The Colorado Symphony is Denver’s main orchestra and one of the few major orchestras in the Rocky Mountain region. The organization traces its roots to the Denver Symphony, which was established in 1934 under Horace Tureman and became fully professional in 1945. Led by conductor Saul Caston, the Denver Symphony grew in size and reputation over the next two decades, thanks in part to national media coverage of its summer concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
After Caston was forced out in the mid-1960s, the organization lacked stable administration and funding. Management fell into a series of labor disputes with symphony musicians, including numerous lockouts. In 1989 the musicians resisted a proposed salary cut by forming a rival group, the Colorado Symphony, and the Denver Symphony promptly declared bankruptcy. Today the Colorado Symphony plays in Boettcher Concert Hall, its home since 1978, and is led by music director Brett Mitchell, concertmaster Yumi Hwang-Williams, and CEO Jerome Kern.
Early Symphonies in Denver, 1890s–1910s
The first symphony orchestra in Denver started in March 1892, when P. E. Collins established the Denver Symphonic Music Society. The group played concerts at the Colorado Mining Exchange in April and October but then disappeared. It may have been a casualty of the Panic of 1893, which devastated Colorado’s economy. Denver’s classical music scene for the next few years consisted largely of concerts at Elitch Gardens by musicians such as Raffaelo Cavallo.
Denver’s first symphony with any staying power was English organist Henry Houseley’s orchestra, which started in the fall of 1900. Not content to play second fiddle, Cavallo launched a rival group, the Denver Orchestra Association, in 1903. Cavallo’s orchestra won out. In 1911 Cavallo left his orchestra in the hands of cellist Horace Tureman while he went to the East Coast. By the time Cavallo returned, Tureman had taken control of the group. Tureman then helped start the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra in 1912 and led it for about five years, until it dissolved when its musicians were drafted into World War I.
Civic Orchestra and Denver Symphony, 1922–45
After World War I, Denver’s classical music scene began to stabilize. In 1922 Tureman started the Denver Civic Orchestra, a ninety-member semiprofessional group. Meanwhile, through fundraising and organizational development, Jean Cranmer helped to create the Civic Symphony Society. The orchestra gave its first concert in November at Municipal Auditorium.
The Civic Orchestra flourished, but the Great Depression made it hard for the group’s semiprofessional musicians to survive. To provide an opportunity for better pay, Cranmer worked with Helen Marie Black and others to start a professional orchestra called the Denver Symphony in 1934. Like the Civic Orchestra, the Denver Symphony had Tureman at the helm and was under the umbrella of the Civic Symphony Society. It was smaller than the Civic Orchestra, only forty-three members, and its season was shorter, only three concerts, but it paid its musicians higher wages. The group made its debut on November 30, 1934, at the Broadway Theatre.
The Caston Era, 1945–64
The Civic Symphony Society experienced a major shakeup at the end of World War II. Tureman retired from the Denver Symphony. To replace him, business manager Black hired Saul Caston, then an associate conductor under Philadelphia’s renowned Eugene Ormandy. Black also worked with the Denver Symphony Guild to launch a major fundraising campaign to turn the symphony into a full-size professional orchestra. It worked, thanks largely to contributions from Lawrence and Margaret Phipps, and Caston took the baton in October 1945. Caston stood at the head of an expanded ensemble that was the only major symphony orchestra for hundreds of miles. Black, meanwhile, was the only female manager of a major orchestra in the United States. The semiprofessional Civic Orchestra folded a few years later.
Buoyed by Colorado’s growing postwar population of aspirational middle-class workers, the Denver Symphony saw a decade of success. The symphony’s tours of local schools and small towns built support throughout the Rocky Mountain region, while its summer concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheatre starting in 1947 earned it a national reputation. In these years, Caston hired two of the first Black musicians to play with a major American orchestra, violinist Jack Bradley in 1946 and bassist Charles Burrell in 1949. Burrell later recalled that he didn’t feel fully accepted by his fellow musicians, who sometimes used derogatory slurs, but he was always confident that Caston and Black had his back.
By the mid-1950s, the symphony’s shiny reputation hid deeper problems. It was still run as a kind of social club for Denver’s old-money elite, with the Phipps family and the debutante cotillion serving as the most important funding sources. The organization had a growing deficit as expenses outpaced donations. There were also complaints about Caston’s conducting from both the audience and the musicians. Under mounting pressure, Caston retired at the end of the 1964 season. Longtime business manager Black went with him, and Allan Phipps, president of the Denver Symphony Society, followed.
In 1964 the Denver Symphony welcomed a completely new slate of leaders, including a new music director, seventy-year-old Vladimir Golschmann, a veteran of multiple orchestras in Europe and the United States. The shakeup immediately spurred a successful fundraising drive and soaring ticket sales. A year later, the organization got a massive Ford Foundation grant: $150,000 per year for five years, plus $1 million in Ford stock toward the endowment. The city’s civic and business leaders increasingly saw the symphony as a vital asset that helped distinguish Denver from regional rivals, marking it as a first-class city ready to receive businesses fleeing old East Coast hubs.
But far from providing a stable cultural foundation, the symphony remained on rocky ground. In a situation common among American orchestras after the 1960s, expenses rose much faster than ticket sales and donations, particularly as young people turned toward genres such as jazz and rock. Large, onetime grants like the Ford Foundation’s also led to the mistaken belief among the public that the symphony had enough cash. Yet Denver lacked a deep bench of wealthy donors and philanthropic foundations; when old-money families stepped away as the symphony became less of a social club, new business elites didn’t make up the difference.
The result was two decades of fiscal instability and conflict between musicians and management over pay. In the mid-1960s, the Denver Symphony had the lowest average weekly minimum salary of any major American orchestra. As the musicians worked with their union, the American Federation of Musicians, to negotiate better contracts, they were met with stonewalling and lockouts, the first of which happened in 1969.
As with Caston, concerns about finances coincided with complaints about conducting. Orchestra members carped that Golschmann pushed the tempo and cut slow movements to keep concerts short. Golschmann was out after 1969, replaced by a young Englishman named Brian Priestman, who brought a relentless drive to improve and promote the symphony. He revived the group’s regional tours, took it on national tours in 1972–74, and led its first recording in 1973. The orchestra’s artistic reputation increased even as its management careened from crisis to crisis.
Despite a growing rift between musicians and management, everyone agreed that the symphony needed to move out of Municipal Auditorium, which had been built as a multipurpose venue in 1908 and had horrible acoustics. Voters agreed, too, and approved funding for a new hall in 1972. The symphony folded its project into Donald Seawell’s plan for a vast Denver Center for the Performing Arts around the existing auditorium, and Boettcher Concert Hall opened six years later as the first piece of the new campus. The venue was the first symphony hall in the United States to have seats completely surrounding the stage. Priestman conducted the symphony’s first concert there on March 5, 1978.
After that triumph, the next decade was mostly downhill. Priestman left in frustration after the board continually failed to support the orchestra. In 1986 musicians agreed to pay cuts to stave off bankruptcy, but shortfalls continued. In 1988 the season opened three weeks late, and the symphony’s leadership resigned. Eventually the board cut the season short on March 25, 1989, because of deficits.
The Colorado Symphony, 1989–2011
The Denver Symphony’s March 25 concert was its last. In September, when management pushed for another salary cut, the musicians voted to leave. The American Federation of Musicians blacklisted the Denver Symphony, which canceled its season and declared bankruptcy. The former Denver Symphony musicians formed their own orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, which performed its first concert on October 26, 1989, at McNichols Sports Arena. Former music director Brian Priestman returned as guest conductor.
At the end of its first season, the Colorado Symphony absorbed the assets of the Denver Symphony Association. In 1993 the symphony named Marin Alsop as its music director; she served until 2005, when she became the first conductor to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant.
Yet as before, the group’s artistic reputation outpaced its funding. The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District provided some taxpayer support starting in 1990, but the symphony received far less than organizations such as the Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Center for the Performing Arts. A rescue came in the form of Jerome and Mary Kern, who donated $1 million in 2000. As a condition of the gift, Jerome, a former New York corporate lawyer, and Mary, the symphony’s former director of development, became co-chairs of the board. They replaced the CEO, brought in new corporate donors, and instituted tighter budgets before resigning in 2006, when they thought the symphony was on stable footing.
The Kern Era, 2011–Present
Soon after the Kerns stepped away, the Great Recession caused the symphony’s finances to tank, leading to a tense relationship between musicians and the board. Musicians resented pay cuts and increased work schedules, while board members grew tired of balancing the budget with their own donations. The situation reached a breaking point in October 2011, when musicians rejected new board proposals, leading most of the board to resign and the season to be delayed.
The musicians still trusted the Kerns from their previous tenure and brought them back to chair the board. A year later, Jerome also became CEO. He instituted many changes proposed by the previous board, but this time the musicians went along because they believed he had their interests at heart. The organization continued to lose money for several years, even with the musicians’ base salary at half that of their counterparts in similar cities, but by the mid-2010s the symphony was seeing surpluses and building an endowment.
New artistic leadership helped drive the turnaround: Andrew Litton served as music director from 2013 to 2016, followed by Brett Mitchell starting in 2017. Mitchell brought a youthful energy to the organization and helped it continue to diversify its concert offerings, drawing larger and more casual crowds. The symphony played a series of Classically Cannabis fundraisers in 2014, not long after marijuana was legalized in Colorado, and has added movie nights (the orchestra plays the score), rock tribute concerts, and collaborations with local artists such as DeVotchKa and Gregory Alan Isakov.
Today the Colorado Symphony faces a long-term problem as well as an immediate crisis. The first, long-simmering problem concerns Boettcher Concert Hall. The hall’s huge size—it has 2,700 seats, much larger than other halls in similar cities—makes it impossible to fill and expensive to heat. Most important for the symphony, the hall’s acoustics, though initially praised, have made it hard for the musicians and audience to hear. Currently the city of Denver plans to tear down the hall as part of a broader renovation of the aging arts complex, and the symphony is exploring possible new locations.
Plans for a new home were complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The pandemic wreaked havoc on arts organizations across the country—including the Colorado Symphony, which relies on large indoor gatherings for its survival. On March 13, the symphony started to cancel concerts, first through the end of the season and then through the end of the year. In the summer and early fall, it was able to play a few outdoor shows with stripped-down ensembles and small audiences at Red Rocks, the Denver Botanic Gardens, and the Denver Performing Arts Complex Galleria. As of October 2020, it remains unclear when the symphony will be able to resume regular concerts and how it will be affected by the long-term loss of performances and ticket sales.