Denver Phil Enjoys Life at the Mountain Top
By Marc Shulgold
The Denver Philharmonic is barely two-thirds through the current season, but things are looking pretty good. In fact, very good, reports first-year music director Lawrence Golan. “We already broke the record for season attendance,” he says. “All but one concert (in KPOF Hall) has sold out. In fact, we’ve gone beyond capacity.
Each night, we’ve doubled what is considered a good house.”
Chances are great that the place will be packed once again on Friday, April 4, when Golan and the DPO present a concert titled “New Formations & Mysterious Mountains.” The theme – and Golan has assigned themes to each DPO program this season – revolves around mountains. Opening with Mussorgsky ‘s familiar Night on Bald Mountain, the concert continues with French composer Vincent d’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air (with pianist Joshua Sawicki as soloist) and Alan Hovhaness’ evocative Mysterious Mountain, concluding with the Denver premiere of Boulder composer Jeffrey Nytch’s Symphony No. 1, subtitled Formations.
That’s quite a handful for a mostly-amateur community orchestra, but Golan knows that the players are up to the challenge. “This orchestra has been making tremendous strides,” he observes. “The artistic level has been going steadily up – and the full houses inspire the musicians to get even better.” In his rookie season as DPO music director, the nationally respected, University of Denver-based conductor modestly declines to take all the credit.
We’ve benefited from new branding, from a redone Web site, from e-mail blasts and other marketing methods created by the Ligature Creative Group,” the conductor points out. “Plus, we have a very involved board and administration.” The idea of branding an orchestra may seem a curious concept to some, but Golan insists that it can make a difference. “We’re advertised as a casual, young, hip orchestra, and it has resonated with our audiences.”
Beyond the fact of full houses is the striking age range of those DPO attendees. “We have babies, toddlers, school-age kids, teens, all the way up to grandmas,” Golan says. He credits social media for opening up the doors to the young folk. And once they’re in the hall, social media continues to engage them.
Unlike most other performing arts groups, the DPO not only permits in-concert tweets, it encourages them. And it says so, right there on the ensemble’s Web site (denverphilharmonic.org). “Tweet Your Heart Out,” is the heading on the “Plan Your Evening” page. Associate conductor Kornel Thomas sends out tweets about the performance in progress, inviting responses from fellow tweeters. What’s more, those so inclined are invited to “follow along, share and interact with us and other concert-goers.” Everyone is asked to include the hashtag #DPOtweets.
For those with social media fans with hyperactive thumbs, this is music to their ears. For those less-inclined to become thumbers, this might be a bummer. “We don’t want to alienate our older, core audience,” Golan assures. So far, so good, however. “Everyone has been real careful to keep their phones close in, so neighbors won’t be distracted. At year’s end, we’ll examine how it all went, and make a decision on whether to keep it, or maybe to assign a section just for tweeting next season,” he says.
The April 4 program offers an appealing mix of familiar, semi-familiar and totally unfamiliar music – the latter represented by the Nytch Symphony. A faculty member at CU Boulder, he wrote the piece for the Boulder Philharmonic, which premiered the work last October in a concert honoring the Geological Society of America’s 125th anniversary. Although the Boulder orchestra was the original commissioning entity, the DPO hopped on board early enough to become a co-commissioner. “Our board president (Jon Olafson) is friends with Jeff, and wanted us to get involved,” Golan notes. Naturally, the work fits right in with the concert’s theme. The Symphony begins with a depiction of the formation of the Rocky Mountains and continues on with a musical look at the Gold Rush era, complete with sand-filled miner’s pans.
Enhancing the audience’s experience with all this mountainous music will be a series of projected slides of mountain views submitted by members of the board, orchestra and DPO fans.
It’s hard to argue with the success the orchestra has enjoyed this season. And it’s hard to take issue with its successful formula: aggressive marketing, inventive programming, a well-respected man on the podium and greatly improved playing from the 70-plus musicians. Some may whine about the presence of those tweeting folks in the audience, but this younger crowd just might be tweeting themselves into becoming a new generation of concert-goers. Generating new supporters, after all, has become a tough mountain to climb for American orchestras.
Lawrence Golan will lead the Denver Philharmonic in concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 4 in KPOF Hall, 1340 Sherman St., Denver 80203. Information: (303) 653-2407 or denverphilharmonic.org.