Philharmonic focusing on financial performance

Filed under: Focus,Print | Tags:, ,
Thomas Wilson conducts the Colorado Springs Philharmonic at the Cirque du Swing Pops concert. The organization is working toward better finances after its 2003 bankruptcy.

Into the black: Thomas Wilson conducts the Colorado Springs Philharmonic at the Cirque du Swing Pops concert. The organization is working toward better finances after its 2003 bankruptcy.

There’s an electricity and excitement on stage at the Colorado Springs Philharmonic that CEO Nathan Newbrough said he feels growing.

The orchestra has gone through some dark times financially.

“And we’re not out of the woods yet,” Newbrough said. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

But the organization is bigger and stronger than it has been since its 2003 bankruptcy, Newbrough said. That’s due almost entirely to a hefty grant from the El Pomar Foundation, which in 2008 pledged $300,000 over three years if the orchestra could match it three times.

Newbrough took over as CEO at the Philharmonic in 2008 after former CEO Susan Greene brought it back from the dead in 2003.

Greene served as the Colorado Springs Orchestra’s executive director from 1997 to 2000 and had been an interim director and board member before that. She was always very close with the musicians, she said.

So when the orchestra folded after the New Year’s Eve concert at the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003, they asked her for help.

“I said I would work for nothing and we began to explore what could happen,” Greene said.

She and the musicians committed to creating something new and set out to generate community support, which was a tough task after most of the orchestra’s greatest supporters had lost out on half of their season tickets and there was no money available to refund them.

People were angry.

“The environment for starting something again wasn’t good,” Greene said.

She also solicited support from the El Pomar Foundation, which pledged to help if the orchestra could raise $650,000 and provide a concert schedule.

“We just gunned it,” she said.

They gave free concerts and collected money in open instrument cases. One of the biggest fundraisers was a 24-hour concert in the produce department of a King Soopers.

“I held up a big sign that said ‘lettuce entertain you,’” Greene said.

The musicians collected $14,000 in their instrument cases at the grocery store that day.

Somehow, the orchestra came back to life and met all of the El Pomar Foundation’s seemingly unachievable goals, Greene said.

By October, 2003 it was the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, and while it existed, the orchestra did not enjoy robust funding.

“It was always very close to the bone,” Greene said. “One of the things we lacked was a cushion. Everything had to be very carefully planned and measured.”

When she left in 2008, the musicians were wanting to do bigger, bolder and riskier pieces. Greene said she was always afraid that big, expensive shows wouldn’t get the reception they needed and would bust the orchestra.

Under Newbrough, though, the orchestra has been increased is performance schedule and added bigger pieces.

“There is no artistic decision that’s strictly artistic,” Newbrough said. “But my one rule is that we don’t talk about money in the beginning.”

He said money is always a consideration and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic will probably never perform something like Mauler’s Eighth Symphony of a Thousand, but he doesn’t want to stifle the artistic process by bringing money up too early.

Since the orchestra has been doing more and bigger more shows, support has grown, Newbrough said.

“One of my passions is building audiences,” he said.

In the 2009/2010 season, the orchestra began offering half-price season tickets to first time buyers. They get a 30 percent discount the second year.

The orchestra’s goal was to keep about 40 percent of last year’s pass holders, Newbrough said. In the end, they managed keep about 60 percent.

The number of season pass holders grew from 870 in 2008 to 1,800 in 2010 and more than1,900 this year, Newbrough said.

While ticket sales account for less than half of the orchestra’s revenue, they are extremely important.

“In terms of our pie chart, individuals and families that enjoy the orchestra and want to share it contribute the vast majority of our donations,” Newbrough said.

Doubling the number of people who attend concerts and filling out audiences not only brings more potential donors through the door, Newbrough said, it also generates an excitement about the organization and the music that makes people want to give.

“I think people know when we’re doing something more meaningful,” Newbrough said, “and they appreciate it when they can sense that the orchestra is pushing hard.”

When Newbrough approached the El Pomar foundation in 2008 to double its annual funding from $50,000 a year to $100,000 as long as the orchestra could raise three times the money in matching donations, the funding was crucial.

“They went into the recession having already cut absolutely everything they could possibly cut,” Newbrough said of the Philharmonic. “Without that support from the El Pomar Foundation, who knows what would have happened.”

Newbrough had to build up the organization’s board and administrative staff. The Colorado Springs Philharmonic was the only orchestra in Colorado that didn’t make any cuts during the recession, Newbrough said.

“Most of that is because there wasn’t anything left to cut,” he said.

Most of the musicians in the orchestra have trained and gone through more schooling than a medical doctor, Newbrough said. Yet they do not make full time wages and probably never will in this community.

The El Pomar Foundation’s three-year funding promise expires at the end of this year and Newbrough said he and the board are talking about they will do when the grant expires.

“We never take their generous funding for granted,” he said of the El Pomar Foundation, with hope that the foundation will renew the grant.

The orchestra has a special place in the community.

“Just by doing something they love here, these musicians have created something of immense cultural value,” he said.

The orchestra will host a farewell concert for Lawrence Leighten Smith, its musical director, at the end of this month and will welcome in a new, not yet announced, musical director shortly afterward.