CSO more important to community than ever
By Marin Alsop
October 7, 2001
The Denver Post
On Sept. 12, the musicians of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and I walked together onto the stage of Boettcher Concert Hall into the arms of a shocked, suffering, embracing and, above all, loving community. Together, through the power and inspiration of music, we were able to find a few moments of meaning and peace and comfort in a thoroughly disrupted universe.

I had originally written this article to address the question of why we have a symphony orchestra, but the answer seems so startingly clear now: We have a great symphony because we need great music. We need to be touched and moved and challenged and comforted, and we need to share in this experience together.

Music reaches into our souls to give us hope and transports us to another place, where we feel the essence of life in all its majesty.

I was asked to address the recent financial struggles faced by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (and the majority of fine arts organizations in the United States these days), but it's a difficult task after this shocking dose of perspective that we have all experienced. For me, the meaning of art in life is now crystal clear: Art captures life's essence and is itself essential to living.

Why have a symphony if few people attend? Music is an innate, organic, universal language that we all share simply by being members of the human race. Each person has the capacity to walk into Boettcher Concert Hall and experience an emotional journey that can enrich his or her soul. Not having the opportunity for that kind of emotional and spiritual expansion would, I believe, leave our citizens impoverished.

The Colorado Symphony has achieved so much in its short 12-year existence, and I celebrate every one of those achievements. Imagine my pride when I tune in to National Public Radio during my travels in the United States and happen upon an outstanding performance by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Do Denverites realize that the CSO broadcasts five concerts per year on the NPR program "Performance Today?"

I've heard people in other cities say, "I couldn't leave the car until I found out which superb orchestra was playing, and then, when I heard it was the Colorado Symphony, it blew me away!" My pride is indescribable when people abroad come up to me and say that the CSO's recording of the music of Christopher Rouse is simply the most exciting thing they've ever heard; or when we hold an audition for one opening and well over 100 musicians show up to audition; or when ticket sales to our concerts increase by more than 10 percent annually.

I therefore assume that the people of Denver know what a great treasure they have in the Colorado Symphony. But the fact that the orchestra faces its first substantial deficit since its formation 11 years ago makes me wonder if that is so.

Maybe it's important at this time for us all to address certain fundamental questions:

Why do we have a symphony orchestra? Around the world, cities are judged first and foremost by the richness of their culture. Art - be it music, theater or visual art - is a microcosmic view of the quality of life in a city and of the values held by the people of that community. Music, art and theater are the manifestation and embodiment of the human spirit. They are the living expression of our shared human essence and connect us to our higher selves and to our shared history.

How can we place a price on this kind of commodity? It makes good economic sense to have a symphony: For every dollar spent on a symphony ticket, the business community receives at least $3 in revenue. Furthermore, unlike other countries, supporting the arts has tremendous financial benefits to individuals and corporations in terms of tax relief.

Are there other, less obvious benefits to having a symphony in our community? I am not sure how well it is known that the Colorado Symphony Orchestra makes access to the imaginative, emotional journey of music a priority for all children in the community. Annually, the CSO touches the lives of more than 68,000 children through a variety of programs. I think we all understand at this point that opportunities for imaginative, creative, innovative thinking in childhood lead to imaginative, creative, innovative thinking in adulthood. Children need, above all, to express themselves, and the abstract, imaginative qualities of music provide the perfect vehicle for them to explore their dreams.

Learning a musical instrument has innumerable fringe benefits for children. They learn that things do not happen overnight; that it takes practice and patience to improve; and that perseverance is the key to consistent success. They learn how to motivate themselves to practice; how to budget their time; how to be responsible to themselves and set their own goals. Expressing themselves through music validates them as individuals with unique voices and unique things to say. I do not operate under any illusion that every child will or should become a professional musician, but shouldn't they all have the opportunity to experience these lifelong benefits?

Denver is a city that accepts and embraces the entrepreneurial spirit. A good example is the unmatched history of female conductors in this city. Antonia Brico made Denver her home; JoAnn Falletta conducted the Denver Chamber Orchestra; and my position with the CSO is the highest held by a woman in this field in the world. I am always moved when young girls come up to me and say, "I think I'll lead the orchestra when I grow up." I want every young girl to have this sense of self confidence and to feel that the top position is hers if she works hard enough.

Denver is a city that struggled desperately in the '80s to save its symphony and, with the unwavering devotion and ingenuity of the outstanding musicians and the support of the community leaders, built a unique and viable alternative organization. In keeping with that frontier spirit, the Colorado Symphony reinvented the concept of a symphony orchestra in the United States, defining itself as the only American orchestra in which musicians participate in its management. This sense of camaraderie, consensus and the "can-do" attitude took the symphony from disaster in the 1980s to a position of admiration and success in 2000.

Perhaps this success has lulled people into a sense of complacency, leading them to assume that the musicians will watch after things and, again, take care of business. But the symphony cannot reach its potential without everyone's support. Sadly, one of the major things keeping us from world-class stature is money, and not huge amounts of money in the scheme of things.

It is important for people to understand that the board of directors, musicians and management of the Colorado Symphony rank way up there on the fiscal responsibility ladder. Most orchestras in the United States are facing very large deficits this year as a direct result of the downturn in the economy. As soon as it became clear that the CSO would face a deficit as well, everyone joined together to cut back where possible and make difficult sacrifices in order to balance the budget. Changing programs to eliminate hiring extra musicians or to avoid costly rentals for the music rights and temporarily freezing the number of permanent musicians in the orchestra are only a few of the many immediate changes that we made to balance the budget. Eliminating the deficit was our first priority, but how do we progress?

The budget of the Colorado Symphony is $9.4 million. We have an endowment fund of $4 million and operate on a very tight margin. Our musicians earn an average of $35,000 yearly and must often supplement their incomes through other means. This is in a city of 2.25 million people. The Cincinnati Symphony, in a city with a population of less than 2 million, has a budget of $33.7 million and an endowment of $92 million, with the musicians earning double the salary of the CSO musicians (and the cost of living in Cincinnati is far less). The Oregon Symphony (Portland's population is 1.4 million) has a budget of $12.3 million, an endowment of $32.5 million, and salaries substantially higher than the CSO.

With the kind of funding that these other orchestras have, the CSO would be able to:

  • Hold on to many of the extremely talented young players who find themselves having to audition for higher paying positions in other orchestras in order to support their families;
  • Take more programming risks without worrying that we might have to cancel it if we run into any kind of deficit;
  • Reach more children through our existing programs and develop new types of programs;
  • Have a recording plan for at least one CD every season, recordings that would bring our name and reputation all over the world;
  • Begin planning some regional touring to surrounding areas and even start developing a plan to perform at Carnegie Hall;
  • Engage more artists like Yo Yo Ma during the season;
  • Play larger repertoire, like Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" more frequently;
  • Above all, have the breathing room needed to be creative and innovative while still being fiscally responsible, without constantly worrying about the bottom line.
All of us at the Colorado Symphony want desperately to be the best that we can possibly be, to bring pride and recognition and distinction to Denver, to show the world that Denver is one of the greatest places in the world to call home for people and their spirits. We want to contribute to the future for our community. This city deserves a great symphony orchestra.
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