Feature: "Colorado Symphony’s new music director leads bold drive to grow audience"

The Denver Business Journal has published a feature on Brett Mitchell as he prepares to begin his first season as Music Director of the Colorado Symphony:

Brett Mitchell is the new music director of the Colorado Symphony. (Photo by Roger Mastroianni)

Brett Mitchell is the new music director of the Colorado Symphony. (Photo by Roger Mastroianni)

Denver’s new Colorado Symphony music director wants you to know he’s a regular guy.

Brett Mitchell, 38, is a sports fan. The Seattle native is eager to root for the Broncos (“unless they’re playing the Seahawks,” he whispers). He and his wife are foodies and hikers. He was excited about Jay-Z’s latest release. He programs concerts with a ear for what his nonmusical family members would like.

The maestro (“I’m just Brett”) is gregarious and optimistic, ready to do whatever needs doing to boost the symphony’s profile and cash flow. His enthusiasm is contagious.

Just a regular guy with a baton.

He served four seasons as associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, a title held by only four previous conductors in the Orchestra’s 100-year history. Here Mitchell succeeds Andrew Litton, who will continue to serve as Colorado Symphony’s principal guest conductor through this season.

The two-decades-younger Mitchell said some of the differences between the two won’t be immediately discernible, but, “I’m my own kind of leader.”

Beneath the regular-guy exterior is a fast-rising young star whose rapid ascent at the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra was followed by a whirlwind tryout and leap to Denver. Mitchell is also a sometime composer (with a degree in composing from Western Washington University). His wife, Angela Mitchell, is a public radio host/interviewer as well as a classically trained soprano.

Mitchell’s praise for the “fabulous” Colorado orchestra is abundant. He now faces the impossible job description: As music director, he must have artistic excellence combined with marketing and fundraising skills, a reverence for the classics as well as new, experimental works, and a knack forpleasing traditionalists as well as for drawing in younger, more diverse audiences....

“A big leap forward”

[Colorado Symphony CEO and board co-chair Jerry] Kern sees Mitchell’s arrival as “a big leap forward as opposed to inching along and trying to break even.” For the young conductor, “he understands it’s an enormous opportunity to begin to build a major reputation.”

“It takes years to figure out where a new music director is taking an orchestra,” Mitchell said. “The things you will notice right away are the programming... Look at kinds of repertoire I like to program, you’ll see more of that contemporary American voice.”

For his opening weekend, Sept. 15, he has paired Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (“who doesn’t like a Beethoven 5?”) with works by two American composers in their early 40s: Kevin Puts (Millennium Canons) and electronica soloist Mason Bates (The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra).

Mitchell rapturously explains his thinking: the Puts Millennium Canons represents “a triumphant opening to my tenure, and, more important, a perfect analog to the finale of Beethoven 5… it’s all about the rhythmic drive.

“And then, whose music is more about rhythm than anybody? Mason Bates. He lives a double life, composer by day, DJ in San Francisco by night. On The B-Sides, five little pieces for orchestra that incorporate electronica, Mason will do all of that stuff live. Then listen to the rhythmic drive of Beethoven 5 on the second half … what makes Beethoven 5 fly? By the finale, it’s so rhythmically driving, that glorious C major finale is nothing but celebratory. And now you’ve come up with AN EVENING!”

In other words, he said, “My goal is to give the audience reason to come to the concert. Because, I’ve got Spotify like everybody else. I could listen in my living room with my glass of wine, with my wife, and not put pants on…”

It’s all about the experience....

Mitchell finds it remarkable that the Cleveland Orchestra has sustained its status as one of the elite ensembles in world even as the population of Cleveland has declined. “That’s one hell of a testament. In Denver, there is so much growth, as our Realtor keeps telling us— every time I hear that I think we gotta buy a house— but lots of people are coming here. Part of my job is to capitalize on that.”

The couple is living a few steps from the concert hall for now. Mitchell’s four-year contract requires him to live here at least half the year.

While some music directors balk at the idea of chatting up potential sponsors over cocktails, Mitchell is all in.

“As music director,” Mitchell said, “I am the face of the organization and I understand that.” It’s a more immersive role than the European orchestra’s designation of principal conductor. “The whole reason we have to raise money is because of my crazy ideas.”

Just a regular guy with a baton and some crazy ideas.

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