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SPCO’s managing director retires as illness returns

After recent triumphs, including an acclaimed return to Carnegie Hall and a headline-grabbing hire of renowned conductor Edo de Waart, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was dealt a stunning blow Tuesday when president and managing director Bruce Copp

Bruce Coppock
Photo by Ann Marsden
Bruce Coppock

After recent triumphs, including an acclaimed return to Carnegie Hall and a headline-grabbing hire of renowned conductor Edo de Waart, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra was dealt a stunning blow Tuesday when president and managing director Bruce Coppock announced his retirement, effective immediately, because of a return of the rare form of cancer he was initially diagnosed with in 2006.

Coppock, the longest-serving managing director in the SPCO’s 50 years, told the organization’s board of directors about the reoccurrence of the cholangeocarcinoma (cancer of the bile duct) in an emotional meeting.

He begins an intensive chemotherapy regimen at the Mayo Clinic on Thursday.

SPCO Concertmaster Steven Copes said in a statement that “it will be a great, almost impossible challenge to find a leader with Bruce’s exceptional intelligence, drive, creativity, and especially his love and knowledge of music.”

“I’m leaving with lots of mixed feelings,” says Coppock, 57. “That’s why I was a basket case when I told the board today [Tuesday]. Because the work’s not done. But I think where leaders of organizations, and I include myself in this, can get in trouble is when the organization just becomes their life and there’s nothing outside of it. And one of the beauties of my family life and living in the Twin Cities is that, as obsessed as I’ve been with the SPCO for the last nine years, I’ve also had a life. And there has come a time when I need to spend 100 percent of my time to focus on my life.”

In his nine years as managing director of America’s only full-time chamber orchestra, Coppock has overseen a revolution of sorts.

He persuaded the organization to undertake a series of bold adventures in management that formed a solid fiscal foundation on which a creative renaissance was staged.

In 2004, Coppock persuaded the organization to shed itself of a traditional music director. It has since taken on a series of high-profile artistic partners — de Waart  joins SPCO in 2010 — each adding their own distinctive coloring to the orchestra’s musical palette.

Instead of the orchestra’s music selections being handed down to musicians from a baton-waving figure on high, the artists themselves were empowered to make those choices.

“What we did was take the musicians from a position where they were clawing at the outside of the tent to a position where they’re at the campfire inside the tent,” he says. “I was a musician, a professional musician for 20 years, and I know the locker room and backstage conversations of orchestra musicians as well as anybody does.”

Coppock was a cellist for 20 years before a car accident in the late 1980s damaged a hand, precipitating a move to management.

A familiarity with the minds of musicians, a rarity in orchestra management, allowed him to trust the artists’ judgment in choosing music, artistic partners and venues in which to play.

The delegation of power to the people playing the music helped transform SPCO into a more passionate, cohesive unit, the members of which held themselves to new, higher creative standards. The self-imposed admission standards for musicians applying to the orchestra, he says, are now the most rigorous in the country.

“We routinely reject musicians who get positions in major orchestras around the country,” he says with obvious pride.

Deep cut
Coppock is also satisfied with the results of what he calls his most painful SPCO decision, when in 2003 a $790,000 budget shortfall forced him to cut staff members.

“While some people internally saw the decision to cut the budget by 20 percent as a crisis, I saw it as quite the opposite. I saw it as preventing a crisis,” he says. “We were successful in doing that. It was the only year in the last 14 that we had a deficit.”

“Going to work in the morning and knowing that you have to dismiss 25 percent of the staff is really painful,” he says. “I did it because I knew it would have lasting salutary impact on the organization.”

His riskiest decision, he says, was made in 2005 when ticket prices were lowered from a high of $47 to $25.

The lower prices were part of a broader strategy to take the music to the customers by expanding the SPCO’s Neighborhood Series.

“So if you played Stillwater one night and Wayzata the next and the United Church of Christ on Summit Avenue the next and Arden Hills on the Sunday, you’ve got a pretty diverse set of locations there. And the combination of expanding that [Neighborhood Series] and lowering the price down to 10 and 25 bucks, and even saying kids come for 5 bucks — cheaper than a baby sitter — that was an enormously risky decision because that was real revenue that we were relying on attached to it.”

The decision’s bottom line: SPCO retained its revenue from admissions by expanding its audience and selling more tickets at lowered prices.

Plus, he says, patrons are more inclined to make philanthropic contributions when they come away from a concert feeling that they got value for the admission paid. Again, he’s right on the money: The SPCO’s endowment has more than doubled under his leadership to $40 million.

The future
Ready or not, however, the time for new leadership has arrived for Coppock and SPCO.

“It’s been a very intense five days since we got the news at Mayo,” Coppock says. “That news was kind of the unanswered question in what had been a longer thought process about when to step down from the SPCO. I wasn’t quite ready to do it.”

Before getting the news that his cancer had metastasized, he had intended to fulfill the six-year contract he signed with the SPCO in 2006; perhaps even signing another afterward.

“I thought it would take that long to sort of make sure that the cement was a little drier on the foundation.”

To help stabilize this base, he has agreed to help the SPCO board of directors in its search for his replacement.

Coppock doesn’t know where he’ll be a year from now — he’s no different from anyone else in that regard, of course — but it’s about as certain as such a thing can be that the SPCO will be here far into the future because he was at its helm for the past nine years.