butter. It is what the players spend hours practicing and what the audience hopefully spends its money on. Audience members often have strong preferences towards specific pieces, composers, and types of music, and this partiality is what gets them to the hall. Think about it this way—most wouldn’t show up to a Taylor Swift concert if they were expecting her to sing only KISS songs. They go with an expectation of what they’re going to hear. Similarly, the CSO is able to attract Brahms fans, Broadway enthusiasts, and contemporary music lovers alike by programming different types of music to appeal to everyone.

The Standard Repertoire Index (SRI) shows that a certain group of composers—including Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak—dominate the concert halls year after year. Much like “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,” these pieces are all so familiar with American audiences that they’ve entered the next level of musical recognition: the subconscious. Even by simply reading bum-bum-bum-BUUUUUM, bum-bum-bum-BUUUUUUUM, they can hear the opening of Beethoven’s 5th in their heads. But do audiences want something else?

Musicologist Tina K. Ramnarine further unpacks the tightrope between audience expectation and orchestral reality in her article “The Orchestration of Civil Society.” She says, “In an era in which the social relevance of the institution has come into question, orchestras are addressing charges of elitism and shaping agendas in everyday attempts to provide access, foster community, and promote innovative programs.” The CSO faces the problem that many orchestras face: program more adventurous new music and lose old, tested and true audiences, or continue programming old and established—and some would classify, as Ramnarine, “elitist”—pieces and risk not attracting new audiences.

Basil explains:

When you talk about the differences between the NY Phil or the San Francisco Symphony and the CSO, I daresay our orchestra is potentially the most diverse, flexible orchestra in the United States. Most of those orchestras do not do the varied amount of repertoire or genre that we do so often. It really is a testament to my colleagues.

Playing new genres of orchestral repertoire each week speaks to the diversity of patronage attracted by the CSO and the diversity of their musical tastes. “We try and appeal to everybody. We try to—on a very slim budget—find ways to accommodate all the different kinds of patrons so we satisfy our audience, and they will support us in kind.”

And so the CSO has had to find ways to attract not only big donors, but an increasingly diverse group of donors too. This new group is the kind that the CSO has targeted with recent cannabis-friendly programs and private fundraisers: the liberal millennial. In his article “Debussy, Wine, and B.Y.O.M.,” Jack Healy discusses the relaxed mood at a 2014 fundraiser for the CSO, describing how people would “toke up outside” and listen to music inside. Evan Lasky, the CSO’s chief operating officer, downplayed the move, saying that, “For us, it’s just another fundraiser.”

Basil, who also sits on the CSO’s Board of Trustees, knows first-hand the necessity of large-scale donors and benefactors to the survival of the orchestra. “We have events that we bring them to, we might offer perks—if you give this much money, you get a backstage pass to visit Yo-Yo Ma. But when I give money to the Cancer Society, it’s because I believe in the research. So we do what we can to give donors bang for their buck, but the biggest thing we can give them—especially from my chair—is the music.”

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The Denver community is lucky to have such an amazing orchestral institution so nearby playing such incredible and varied pieces on a weekly basis. When asked why he supports the CSO, aspiring violinist Matt said, “It’s a great cultural resource and one of the few events where you go, sit, listen, and learn without distractions or cell phones. Why wouldn’t you support a diverse organization that works together to deliver a superior product to inspire and inform people?” Flautist Emily added, “There’s something we need in music; it fulfills something that really nothing else can. I mean, it’s been around forever, and I can’t imagine dedicating my life to anything else.”

Playing in a symphony orchestra requires an immense amount of cooperation and teamwork. If you’re in an orchestra of a hundred players, and you are the one responsible for its success or failure, you feel a certain responsibility to live up to the expectations of those around you.

In a way, the orchestral performance is a microcosm for the survival of the symphony orchestra as a whole. A harmonious grouping of musicians, donors, and audiences is extremely vital to the continuation of the beautiful, centuries-old tradition of symphony orchestras, as participation in any of the roles activities requires immense dedication. The musicians are the string section, with their beautiful, lush, collective abilities on full display. The donors are the brass and woodwinds, individually supplementing the orchestra with solos and assured confidence of its success. The audience is the percussion, their thunderous applause mimicking snare drum rolls and timpani thuds.

And in a way, the audience is the backbone of the orchestra. Think about it: you attend the performance with the musicians, you dress just as fancily as they do when you go, you love the music, and you are just as necessary to the survival of the orchestra as the musicians are. Without you, who are we playing for? The conductor might as well give you the baton cues right with the orchestra, as you are just as important to this community out there in the dark concert hall as those he cues in the limelight. You just have a slightly easier audition process—and that’s simply buying a ticket.

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I wrote this essay in response to a class assignment asking me to explore the value systems and practices of a subculture I was not directly involved in. My choice of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra seemed obvious, as I’m a violinist myself, and a bona fide mega-fan of the organization. I also felt that the world of orchestral playing can be enigmatic to those not directly involved with it—the monarchic relationship between the musicians and the conductor, the oligarchic relationship of the musicians amongst themselves, the codependency of musicians and the audience, and the ever-changing relationship between the musicians and the repertoire they play.

This essay also examines how an artistic organization can either thrive, adapt, or fail during times of economic stress, which opened my eyes to the CSO’s particularly compelling narrative during the recent recession. As a writer of mostly personal essays and anecdotes, I found this especially fun to write, as it allowed me to focus on something more disconnected from myself, all the while using my knowledge of orchestral performing as context.

Goetzinger bioBrian Casey Goetzinger is a first year graduate student from Rapid City, South Dakota. He enjoys reading, writing, violining, composing, amateur spelunking, and pacing. And, bonus: he’s ticklish.