Grand Ole Symphony?

Even the Marx Brothers would be at home in Denver's Boettcher Concert Hall come September, when the Colorado Symphony Orchestra's season starts. The audience often dresses in Levis and T-shirts. Lured by ads on country-music radio stations, concertgoers sip wine and beer with musicians beforehand. After, they flood the stage to chat and ask questions: Why, for example, does the French horn player put his hand into the instrument's bell? They clap between symphonic movements--a sign of boors--and wave at the players.

These days, the musicians are waving back. "We need patrons, but we're also interested in customers and fans," explains Lee D. Yeingst, a veteran violist and vice-chairman of the CSO's board. Most of all, Yeingst and his colleagues want a future in music, and now they have one. In four years, Denver has gone from a contentious, debt-ridden orchestra to a musical cooperative with a small surplus. Ticket sales are up 50%.

These are cacophonous times for America's orchestras. Their standard product--staid performances for hushed, well-dressed patrons--no longer sells. "The old corps of subscribers is either dead or in rest homes," says Mark A. Walker, executive director of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Younger generations, uneducated in music because of financially strapped schools, think orchestras are boring. Minorities say they're elitist.

POSTLUDE. Meanwhile, expenses are rising: An American Symphony Orchestra League (ASOL) study of 254 groups shows costs soared 700%, to $699 million, from 1971 to 1991, while inflation rose 236%. With public funding and corporate contributions declining, only a few orchestras run in the black. The industry's deficit jumped to $23.2 million in 1991, from $2.8 million in 1971, and that's expected to hit $60 million by 2000. Orchestras in Oakland, Orlando, Sacramento, and Birmingham, Ala., have closed or declared bankruptcy, while those in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, and San Diego have teetered on the brink.

Denver almost played its final note, too. Instead, it borrowed some bars from management texts and wrote a few new ones to come up with a plan that might save others, too. "They were an inspiration to us because they had the audacity to do what they did," says Sueayn B. Wood, executive director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, a musician-run group formed after the 1991 collapse of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. Others are studying the CSO to see how they can "be more effective without going through Armageddon," says Catherine French, ASOL president. Among them: those in Akron; Fresno, Calif.; Hartford; Memphis; Sacramento; San Diego; and Syracuse, N.Y.

Denver's problems began a decade ago. As income fell, the Denver Symphony Assn., the CSO's predecessor, borrowed and dipped into advance ticket revenues to pay its bills. "It's easy to say: 'Next year will be better--all we have to do is ride it out,'" says James L. Copenhaver, a retired Honeywell Inc. executive brought in as CSO executive director in 1990. By 1989, the orchestra was $5 million in debt, and management tried to cut musicians' pay by two-thirds. But they walked out and signed with a local promoter to do a concert series. That fall, the DSA filed for Chapter 11.

Because the musicians weren't very successful on their own, though, they agreed to work with symphony trustees to form a new orchestra with tight fiscal controls. The new CSO works on a cash basis and can't borrow or operate at a deficit. Money from advance ticket sales is escrowed until each concert. Staff was cut by two-thirds, to 13, and musicians took a 25% pay cut. Another key to success is the CSO's cooperative structure. The 75-member DSA board, studded with pillars of Denver's Establishment, was scrapped for a 27-member body that includes nine musicians elected by colleagues. With them in on pay talks, "there's a modulating effect from the musicians," says Copenhaver.

YOUNG BLOOD. The new structure draws players into promotional and fund-raising activities. They help make programming decisions, with an eye to broadening the CSO's appeal. Last year, they suggested teaming up with a local dance troupe to perform Carmina Burana, a 1937 symphony based on medieval themes, which sold out. And they proposed Casual Classics--weekend programs to introduce newcomers to classical music--and take part in more schools programs and preconcert minilectures.

Last spring, the musicians picked Marin Alsop, 37, the music director of the Long Island Philharmonic, as the CSO's first principal conductor. She had been a guest conductor at their invitation and had undergone a grilling by the players--a process so unnerving to one European candidate that he withdrew.

A few sour notes remain. Despite a 9% raise in 1991, salaries are low. With only a small endowment, the CSO depends on ticket sales. That will be considered when the players help pick a successor to Copenhaver, who is retiring.

Still, the orchestra's future seems secure. Even Denver's old guard, which might have been offended by its new persona, is delighted with its revival. Like the horn player who puts his hand in the bell to modulate the tone, the CSO has discovered that control produces the sweetest sounds. With any luck, those notes will resound throughout America's many other troubled performing-arts centers.

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