Interview: The Colorado Symphony’s Tony Pierce 

Since 2012, The Colorado Symphony has been stepping out of its primary role as an orchestra to perform with bands and artists as varied as Nathaniel Rateliff, The Flaming Lips, The Lumineers, and dozens more.

This year The Colorado Symphony has already announced collaborations with Dispatch and two dates with Brandi Carlile, with more expected throughout the weeks ahead. 

With this rich history, we wanted to get an inside look behind The Colorado Symphony’s shows.

Recently, we had a chance to talk to The Colorado Symphony’s Chief Artistic Officer Tony Pierce about these topics, the symphony’s versatility, and much more.

Tenacious D performed with The Colorado Symphony at Red Rocks in 2019. Photo Credit: Amanda Tipton

The Colorado Sound: The Colorado Symphony has had these amazing collaborations for years, including John Prine, Guster, The Lumineers, The Flaming Lips, and so many more. How did the idea come about, and what was the broader mission of inviting these bands to share a stage with you?

Tony Piece: We’re committed to showing every audience what the power of a symphonic ensemble can deliver in a live concert experience, whether it be classic rock, EDM, or a group of living legends like The Flaming Lips.

It’s important for us to make sure the orchestra adds value and something impactful to each collaboration, and our mission charges us to ensure there is a future for live symphonic music. We’re still committed to curating a classical art form so we’ll never stop playing Beethoven, but we’re committed to the notion that a symphonic ensemble can do many things well in addition to performing classical music at the highest level.

“We have the toughest and most flexible orchestra in the world”

To the average listener, these shows seem hard to pull off. What are some behind-the-scenes moments that we don’t see that make these shows happen?

Sound reinforcement is always going to be a challenge when you’re mic-ing 80 acoustic instruments. Adding a band to the mix further complicates this balancing act and technology is changing every day.

A hard-hitting drummer will bleed through every orchestra mic and visualizing that challenge is something we’re continuously working to improve. Naturally, a folksy artist without electric guitars and bass are obviously easier to balance, but we’ve delivered amazing shows with everyone from Tenacious D to Mandolin Orange.

The Flaming Lips with The Colorado Symphony in 2016, at Red Rocks. Credit: Brandon Marshall
The Flaming Lips with The Colorado Symphony in 2016, at Red Rocks. Credit: Brandon Marshall

The show with the Flaming Lips from 2016 at Red Rocks was released in 2019. What was that night like, performing The Soft Bulletin with them, and how much rehearsal goes into a show like that?

We always rehearse in Boettcher Concert Hall [in Denver] to mimic the conditions at Red Rocks in terms of mic-ing and production behind closed doors in a controlled environment. This sets us up for the best chance at success on the day of a show at Red Rocks.

There’s always another act the day before a Red Rocks play so there’s only access to the venue the day of the show. It’s a bit of a race to get everything ready for a soundcheck in the afternoon, and it’s typically a balance between a soundcheck and a rehearsal.

The evening of the show with The Flaming Lips presented logistical challenges because it was raining and also a bit chilly. With that said, we have the toughest and most flexible orchestra in the world and that’s, in fact, a bit of our reputation. Our players hung in there and delivered the show.

What other shows stand out that you’ve done since 2012, and what made them so special?

Obviously, we take a lot of pride in working with many Colorado artists. Gregory Alan Isakov, The Lumineers, DeVotchKa, Paper Bird, Elephant Revival, and One Republic all stand out to me as they’re each equally proud of their Colorado roots. Personally, Mandolin Orange was a beautiful evening in Boettcher and a special show that was unique to the Colorado Symphony.

I had an absolute blast with Weird Al Yankovic as well and was excited for the orchestra to perform a standalone opening set at that show, which is always a tremendous opportunity in terms of exposing audiences to what the symphony does week in and week out without a band as a collaborator. I also feel the Bela Fleck: Family and Friends show last summer with the Flecktones, Abigail Washburn, Jerry Douglas, and Jeff Coffin was special and amazing.

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see all those artists together with a professional orchestra and it only happened in Colorado.

The Colorado Symphony’s Artistic Officer Tony Pierce calls the symphony the most flexible in the world.

What’s the most challenging show musically you’ve done, and what made it that way?

Well, I’m particularly excited for the challenges presented by our plans to perform Beethoven’s iconic 9th Symphony at Red Rocks. It’s a massive ensemble with a huge chorus and four vocal soloists as well. We’re talking 500 performers on stage.

Where we’re going to put them all is certainly a logistical issue, but mic-ing everything effectively is a herculean task as well. “Beethoven 9” has endured for almost two centuries as one of the greatest works of art in the history of humankind, hands down.

The opportunity for us to present it at Red Rocks during the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth is a once in a lifetime event that’s going to be a memory maker for all of us. Getting it right is a challenge we’re all committed to and everyone is working diligently to achieve something beautiful for our state.

“You can’t take weeks or even days off and maintain the conditioning required to perform at the highest level. It’s just not possible and no one’s exempt.”

For decades, artists from The Beach Boys to The Beatles and genres from shoegaze to electronica have been adding cinematic and orchestral elements to their albums. How do you feel when you hear this kind of music, particularly when it’s synthesizer-driven?

Obviously, I’d always prefer real orchestra versus a fake orchestra.

Which album released with The Colorado Symphony have you fallen in love with over the years the most?

Our album with Isakov is the best example released by any orchestra in this country of a collaboration with non-symphonic artists. We nailed the micing methodology and I’m particularly proud of how The Colorado Symphony represented on that record.

What are one or two quintessential albums or scores for our listeners – who are more Velvet Underground than Rachmaninoff – that they should add to their collection?

Everyone should experience the intensity and power of what Mahler was able to achieve. I’d recommend Mahler’s “Fifth Symphony” to anyone. It’s an absolute masterpiece that clearly demonstrates the raw and intense power of an orchestra. It also demonstrates the sublime beauty only an orchestra can deliver. The Adagietto alone is a masterpiece that everyone should experience, and Mahler 5 is frequently performed so it’s attainable to find a live performance of the work.

Out of the gate, I’d also recommend juxtaposing the Mahler with some true classicism in the form of a late Mozart such as “Symphony No. 38”, “40”, and “41”. They never disappoint and the symmetry and clean beauty he creates without the raw power of the Mahler-sized orchestra is a great thing to wrap your head around.

I just feel starting with an understanding of how these two masters achieved incredible things with entirely different instruments in terms of the size of the ensemble and in distinct periods of art history is a great way to start down the rabbit hole into the symphonic repertoire.

” You can’t take weeks or even days off and maintain the conditioning required to perform at the highest level. It’s just not possible and no one’s exempt.”

It’s a beautiful and life long journey to familiarize yourself with what is the existing body of symphonic music and it’s constantly expanding as well. There are amazing men and women composing new music for orchestras with new and distinct voices, so we’re further blessed with an expanding repertoire.

What’s the average day like for a member of the Colorado Symphony, and what rock star tendencies might they have that we are not aware of?

Rock stars tend to perform the exact same show on a tour each night. Obviously, a jam band and some of the more prolific electronic artists never play the same show twice, but an orchestra member has to prepare as many as three separate programs in a given week. This is very taxing in terms of what it requires physically and also what it requires mentally to be prepared to perform. Orchestra members sit on stage with their peers and no one can hide.

Further, there are no backing tracks or other technological assistance like an Auto-Tune device involved in the equation. Most people are not aware of how physically taxing it is to maintain a proper embouchure to play the french horn, for example. You can’t take weeks or even days off and maintain the conditioning required to perform at the highest level. It’s just not possible and no one’s exempt.

The Colorado Symphony with Yo-Yo Ma. Photo Credit: The Colorado Symphony

The year is shaping up to another busy one for you all –  what’s ahead in 2020 that you’re most looking forward to?

Two thousand twenty is another huge year for the orchestra and I’m not sure where to start. As referenced earlier I’m very proud of all of our initiatives to commemorate Beethoven’s 250th birthday. So, definitely the 9th Symphony at Red Rocks is a special undertaking. Two nights with Brandi Carlile is obviously going to be special, and there are several other gems I’m not allowed to discuss yet but there’s a lot to come.

Lastly, what was the backstage party like with Tenacious D last year?

They were delightful. Jack Black was beyond gracious and introduced himself to basically every orchestra member, directly, prior to the start of any rehearsals.