Kathleen Fox Collins sat in the Pikes Peak Center on Sunday afternoon listening to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic perform the complex and melodic works of Tchaikovsky. She sat in the big room with 1,700 other music devotees.
She’s served as a tenacious ally of the Philharmonic since 1975, when it played at Palmer High School and most audience members wore suits and ties and fancy dresses. Over the years, she’s watched the Philharmonic soar and, at times, struggle. She greatly prefers the soaring.
The Philharmonic was flying on Sunday. A diverse crowd of grandmothers and grade-schoolers. Jaunty direction by Spanish-born conductor Josep Caballe-Domenech. And spectacular music.
“I’m thrilled,” Collins says at her dining table Thursday morning. “I’m thrilled every time I go. I’m thrilled because the music is so great, and the musicians are playing wonderfully. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to call this our orchestra. It’s a first-class operation, and it’s thrilling to see the place full, as it often is now.”
These are good times for the Philharmonic, even as the organization swims against the strong, now, now, now tide of American culture. Think about it: The Philharmonic often asks audiences to pay good money to hear music crafted before Abraham Lincoln was born.
Most of us agree classical music is good for you, but so is broccoli, and call me next time you see a fast-food restaurant specializing in broccoli. Classical music is a great treasure, no doubt, but selling this treasure is an exceedingly, and increasingly, difficult challenge.
In the 21st century, orchestras have struggled to survive in Nashville, Tenn., Louisville, Ky., Baltimore and Philadelphia. Orchestras dissolved in Syracuse, N.Y., Honolulu and Albuquerque. It’s a massive undertaking for the residents of a city, no matter the size, to sustain a thriving symphony.
In 2008, classical music in Colorado Springs was in peril, too. In early 2003, the Colorado Springs Symphony went bankrupt, and the resurrected replacement, the Philharmonic, was struggling.
Then Nathan Newbrough arrived as executive director. He quickly implemented aggressive and, it seemed to some, counterintuitive moves to lift a Philharmonic that struggled to make payroll. He increased the programming budget and doubled the marketing budget. He emphasized classical over pops.
Plus, he banished any mention of the troubled past.
“I told people that we absolutely had to stop talking about the bankruptcy,” he says. “Even though in this article you’re going to talk about it.”
“Great,” he says with a laugh.
“But that was a time we needed to stop hashing out the past and start focusing on the future, which sounds like something a politician would say but this was a time when we absolutely had to change the message for the orchestra and start talking about the positivity just around the corner.”
Newbrough practiced aggressive optimism and labored without ceasing to make his vision take form. His faith and labor — and the faith and labor of dozens of others — resulted in a thriving Philharmonic.
He despises gimmicks. Under Newbrough’s direction, the Philharmonic emphasizes the music, and makes no apologies for the emphasis. Audiences, often big ones, happily gather to hear compositions from the 18th, 19th and, yes, sometimes even the 20th century.
It is, no doubt, a Springs success story.
Yet Newbrough, aggressive optimist, doubles as clear-eyed realist. He boasts an encyclopedic knowledge of the financial struggles of American orchestras. He knows wonderful times can suddenly transform to woeful times.
“Even with the success that we’ve had, we’re still not there yet,” he says, leaning across the table to make his point.
“We’re still not there. We haven’t reached as many people as we want to reach. It’s still a struggle every year. It’s a high fixed-cost business. We don’t charge for tickets what it costs to put on a concert.”
What he means is, significant donations combined with significant ticket sales are required for the Philharmonic to survive and thrive.
“We need,” he says, “more and more people to join us.”
I hear you, Nathan. I really do.
Even if only a few more could have joined you Sunday, when a packed downtown hall cheered a rousing performance and, better yet, an uplifting Springs symphonic comeback.