The Colorado Springs Philharmonic is a complex business. It’s highly labor-intensive, requiring as many as 100 musicians to present a grand 19th-century symphony. Its product is transient, literally disappearing into thin air at the moment of performance. It must rent specialized venues and fight for listeners and supporters who have hundreds of other weekend entertainment options. So high are its expenses and so fierce is the competition that the Philharmonic must partner with local philanthropists, individual donors and businesses to survive and thrive.
It sounds like an entrepreneur’s nightmare, but the Philharmonic traces its origin back to 1927, when “27 local musicians banded together to form the Philharmonic’s distant predecessor, the Colorado Springs Symphony Ensemble.” That organization grew into the Colorado Springs Symphony, the Philharmonic’s predecessor.
The city lacked a performing arts center. The Symphony Ensemble and its successor played first in Perkins Hall at Colorado College, then the City Auditorium and settled down in 1941 at the newly built Colorado Springs High School. They stayed there until 1982, when the Pikes Peak Center opened its doors.
Funded by a voter-approved bond issue and substantial private contributions, the facility had been created with the symphony as its major tenant. Its opening concert, featuring famed violinist Isaac Stern, was an overwhelming success. A new era had begun — one when charismatic leaders such as Bee Vradenburg, Kathleen Collins, Charles Ansbacher, Phil Kendall and Chris Wilkins transformed the CSSO into the city’s leading nonprofit organization.
For many years the symphony gave four performances of every concert, and every one was sold out. Music lovers soon realized that you couldn’t get decent seats for single shows — you had to buy season tickets.
As the city’s high-tech manufacturing base expanded, companies such as United Technologies and Hewlett-Packard stepped up to support the endlessly creative organization.
An example: In 1981, an unknown 20-year-old violinist had won the prestigious Walter W. Naumberg International Violin Competition. Kathleen Collins tracked her down and arranged for her to be a guest artist. It was the young woman’s first such gig, and it wouldn’t be her last. Her name: Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, whose spectacular career was thereby ignited. A few concertgoers joined the lighthearted Salerno-Sonnenberg and Collins for a post-performance tour of local dive bars and C & W hangouts.
The good times continued until the late 1990s, when audiences, revenue and business support declined sharply. Many leaders, including Ansbacher, Collins and Vradenburg, had left.
“The tech companies moved, closed or went broke,” Collins recalled, “and there were issues with the musicians, with management and with the board. The ‘V factor’ (for Bee Vradenburg) was gone, and there wasn’t anybody left. The orchestra had to rely on the Loos and the Lanes, and they couldn’t do everything.”
The CSS declared bankruptcy in March 2003. Within weeks, the Philharmonic was formed and a fundraiser begun. The new organization started with a clean slate — no debts, no overhanging contracts and no history of missteps. In less than six months, the Philharmonic raised $835,000 to fund the 2003-2004 season, plus an additional $290,000 in matching grants from El Pomar, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, the Joseph Henry Edmondson Foundation and the Bee Vradenburg Foundation.
That first season was a success, and the Philharmonic has equaled it, built on it and now substantially surpasses it.
The numbers are impressive. For the year ended July 31, 2018, the Philharmonic reported total revenue of $3.6 million, including $2,117,162 in concert revenue and $1,533,031 in contributions. The organization also received two bequests totaling $1,143,000, and transferred all but $30,000 to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Foundation, a separate entity created in 2018 to benefit the Philharmonic, subject to specific limits on endowment distributions.
Not surprisingly, labor is the Phil’s biggest expense, at $2.23 million, followed by $340,000 for promotion and community outreach, contract services for $284,000 and hall and stage rental for $192,000.
Yet the most significant item on the organization’s balance sheet is one that isn’t there: debt. There’s no long-term debt, and the organization’s $300,000 revolving line of credit had no outstanding balance as of July 31, 2018 (audited financials for FY 2019 should be available in the third week of November).
The 2019-2020 season began in September and will extend until May. It includes seven performances in the El Pomar Foundation Masterworks series, six in the Pops series and four in the adventurous Signature series. The last in the series is the April 25-26 “Voices of Light: the Passion of Joan of Arc,” a screening of Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 silent film with a live score by Richard Einhorn. The Philharmonic will play performances of the Nutcracker in November and join with the Colorado Springs Chorale on Dec. 22 to present Handel’s Messiah and other seasonal standards.
In addition, the Philharmonic will “dedicate eight weeks to the community-wide multi-cultural festival Becoming Heroes … The festival — and indeed the entire season — will culminate in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with nearly 500 musicians” (including two orchestras, three soloists and a 300-person chorale). And then there’s the highlight of the season, Itzhak Perlman’s one-night-only performance of Beethoven’s violin concerto.
Eleven years ago, Nathan Newbrough became executive director of the Philharmonic. Three years later, Josep Caballé-Domenech became music director and conductor. During that time, the Philharmonic has grown and thrived, in an era when stand-alone symphonies in medium-sized cities have struggled.
“When the Colorado Springs Symphony was the biggest thing in town during the 1980s, the arts community wasn’t nearly as robust as it is now,” said Downtown Partnership director Susan Edmondson. “Now there are hundreds of choices, and the Philharmonic has the same level of success. Josep is amazing, and I think that Nathan is one of the greatest business leaders in the city. He understands the intersection of art and community and he’s brought in new partners.”
Newbrough credits others for the organization’s success.
“It’s Josep and the musicians,” he said. “My work is complementary to theirs.”
Keeping the Philharmonic going is challenging, uncertain and deeply satisfying to Newbrough and his team.
“Ninety percent of our expenses are fixed costs,” Newbrough said, “and all of our revenue is speculative.”
That revenue comes almost entirely from ticket sales and contributions.
“The rule in the business used to be 50/50, but now most symphonies get around 40 percent from tickets, 60 percent from contributions,” Newbrough said. “We’ve reversed that. We get about 57 percent from ticket sales.”
That may be one reason that the Philharmonic is debt free.
Asked about the $300,000 revolving credit line, Newbrough was to the point.
“We’ve never touched it, and we never will,” he said. “The great majority of our contributions come from individuals, and the average contribution is moderate — we don’t have any individuals giving six figures. We’re proud that we have so many individuals who are with us every year.”
But despite the Philharmonic’s present success, there are no guarantees.
“It’s notable that we’re a stand-alone nonprofit (without a sponsoring institutions such as a city or a university),” Newbrough explained. “The pressure is always on – we’re not able to just snap our fingers. Every year is a struggle to increase commitments to our players, to our audiences and to make our budget. Our forecasting goes ten years out and our budgeting is for two years.”
Yet, Newbrough emphasizes, the end product makes it all worthwhile.
“There’s something about this music that people identify with, and we’ve created a family atmosphere.”