“You Talkin’ To Me?”

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by Nick Lewis
WRIT 1133: Writing and Research | Professor Carol Samson

1. The taxi driver, Richard, is driving my friend Cami and me back to our dorms.  It is midnight. Tired and satisfied, the two of us have been swing dancing at a local favorite, the Mercury Café in downtown Denver; as we ride, Richard describes the city, our city, to us from what he calls the “front row seat.” He reads Denver from street level, remembering when he was maneuvering the streets during the 1998 Denver riots after the Bronco’s 39-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, his cruising past the first medical marijuana dispensaries on Broadway in the mid-2000s. Tonight, though, he just pulled up to the Mercury Café in his Yellow cab, a late model Crown Victoria, and found us, Cami and me, and we became two new strangers in his back seat.  At first, all is ritual. Through the open plastic panel that divides driver from the passenger, Richard asks, “Where to?” But as we travel, Richard speaks of Denver flea markets, of construction projects that link Denver to the world, of immigration issues in our city.  Together we move through the winter night, and he becomes a narrator, an anthropologist, a sort of mythic Mercury, guiding us from dark level to dark level.

In time, I have begun to see how Richard, the cabbie, showed me to read the territory, and I now understand a taxi as a yellow box moving through a concrete city box. I can argue it as a translation of things both public and private and also because Richard pointed this out, as a certain kind of sacred thing.


Arina P Habich | Shutterstock.com

2. I must admit, though, that even before my ride in the Yellow cab with Richard, I knew romantic and historic tales of the taxi.


Thirty miles outside of Paris, the air was warm on the 6th of September 1914 until the weather began to change as a cold evening set in. Dew was forming on the open farm fields near the town of Meaux. Troops were tracking mud from the Marne River as the French Sixth Army, under French General Joseph Joffre, ordered the attack on the exposed flank of the German Army under the command of Alexander von Kluck. Meanwhile, a mere step away from this, the largest battle the world had yet to see, Parisian police officers were stopping cab drivers, telling their passengers to step out, instructing the drivers to head off to the Military College.

As many as three thousand Renault AC1 Landaulets, the most popular type of Parisian cab, each with the capacity to carry five men and with a top speed of 20–25 miles an hour, were transporting French troops to the world’s largest battle. In total, the Parisian cab drivers dropped off five thousand troops ready to attack the advancing German Army, aiding in this epic battle that ultimately blocked the siege of Paris and shifted the tides of war against Germany in the first Allied victory against the German onslaught (Hanc).

Yet, while the five thousand troops transported by taxis to the Battle of the Marne is significant, it does not come anywhere near to the one million men who fought in the war; and while the effort does make for a touching story of the power of a collective will, the taxi was, in reality, not the chief instrument in the French victory in the Battle of the Marne. It became, though, a story, a narrative that has persisted for one hundred years, one I learned in grade school and never forgot.

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 Pelle The Poet | Flickr.com

3.understand that while some of us may connect cabs to world history, most of us connect taxis to money, to cost. The word “taxi” comes from the German word “taximeter.” The taximeter was an invention created by Wilhelm Bruhn in 1891 in order to calculate the price of the ride determined by mileage traveled by the customers. The history of the taxi as a means of transport is, of course, much older and richer. It extends back to Paris in 1640 when the original taxis were horse-drawn carriages, vehicles created so that the rich Parisian nobility could travel from the theater and back home without needing to buy their own carriage or to support a driver of their own. In England, these taxis were actually more commonly referred to as “Hacks,” which comes from the word “Hackney”; we can trace its roots to the French word “Haquenée,” meaning a cart-pulling horse. The term “Hacks” or “Black Hack,” which is still a commonly used term in England today, can be traced at least to the 1654 Ordinance for the Regulation of Hackney Coachmen that regulated the quality and expectations of service from taxis in England. The history stretches all the way back to the mid-17th century. Although today’s taxis are relatively affordable and available to anyone, during the Battle of Marne in 1914, the soldiers were quite astonished to be riding in a luxurious Parisian taxicab which had been common practice since the first taxis and “hackneys” (English).

In terms of modern cabs, the first successful motor cab actually came from the same place the automobile itself originated: Germany. Karl Benz, of Mercedes-Benz, collaborated with Gottlieb Daimler, of Daimler Motors, to introduce a new model of car, the Daimler Victoria N, which was marketed specifically for the use as a motorized taxi and was paired with a taximeter, the same one designed by Bruhn. Though the 1915 cost of producing one was an expensive 5,530 marks, or the equivalent of $28,400 today, the first motorized cab was a commercial success, and within three years of operation, six more were built (English).1 The shift to modern cab design can be traced to 1907, with the start of the Yellow Cab Company, and to 1923, when the first Checker Cab rolled off the assembly line from Kalamazoo, Michigan (Kohrman). Taxis became an integral part of the city, where everyone’s eye was meant to be caught by the design of these cabs, a design that the Checker company is most famous for, which shifted the look of a taxi from a reserved and upscale “Black Hack” to the more playful and common “Yellow Cab.” And, thus, the icon was born.

Today, ridesharing companies are making big changes that give us new words and new concepts of charges and risks. We call an Uber or a Lyft for a ride by using an app on our phone, which connects us to a nearby freelance driver who can choose to pick us up and give us a ride. We ride in car-cabs owned by the drivers. And, thus, these new services have become serious competitors to private hire vehicles such as cabs and limousines. And even as we call for them, knowing these new services are ubiquitous, cheap, and easy, we are oblivious to a subtle, but treacherous, cost.

4. As we ride through the concrete blocks of the city in the back seat of his yellow cab, Richard is telling us about his theory of these new operations, the threat to his livelihood created by Uber and Lyft.  He is saying that this sort of ride sharing is dangerous mostly because it has the same dangers as riding in a taxi, but without the same insurance guarantees. Should something bad happen, Richard says, the traditional taxi company will insure the passenger and the driver against any injury or death and even supply additional insurance for others involved in the accident who may have not been in the cab. Over his shoulder, Richard tells us he once got T-boned by a driver who ran a red light and that he, Richard, is still going to the doctor for physical therapy. Yellow Cab, Richard says, is paying for all of it.

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5.know now that ridesharing services have caused quite a stir when it comes to safety issues for both passengers and drivers. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the city government is thinking of making these services have more regulated and frequent background checks on their drivers as well as requiring a company logo on each car (Deery). This legislation was initiated because of an incident wherein an Uber driver was pulled over by the police and, after an ensuing search, the police found both a gun and a knife in the driver’s vehicle. Another concern that recently affected the Denver area involved an Uber driver who was pulled over for driving while under the influence of alcohol. As Richard mentioned, over and above the looser regulations on drivers who work for independent companies like Uber, the regulated taxi companies argue that they incorporate the best of fuel economy, safety, and ease of transport—all of which is backed up with well-padded insurance policies. While Uber and Lyft drivers are required to have individual insurance on top of the additional insurance from their respective companies, studies show that their insurance is not nearly as extensive as what a real taxi company must pay.

Though the taxi industry is facing some new challenges with ridesharing services, these are not the first obstacles the industry has faced. While being a taxi driver can be a really well-paying job, the industry has severe drawbacks. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a document, for example, that specifically details the dangers of being a taxi driver. Unfortunately, this occupation has the highest homicide rates of any occupation in the US. The article opens up with this sentence: “Taxi drivers are more than 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other workers” (“Preventing”). Taxi drivers—and ride share drivers for that matter—have to deal with the types of customers who are the most likely to get involved in a violent altercation due to known risks of the taxi job: working with cash, working at night, working alone, working in high crime areas, and working with people under the influence of alcohol. These factors combine to make the job far more dangerous than many other jobs.

6. While I did not hail Richard’s cab off the street, I did end up riding in his yellow American-made Crown Victoria, an American icon. On that night, I just needed a ride home, but I also knew that there is a certain level of mythology surrounding the taxi, that taxis are a strange presence in our lives. Take Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, in which Robert De Niro plays the role of Travis Bickle, a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from insomnia and extreme disdain for the world and who makes his money driving a cab through the street of Manhattan. De Niro’s performance is one of the most iconic of all time, with the famous line “You talkin’ to me?” De Niro delivers this line when squaring up on his reflection in a full-body mirror like a madman and pulling a gun on his reflection, indicating his complete and total loss of touch with reality.  The film explores the darker and more taboo sides of 1970s New York through the eyes of someone who sees the city best, the taxi driver. In the opening montage—in beautiful, non-continuous style editing—the audience has a view of New York City from the outside and inside of Bickle’s taxi cab. The city’s “trash” mingles in the rain where a shallow-depth field lens focuses on an extreme close up of the side panel of Bickle’s canary yellow cab. From here the city looks out of focus, but the viewer follows the bright yellow contrast to the dark murky brown of the streets. At one point in the film, Scorsese allows the audience to peer into cabbie life as Bickle picks up an affluent man who cheats on his wife with a young prostitute in the back of the cab; and, in such moments, the director works to conjures up a deep, intricate mythos surrounding taxis.

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7. As we move along through the dark Denver streets in our yellow box, Richard mentions that he loves his job because he gets a front-row seat to watch how the city changes.  Unlike De Niro’s Bickle, who abhorred New York, Richard speaks to the beauty of a bustling, prosperous city. He tells us, too, that another part of the taxi experience that is hard to ignore is its similarity to a confession box. While not every passenger capitalizes on this, Richard says many of his customers talk about heavy and personal things. Richard says that cabbies see and listen to all sides of life through strange, yet anonymous, passengers. The truth is, he says, unless you knew them beforehand, you’ll likely never see your cab driver again, so you can confess anything you want to them.

I find myself thinking of Frank Ocean’s song “Bad Religion,” which tells a story of confession to a cab driver:

Taxi driver
You’re my shrink for the hour
Leave the meter running
It’s rush hour
So take the streets if you wanna
Just outrun the demons, could you?

Here the taxi driver takes on the role of a priest as well as that of a psychiatrist, and the lyrics suggest how powerful and impactful a listener a cabbie can be. In the dark confines of a cab, a mobile confessional, some people open up and seek advice they need.

Then from out of nowhere, Richard is confessing things. He is telling us that being a taxi driver is his only source of income, which he does only on the weekends. He is saying that he uses the money to pay for his own place and to take care of his son who he cares for on weekdays.  As we watch and listen, Richard is reaching for something, a trinket he keeps in his cab, and he is handing it to Cami and me so we can inspect it.  It is a slightly worn $20 bill. You can tell just by looking at it, even under the dim cabin light, even at midnight, that this bill is a counterfeit. Richard is confessing that one night, he was driving some large men who kept arguing with each other the entire night. After he dropped them off, he noticed the bill they used to pay for their fare was a fake. Richard got out of the cab and chased these guys down. They responded promptly by drawing their guns on him; finding himself facing death, Richard realized that it was just a $20 bill and that he didn’t need that $20. What he needed, he says, was to get home to his boy. He keeps the counterfeit bill around, he says, to remind him what is important.

8. So I come, at last, to a theory by Michel Foucault who, in “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” argues that we live in an age of connectedness, of intertwined networks connected by sites which are “relations of proximity between points” (2). We live in a world where there are spaces that function within spaces like boats drifting on an ocean or taxis racing through a city. Some of those spaces become heterotopias, places outside of all places, places like cemeteries that define themselves as within, but different from, the space that surrounds them, places like museums that, filled as they are with artifacts removed from time and origin, take on their own interpretive meanings.

I see now that Richard’s taxi is just such a space, a dynamic heterotopia. It navigates the city, retraces patterns, and yet remains its own defined arena. It is a product of the city and a release from the city. As a passenger, I can ride in it knowing it as a public conveyance but also as a hidden and private venue. I can speak to the driver, or not, and I know that, if I do speak, we change the meaning of the space forever. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we ride in this modern heterotopia, this other space within our city space, and we meet a man like Richard who can open something inside us, make us ponder the taxi journey as both dangerous and soothing, the cab itself as confession box or Scorsese movie set.  When this happens, we come see the taxi windows as photographic lenses, its surrounding city an amorphous thing of beauty, and its small talk, spoken in the dark in a comically yellow-mustard-colored car, as not so small after all.

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John Tiedemann

1 My monetary conversion calculations from German Marks to USD comes from Professor Harold Marcuse’s Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page using January 1915 conversion rates.

I would personally like to thank everyone who helped me with this piece, starting with my parents for pushing me to get the ball rolling. Thank you both, Mom and Dad. Next, I would like to thank my WRIT 1133 professor, Dr. Samson. First and foremost, you drove me to keep after this piece and helped me to write the best version of this essay, and for that I am grateful. Lastly I would like to thank Carly Post for helping me edit my piece and retain my voice.

Featured Image © pimpic | Shutterstock.com

David Foster Wallace’s masterful interrogation of the Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster” draws out the most fascinating and perplexing insights into all things lobster. As a Biological Sciences major, it had been about a year since material like “Consider the Lobster” challenged my “right brain” creative thinking skills, but this kind of thought was to be expected in WRIT 1133.

After reading pieces such as On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler, and “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace, my mind was challenged in new ways with a particular fascination on the grand implications of something as trivial as the lobster. For me, taxis were an intriguing relic, speeding along city roads, the passenger simultaneously separate from, yet unequivocally an integral part of the city at the same time. The passengers are isolated and connected in a paradoxical way. It was exactly these paradoxes that prompted me to write about the taxi, so please enjoy.

Nick Headshot
Nick Lewis is a sophomore at DU pursuing a degree in biology.  He grew up in Arvada, Colorado, and enjoys skiing, swing dancing, rock climbing, ultimate frisbee, cars, music, and more skiing. Despite being on the pre-med track, Nick has always had a soft spot for film and cinema. Some of his favorites are There Will be Blood, The Dark Knight, Looper, Fight Club, Donnie Darko, and The Princess Bride.


Deery, Jenna. “Leaders Say Safety Standards for Uber, Lyft Not Enough.” WSOC. 13 Apr. 2015. Web. 14 Apr.  2015.

English, Bob. “Classic Cars: All Hail the Birth of the Taxi in 1897.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 23 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Architecture/Mouvement/Continuité. 5 (Oct. 1984). Rpt. Diacritics 16 (Spring 1986): 22–27. Web. 20 Oct 2015.

Hanc, John. “A Fleet of Taxis Did Not Really Save Paris From the Germans During World War I: The Myth of the Battle of the Marne has Persisted, but What Exactly Happened in the First Major Conflict of the War?” Smithsonian.com. 24 July 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Huet, Ellen. “New Laws Push Uber and Lyft to Bump up Insurance Coverage, but a Collision Gap Remains.” Forbes. Forbes.com, 1 July 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Kohrman, David. “Checker Motors: Taxicab Makers.” Kalamazoo Public Library. Kalamazoo Public Library, May 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Marcuse, Harold. “Historical Dollar-to-Marks Currency Conversion Page.” Harold Marcuse. University of California Santa Barbara History Department, 19 Aug 2005. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Ocean, Frank. “Bad Religion.” Channel Orange. Def Jam Recordings, 2012. MP3 file.

“Preventing Violence against Taxi and For-Hire Drivers.” OSHA Factsheet. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Taxi Driver. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster. 1976. Film. Sony Pictures. 2007. DVD.



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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Ultra 5280 | Flickr.com

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.