The Colorado Symphony is projecting to end its 2012 fiscal year with a balanced budget. This revelation may come as quite a surprise to some on the outside looking in. However, for the musicians, staff, administration, and board, the hard work of the past few months has paid off.
One of the key factors in the rapid stabilization of the organization was the number of old friends of the Colorado Symphony who returned to help the orchestra. Former board chairs Mary Rossick Kern and Jerry Kern rejoined the board and were reelected as board chairs. Former chief executive officer Jim Copenhaver came on board to run the organization in the interim period. Former vice-president Gene Sobczak was named the permanent chief executive officer and president, and assumed the post in January. Evan and Sandy Lasky returned to help with financials, communications, and marketing. The organization also welcomed support from 10 new high-profile board members. Musicians and management returned to a model of collaborative governance that was established when the orchestra was founded in 1989. The message is clear: a full-time professional orchestra can and will succeed in Colorado.
Since its founding, the Colorado Symphony had been engaged in a 20-year collaborative operating model. Management and musicians have worked together to ensure the financial stability of the organization. Musicians were part of the day-to-day operations by serving on all governing committees, including financial committees, and also by serving as voting members on the board of trustees.
During the 2008–2009 season the financial picture of the orchestra started to become cloudy. The orchestra was running a deficit. In order to alleviate this deficit and in the spirit of collaboration, the musicians agreed to give back one week’s pay. As the 2009 fiscal year-end approached along with the beginning of the 2009 summer season, the Colorado Symphony’s financial picture had not improved. Management asked the musicians for an emergency 31% pay cut, which the musicians accepted. However, there was another hurdle—the CBA was set to expire on August 31, 2009.
Management wanted a 24% pay concession in the new agreement, and they were firm on this demand. There was a rift in negotiations as the tenor of the meetings from the management position had turned verbally combative. This was a drastic departure from the past 20 years. The musicians were given an ultimatum: if they refused to agree, the orchestra would file bankruptcy. With days before the first pay period, an agreement was reached and the musicians gave back 24% in salary and benefit cuts.
The 2009–2010 season ended with another deficit, even after the savings from the musicians’ 24% wage concession. The 2010–2011 season continued under a “play and talk” agreement with the same terms as the 2009–2010 contract. By April 2011 there was sudden movement on a new contract. Part of the agreement required the board, management, and musicians to participate in a special study to research ideas of the orchestra’s sustainability. Meetings for this sustainability study began in June 2011.
When meetings began, the musicians participating in the sustainability study felt an enormous amount of pressure, as many of the ideas of the local consulting firm mirrored the rhetoric bouncing around in places such as Detroit, Louisville, and Syracuse. The musicians feared that by participating in the process, they were simply lending credibility to the report’s conclusions. The study called for the elimination of many work rules and job security measures. Doubling and move up pay would be eliminated, and there would be reductions to sick leave and vacation. The worst offense of the sustainability study was to recommend a move to a per-service, A/B/C contract model. Buried deep in the study was a request that the musicians suspend their collective bargaining agreement for five years, pull out of AFM recording agreements, and use students to supplement the ensemble. In case the plan didn’t work, it even included an exit strategy. It was specifically noted in the study that the musicians were not going to be asked for a reduction of salary, however less than one month later, management was back at the table asking the musicians for another pay cut.
By late August, management asked the musicians to open up the latest agreement to take another $540,000 pay cut and also sign onto the sustainability study’s recommendations. Faced with a near impossible scenario, the musicians decided that the best course of action, after only eight days of negotiations and just before the season was to begin, was to delay a vote. The orchestra simply needed more time to consider such drastic changes. On Sunday, September 18, the musicians voted unanimously to return to negotiations by not voting on the current proposal. Later that week another proposal was given to the musicians: management and musicians would work together to discuss the sustainability study, and the musicians would take another $530,000 pay cut. On Friday, September 23, the musicians voted to accept the pay cut and to further discuss the sustainability study. The board convened late Friday afternoon, when twenty members of the board resigned. This was a very perplexing turn of events, especially since the musicians had approved the latest board proposal for more discussion and a further pay cut.
Over the next few days there were several emergency board meetings. The remaining community and musician board members were in a very tight position. Several musicians, fearing the end of the Colorado Symphony near, approached former board chairs Jerry Kern and Mary Rossick Kern for help. They called upon other friends of the orchestra, including Evan and Sandy Lasky, who agreed to help spearhead an effort to help the orchestra survive. It was felt that the best course of action was a temporary shutdown of operations, with the orchestra still playing a majority of concerts throughout October and November for reduced pay.
Our old friends did more than just help. They started going to bat for the organization and the musicians all over town. In a show of unwavering support during these troubling times, the Kerns donated $10,000 to the musicians’ assistance fund, a gesture that will never be forgotten.
In October the Kerns rejoined the board. Soon afterward, the trustees elected Jerry and Mary Rossick Kern to serve as co-chairs. Jim Copenhaver took over as president and CEO on an interim basis. After a great deal of success rebuilding the board with prominent, influential people around Denver, the orchestra returned to full-time status on December 5, 2011. With a successful holiday concert season, special donations from the Colorado Symphony Chorus and the Colorado Symphony Guild, and renewed support from key foundations, the cash position for the orchestra gradually began to improve.
During the temporary shutdown period, the new collaborative management team and musicians met to come up with ideas on how to better serve and connect with the entire community, with an eye toward being seen as more relevant and generating more revenue for the institution. This new initiative to return to prominence is called CSO 3.0.
The 3.0 team was made up of management as well as musician board members, orchestra committee members, members of the orchestra at large, and the local union president. The goals of the committee were to maintain the full-time status of all employees in the institution, increase the audience base, increase the institution’s education offerings, and emphasize the orchestra’s strengths. In order to increase the orchestra’s offerings, the committee came up with a novel and unique “individual services bank.” The committee found that the orchestra was only on stage for around 70% of their total services. By having access to 20% of the previously unused services, musicians can be utilized for a wide range of events that would bring in revenue for the institution and provide needed community service. The many events that are available to the CSO include performing large-scale chamber orchestra performances at the venues around town, donor events, performing in the medical community, adult education, expanding our education programs for schoolchildren, and mentoring young music students. These larger chamber music performances will be outside of Boettcher Concert Hall using repertoire suited for smaller halls. The Boettcher Concert Hall concerts will focus on the large-scale masterworks that the CSO does best. The plan is to perform the same number of concerts at Boettcher, play concerts during high demand times during the holidays, and establish a concert chamber orchestra to perform concert series around the metro area.
After six months of turmoil and a remarkable 100-day turnaround, it has been a very trying time for the Colorado Symphony. Had it not been for the sacrifices that were made when the Denver Symphony declared bankruptcy twenty years ago and the musicians decided to found the Colorado Symphony, we would not be here today. Full-time orchestral music has been a staple in Denver for the better part of the last 90 years. The musicians of the Colorado Symphony are strong and are still committed to being Colorado’s only full time professional orchestra.
Justin Bartels is principal trumpet with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. He has been with the Orchestra since July 2008. He serves as orchestra committee chair and ICSOM delegate, and was on the most recent negotiations for the Colorado Symphony in September 2011. As orchestra committee chairman he was asked to participate on the Colorado Symphony’s 3.0 steering committee.
Paul Naslund serves as acting principal trombone of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. He has served with the Colorado Symphony for twenty years as 2nd/associate principal trombone. Paul is a member of the orchestra committee, former chair of the orchestra committee, alternate ICSOM delegate, and a member of the Colorado Symphony’s 3.0 steering committee. He has also served on the last three negotiation teams.