Colorado Symphony Cancels Half of Fall Shows

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The Colorado Symphony Orchestra is facing a serious financial crisis. It’s led to huge pay cuts for musicians and a rash of board resignations. And now, to the cancellation of half the shows in fall season. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus has this update.

Reporter Ben Markus: The announcement of the show cancellations Wednesday was just the latest turn in an ongoing saga. The Colorado Symphony Orchestra is more than a million dollars in the hole. Jerry Kern is the newly appointed symphony board co-chairman. He says the cancellations will buy them some time to regroup. The other option was to suspend shows indefinitely.

CSO Board Chair Jerry Kern: And all the constituencies believed that we were better served if the orchestra stayed in front of the community, while we find a plan or a budget for the balance of the year, and while we tried to find a model, a financial model that worked.

Reporter: Finding a model that works has bedeviled symphony orchestras across the country -- many of which have closed or are close to closing. And Kern, who co-chairs the symphony board with his wife Mary, says they have no concrete plans going forward.

Kern: And I don’t have enough information, so I think everybody ought to understand that I don’t walk into this with a preconceived notion of what the answer is, our desire was to put everything on the table.

Reporter: Though Kern admitted that it’s unlikely that musicians can take any more pay cuts. Thomas Blomster, vice president of the Denver Musicians Association, says since 2009 union members have agreed to give up a third of their salaries.

Thomas Blomster, vice president, Denver Musicians Association: Yeah, I mean, you know, there are some musicians, there are quite a few musicians that are really financially suffering at the point.

Reporter: He says they’ve even set up a fund for donations to help the musicians. None of the musicians contacted for this story responded. But Blomster says some are optimistic about the new leadership from the Kerns.

Blomster: They’re not just coming in and going, ‘here, here’s a big donation and you guys go fix it.’ I mean, I think they’re actively engaged in what it’s going to take to get the community to be involved, to be giving to this orchestra, to support this orchestra.

Reporter: The Kerns stepped into a leadership vacuum on the symphony board. Two-thirds of the trustees resigned last month. One of those resignations was John Hayes, past chairman of the board of trustees. He served for seven years.

Hayes, former chair, CSO board: We were always a tenuous organization in terms of finances. And it’s just gotten worse because of a combination of factors here in the last year.

Reporter: The recession hurt individual donations and decimated corporate giving. Then, in September, The Denver Post obtained a sustainability report commissioned by the board. It outlined the organization’s financial troubles -- and said that if something wasn’t done soon, it had "a high probability of demise within the next two years."

Hayes: But when the story about the sustainability study broke in The Denver Post and (had a) headline, "Could The Symphony Go Away?" two things stopped: one, ticket purchases and two, donations.

Reporter: Getting donations back is clearly a key focus for Jerry Kern. He says when he and his wife previously co-chaired the symphony board there was a larger base of financial support. And he’s ready to get those donors back behind a talented group of musicians.

Kern: When visiting conductors say, ‘this is a great symphony orchestra,’ how the hell does this community let it go down the drain?

[Photo: Marco Tedaldi]