Boulder Philharmonic Celebrates 65 Years

The 75-Strong Orchestra Maintains Strong Community Presence

Article by Sarah Howlett

Photography by Jamie Kraus Photography unless otherwise noted

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

The Boulder Philharmonic is celebrating a rich 65-year history of music making this year.

The outfit of 75 rostered, professional musicians will continue performing their Masterworks Series concerts at Boulder's Macky Auditorium through April. The Phil will close the season with DeVotchka in May, marking the Denver-based band's first performance at Macky and the band’s first collaboration with the Phil, says executive director Sara Parkinson. 

Formerly a doctoral student in collaborative piano and a freelance musician who has conducted operas and has played with the Colorado Symphony, Sara has lived in Boulder since 2006. She says her main task in this 65th year of the Phil is to find new ways of engaging with the community and remaining responsive to an ever-changing, post-COVID world. 

“We are seeing people confident to come back to the hall, a lot of momentum is building around our diversity efforts,” she says. “Our innovative programming features distinguished, world-class guest artists."

The “Boulder Phil,” as it's known, strives to create multi-genre, eye-catching performances that honor Boulder’s ethos of creativity and inclusivity. The orchestra not only plays regular concerts at Macky Auditorium but also maintains a robust calendar of student-centered education programs and smaller performances via its Event of Note series, which features players in smaller venues ideal for first-time Phil-goers.


The Phil’s history is marked by a fascinating trail of talent. The first iteration of the Boulder Philharmonic Orchestra began in 1893 and was officially founded in 1957. 

A year after its founding, Dr. Antonia Brico became the orchestra’s conductor. A native of the Netherlands and a pianist, Antonia arrived in America at age six. Among a string of professional musical successes prior to arriving in Boulder, Antonia was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. She arrived in the Denver area in 1942 and remained conductor of the Boulder Phil until 1964. 

Many of the orchestra’s later milestones are owing to a man who would ultimately helm it for 25 years: Oswald “Ozzie” Lehnert. Ozzie arrived in 1972 with his family. Originally, they’d been en route to California, but a stop in Boulder changed their lives when Ozzie was hired as an assistant professor in the College of Music. 

He and his Juilliard-trained pianist wife, Doris Pridonoff, were dubbed “Boulder's first family of music.” Working with 80 musicians and an annual budget of $7,000, Ozzie had a hand in many upgrades for the Phil, including the 1975 establishment of a permanent home for the orchestra at Macky Auditorium.

The Phil’s current music director, Michael Butterman, has been in the job since 2006 and is known for his passion for innovative programming, audience development and music education. Michael has also been guest conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra and the National Symphony.

Diversity Efforts

The Philharmonic’s board adopted a diversity, equity and inclusion statement as part of its COVID-era work, Sara says. “We needed to take the time to look in the mirror, reflect and dig deep,” she adds. “Now it’s the lens through which we run all our programming and the work that we do.”

It reads in part: “We want everyone regardless of age, gender identity, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, physical capacity, income level or educational attainment to have access to the music we make and to feel welcomed by us,” and nods to “shortcomings of our past efforts.” Notably, however, the Phil has run blind auditions—meaning the hiring panel uses only their ears, unaware of names or physical presentations of those auditioning—since the late 1990s. 

“We were one of the first to do that,” Sara says, while noting that the stubborn disparity between male- and female-identifying members of orchestras and conductors still persists. 

Further, the orchestra recently hired a bilingual staff member, Dr. Fernanda Nieto, in August, which will help it deepen relationships with the Latinx community and expand its reach. 

Coming for 2023

Sara says the Phil is proud of its focus on the underserved preschool population in partnership with Boulder County Head Start, which offers in-school chamber music, Meet the Maestro visits at local schools and the Discovery Concert field trip opportunity for students in five area counties. 

“We bring in our professional musicians as guests, and we invite those children and their families to the dress rehearsal,” she says. “It makes it more accessible.”

It also offers $10 student and youth tickets to all Phil performances at Macky Auditorium in addition to its four Discovery Concerts annually. At these student-focused concerts, Michael conducts a 50-minute full orchestra concert for third- through sixth-graders that ties into state curriculum requirements.

For over half a century, the Boulder Philharmonic has been defined by the artistry of its musicians, the support of our extraordinary community and the ongoing partnerships with local organizations encompassing the arts, sciences, nature, youth and social services.

Sara says the Phil’s budget, currently $1.45 million, has continued to grow—and so have her staffing needs as the largest employer of artists in Boulder. "The Boulder Phil has a rich history the Boulder community is proud of," she says. "We provide life-changing experiences that inspire and connect our community through live symphonic music, and we can’t wait for what is next."

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