The Colorado Springs Philharmonic seems to be hitting all the right notes these days.
Executive director Nathan Newbrough made bold changes early in his tenure that have resulted in more music and bigger audiences.
Newbrough inherited an orchestra that was coming out of bankruptcy and stilled mired in financial difficulties. While the former director put it back on stage, Newbrough managed to increase its audience and its musical offerings.
“We still aren’t out of the woods,” he said. “But I’d say our day-to-day challenges have evened out. We’ve become an arts organization people can depend on.”
Newbrough created that organization by focusing on three things: the staff, the type of performances and season ticket sales.
Three years later, he says all are striking a chord.
“One of the first things I noticed was the staff was very, very small,” he said. ‘We only had two full time people. Now we have seven. We can address more areas, but we can’t address them deeply — at least not yet.”
The seven-member staff is as lean as it can get and still work together in harmony.
“If you cut too much, you hurt the product,” he said. “So we had no choice. We had to look at revenue.”
So, he decided, despite the precarious financial potion, the Philharmonic could offer family season tickets at a cheaper rate to draw in first-time audience members.
Starting 2008, he offered first time subscribers a 50 percent discount. If they renewed a second year, they receive a 30 percent discount.
“We were told, at the outset, that if we kept 40 percent of the first time subscribers, we could consider it successful,” he said. “We’ve had a 60 percent renewal rate.”
That’s because families realized that it didn’t take a tuxedo and a Mercedes in order to enjoy a night listening to the orchestra.
“The programs bring a new dimension to the music, a new passion,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you have to be wealthy to come to a performance. The Philharmonic really can be for everyone.”
Newbrough is justifiably proud of the Philharmonic, but he says the El Pomar Foundation made the turnaround possible with its financial help, as did the monetary support from Chairman Emeritus John Street.
But the success isn’t just about money, he said. It’s about programming.
“We’ve become an orchestra the city can be proud of,” he said. ‘And that’s come from taking a close look at the program and changing it, taking some chances and doing some things differently. It’s paid off when we see a hall full of people.”
Having a bigger audience makes the orchestra perform better, he believes.
“There’s an energy,” he said. “It’s a palpable feeling. If that energy isn’t there — musicians know it. Orchestral music is impassioned, it takes a focus. It’s great when the audience is there to feed that passion.”
In order to feed the audience’s passion for the Philharmonic, the group is putting more money into programming. In fact, it pours so much into performances it can no longer be compared to orchestras in cities the same size as the Springs.
The League of American Orchestras tracks programming across all the nation’s organizations. Newbrough discovered that the Springs group had 70 percent more programming as orchestra’s with the same amount of funding.
“So we had to look at bigger cities — Oklahoma City, Memphis — and we found we have 30 percent more programming than they do, and they have twice the budget,” he said. “That means we put more into the stage than we do into administration. It’s a very Colorado Springs way of doing things.”
All the changes took a great leap of faith on behalf of the musicians, he said. And so far, it’s a leap that has paid off for the Philharmonic.
But for the community as a whole, the Philharmonic is more than just a place to spend a pleasant evening. About 90 percent of its $3.5 million budget is reinvested locally, Newbrough said. And the Philharmonic’s overall economic impact is around $6.5 million.
“It’s not just about the metrics,” he said. “When businesses move here, when people move here, they want to know there are exciting things to do. Even if they never intend to go to a Philharmonic performance, even if they never step foot in the Fine Arts Center — they like to know they’re moving to a place where there are events, things going on.”
And the Philharmonic does even more than that.
“It adds style,” Newbrough e said “Colorado Springs has a certain panache — because of the Philharmonic.”