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A new beginning at the Colorado Symphony

If you glanced at the opening program of the Colorado Symphony’s 2017-18 season, playing this weekend in Denver, you might be tempted to make the assumption that the orchestra was replicating that all-too-familiar pattern of feeling it needed to balance a first half of all-contemporary repertoire with a trusty war-horse – in this case, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Given the frequency with which such programming is done you might be forgiven for your assumption, but in this case you’d be incorrect.

This program, pairing Beethoven’s Fifth with a first half of works by Kevin Puts and Mason Bates, presents a coherent package. Puts and Bates complemented the Beethoven – just as Beethoven retroactively complemented Puts and Bates. This wasn’t cynical programming; this was thoughtful programming that gave every piece on the docket an equal role in service to the whole.

The vision behind this was that of the Colorado Symphony’s new Music Director, Brett Mitchell, and it’s a vision that plays out over the course of the entire season. In concert after concert we see not just a mix of canonical standards with lesser-known classics (or a refreshing number of new works), but a pairing of old and new that illuminates both. Such is certainly the case in this opening concert, where the vibrance of Kevin Puts’ Millennial Canons foreshadows the brass fanfare’s of the Beethoven finale, and where the pulsing rhythms of Mason Bates’ The B sides set us up for the insistent drive of that famous 4-note motive that not only opens the Fifth but spins its way through the entire symphony like a 19th-century version of a techno beat.

So often orchestral programming is done in a paint-by-numbers fashion: overture, concerto, intermission, canonical symphony or tone poem. The corollary to this is that the more adventuresome the first half, the less adventuresome the second half must be. (It goes without saying that in this tired – and tiresome – way of programming the adventuresome piece cannot go after the intermission, at the risk that the audience will leave after they’ve had their fill of ear candy on the first half.) And while I have no doubt that there is a certain segment of the audience that has come to expect this pattern for their concerts, and will rail against anything that confounds it, it’s absolute death to attracting anybody new to the symphony experience, and here’s why:

Anything that is done by rote cannot help but come off as such. And who wants to spend a precious evening out, pay $75 for a ticket, get a sitter, drive into town, pay for parking and all the rest, just to experience rote??

And though Boettcher Concert Hall was, as it usually is, only partly full Friday night, to blame the less-than-stunning attendance on the unorthodox programming would be another misplaced assumption. For the most adventuresome of the pieces – the Bates – received a standing ovation. A senior citizen to my right beamed, grabbed my husband by the arm and exclaimed, “Well now that was something different, wasn’t it?” The senior to my left was one of the first to leap to her feet, clapping enthusiastically and saying to her companion, “I thought that was fun, didn’t you?” And at intermission I took careful note of the audience, especially the older more “traditional”-looking patrons: everyone was buzzing about the first half. The fact that someone was willing to open their tenure with an entire half of new American music had gotten everyone’s attention – and the response was favorable.

It was one more bit of proof that it really is time we retire that tired chestnut about senior citizens not accepting anything but the most standard of standard repertoire. It really is time we start respecting our audience more than that. The fresh, the new, the inventive: these are the qualities most folks are seeking from their Live music experiences. Why do so many orchestras still insist on depriving audiences of them?

Of course, it’s too early to tell whether or not Maestro Mitchell’s diverse programming will start filling more seats. The more I study the complex dynamics of audiences and why they make the choices they do, the more mysterious it seems. And as I’ve been saying in this forum and others for more than a decade, there are many more factors in determining consumption of classical music than just the repertoire (in fact, in some respects it’s among the least important of factors). But this is the right approach: thoughtful programming that is designed to make connections, to help us see old repertoire in a new light, and new repertoire in the context of what has come before. It’s artistic leadership that inspires risk-taking and adventure – something that the young audiences that orchestras crave regularly seek in practically all their endeavors.

And on a personal note, I’ve known Brett Mitchell for a long time. I’ve watched him grow as an artist and been privileged to hear him conduct my music. But I’m not just happy to have him here in Colorado as my friend; I’m happy for the Colorado Symphony and for audiences in the metro area. Because this is the kind of conductor this orchestra needs, the kind of artistic leader this community needs. I wish him all the best as he embarks on this exciting new chapter in his artistic life, and as he leads the Colorado Symphony in a new chapter as well.

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