After 51 years, Denver Philharmonic moves up street to Central Presbyterian

Posted on Feb 28, 2016 in News
After 51 years, Denver Philharmonic moves up street to Central Presbyterian

The orchestra is investing in a new stage — and its future.

By Ray Mark Rinaldi
Denver Post Fine Arts Critic
View this article on The Denver Post

The Denver Philharmonic and Central Presbyterian Church share a similar sort of respect as two of Capitol Hill’s most durable, and treasured, institutions. But, in 2016, they face opposite dilemmas.

The orchestra’s house is too small. The church’s too big.

dpo-20130904-01-KPOFSo, starting next season, they will come together in a way that could fundamentally change both operations. The Phil will leave KPOF Hall — its base for a considerable 51 years — and shuffle two blocks north on Sherman Street to the red sandstone icon that Central Presbyterian has called home since 1892.

There’s more to the move than just packing up a few violins and oboes. The community orchestra will build a new stage in the church’s main chancel, spending about $100,000. It’s a big investment for a community arts group, about equal to its entire annual budget.

But it will be able to seat 1,200 people, about a third more than it can at KPOF Hall. Over the past few years, similar to other community orchestras across the country, it has found itself surprisingly popular, as patrons flock to the casual tone of its offerings (and its $20 ticket price). Its concerts sell out routinely.

“We’ve had patrons sitting on windowsills and in stairwells and that’s not ideal at all,” said board chair Jon Olafson.

The Phil, whose musicians are mostly unpaid, has also been upping its game creatively, premiering new pieces by Colorado composers and hiring out-of-town soloists. KPOF Hall, which is also a church, has always been an odd fit for musicians who stack themselves tightly on the multiple levels of its floor and altar. It’s nearly impossible to pull off special events like, say, adding a grand piano to accommodate a touring performer.

IMG_9557But that same flexibility could open up new possibilities for Central Presbyterian as well. Like many urban churches, it has seen its congregation shrink over the years. The church has a robust mission — it’s on the forefront of the local struggle against homelessness, ministers to families living in motels along Colfax Avenue, works with women in prison and hosts a health care clinic.

But it does that work with a congregation of about 300, leaving plenty of pew space open.

Part of its plan to stay relevant, and attract new faces, includes reaching the community through the arts. The new stage will give it a well-located venue that it can make available at low cost to performing groups of all kinds.

Currently, the church hosts arts events about every two months. “But I want it to be every two weeks, maybe more,” said Wil Smith, who was brought on recently as the church’s first full-time music director.

The congregation wants the city to understand that it’s a community space and hosting outside performances, in addition to its own musical offerings, is a way to get people in the doors.

There aren’t a lot of 1,200-seat venues in downtown Denver, so the church is likely to have a niche in the market; it could become a real player in the cultural scene.

It also has an attribute other venues, including KPOF Hall, lack: a clear and natural sound.

“The acoustics are great in here and there’s no reason there shouldn’t be more concerts,” said Smith.

brico-300-sqThe Phil gets a few benefits in the deal. It has naming rights and plans to call the venue the Antonia Brico Stage in honor of the woman who founded it in 1948. It also gets first dibs on open dates.

“In a sense they’re pre-paying for the space for a few years,” said Smith.

Construction is expected to begin this summer.

Ray Mark Rinaldi: 303-954-1540 or rrinaldi@denverpost.com