Monday, June 07, 2010


It is always sad writing about the final symphony concert of the season, but this year it is particularly sad, as it is the last concert with Jeffrey Kahane as principal conductor. For a conductor of petite stature, he leaves some awfully big shoes to fill, at a time when the Colorado Symphony is going through some severe difficulties.

Kahane chose his own program for his departure, starting with the Mozart Piano Concerto #27. I can only imagine that this piece has some special significance to Kahane, because from the listener's perspective, it is one of the more forgettable concerti. Nonetheless it was a nice reminder of what a well-balanced musician Kahane is, performing the solos and conducting beautifully throughout. He is a very sensitive performer and that will truly be missed.

On any other day, programming Mahler's Fifth would be a peculiar choice after a Mozart concerto, but somehow here is seemed the perfect choice. It's an orchestral showpiece, and its success lies in the hands of a competent conductor. I know this piece intimately, as I was a trumpet player for many years, and this is THE trumpet piece from Mahler. However, I had never heard it played live before, and it is a wondrous thing. The orchestration is amazing. It's a huge orchestra, with lots of doubling instruments, and a huge brass and percussion section. The brass sounded magnificent (although the orchestra did cheat a bit by adding an extra trumpet and horn to split some of the harder parts).

This was a fairly long concert, but no one left. And for a Sunday matinee, it was a fairly full audience. After the spectacular finish, Kahane got a stand ovation that lasted for almost ten minutes without a break. It is truly sad to see him go. The orchestra has not yet announced a replacement, intending to use rotating conductors for the next year.

The orchestra is going through a difficult time. The players agreed to a large pay and benefits cut in order to keep this season intact. They are operating under a new president, who has hired a new publicity company. They had planned on building a new hall with matching funds from the city, but donations have dropped drastically with the economy and those plans have been scrapped.

Earlier this year they invited donors to a media event touting their new publicity. This was a complete bust. Kahane did not speak, and there was not a note of music played, not even recorded music. Instead there was a lame PowerPoint presentation about "branding," a term that should only be used behind closed doors and not to your customers. I knew immediately that the orchestra was in big trouble. This was a complete mess.

The trouble got a lot worse when they sent out renewal forms to subscribers. They made a number of changes without telling anyone. Perhaps the most egregious decision was to halt subscription sales in the cheapest seats. Perhaps this will save them money in the long run by allowing them to lay off the ushers in those sections, but to do this to subscribers with no explanation or even notification was very thoughtless.

They also stopped the "build your own series" subscriptions, which is what we had. Between my commitments and my wife's commitments, we were never able to choose any of the existing subscription packages. In a sneaky move, they allowed us to keep our "package," but did not bother pointing out that we no longer got the subscriber discount. (It was now the same cost as buying tickets at the door, about a 25% price increase.) Fortunately I noticed this, and changed our subscription, but in order to do it, I had to cut our number of concerts by more than 50%. Obviously this only hurts the orchestra, but this is their fault for the changes they made.

In another nincompoop move, they did not list the prices for packages on the renewal forms, so they had to call every single subscriber who sent in a renewal form. The week the forms were sent out, it was impossible to get through to them, and it took over a month for them to get back to me. This does not instill a lot of confidence in their future.

There has been a flurry of letters to the Denver Post about these negative changes. I'm glad they are getting lots of negative publicity about this, they were bonehead moves at a time when they need great leadership. The smartest thing that they could possibly do is fire the new publicity company, reinstate the subscription packages that they canceled, and send a letter of apology to all donors and subscribers. Anything short of that is an insult to their supporters.

When I moved from Boston to Los Angeles, it took me a while to get used to the LA Philharmonic. I was in Boston when the BSO was under Ozawa and they were one of the great orchestras of the world. But being involved in music through the film industry, I got the opportunity to work with many of the studio musicians in Los Angeles, and I began to realize that they were world class musicians as well. And when they moved to Salonen, and now Dudamel, the LA Phil became one of the best orchestras in the world.

So when I moved to Denver, I feared that I would be let down by the CSO. I was quite wrong, this group is as good as any orchestra I've ever heard, but clearly Kahane has a lot to do with that. Especially with the departure of Jeffrety Kahane, I fear for the future of the orchestra. I can only hope that they overcome these difficulties to keep their high level of musicianship.
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