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Once endangered, SPCO now poised to thrive

On Tuesday, St. Paul Chamber leaders reported the the orchestra had achieved a balanced budget — and record attendance figures. 

Artistic partners such as Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, above, and Swedish clarinetist Martin Frost appear to be creating a genuine buzz around the orchestra.
Photo by Marco Borggreve

Only a few months ago, there were many wondering whether the Twin Cities was big enough to support two big-league orchestras. 

Following lockouts of both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, the early financial returns suggest that both can not only survive, but thrive. 

At its annual meeting Tuesday, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra leaders announced that it had a balanced budget in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Perhaps more important, SPCO leadership announced that the orchestra played to 90 percent capacity at the venues in which it plays in throughout the Twin Cities metro area. That’s not only a 20-year high for the SPCO, but it bucks a national trend, which has shown classical-music attendance to be either flat or falling.

The announcements made by SPCO Managing Director Bruce Coppock came only a few days after leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra also put a rosy spin on its economic status. But in the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, the glow was over the fact that it ran a deficit of “only” about $650,000 in a lockout-shortened season. Leaders had expected a deficit more in the $1 million range. The Minnesota Orchestra also reported attendance in the shortened season of about 78 percent capacity, which is what it had been prior to its 16-month lockout, which ended last March. 

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It’s a risky business to compare numbers between the two orchestras. The Minnesota Orchestra needs bigger numbers across the board when it comes to achieving sustainability. And one of the reasons for the SPCO’s high attendance is the fact that its tickets are among of the best bargains for entertainment in the Twin Cities.

Yet when both orchestras were locked out, there was considerable speculation as to whether the SPCO could survive, given its smaller foundation and donor base. It seems that question has been answered. Total expenses for the last year were $9.7 million, down from $11 million in the last full season before the lockout. The budget was balanced based on “earned income” of $1.9 million, $1.7 million from the organization’s endowment and $6 million from corporate and private donations. 

In settling their 190-day lockout in April 2013, the SPCO’s musicians took deeper cuts than their counterparts in Minneapolis. Those cuts came out of base salaries far lower than those paid to Minnesota Orchestra performers. Additionally, a surprisingly large number of SPCO musicians took buyouts that were offered to those 55 and older, meaning many familiar faces no longer perform for the orchestra.

The goal is to rebuild the full-time SPCO to 28 members (down from a pre-lockout total of 34). But no timetable has been set for the reconstruction of the orchestra, which is currently filling its ranks for some performances from a large supply of talented musicians in the region. 

But the deep cuts taken by musicians and the rebuilding process are the dreary side of the orchestra’s story. Even among musicians, most of the talk seems positive, with some strong reasons for that attitude.

For starters, the SPCO will be moving into its new concert hall in March. The claim is that it will be as an attractive a setting as the Ordway, which has been the SPCO’s shared home for the last three decades. The belief is that the new hall will have the best acoustics in the Twin Cities. 

There are other reasons for excitement: Artistic partners such as Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Swedish clarinetist Martin Frost appear to be creating a genuine buzz around the orchestra.

Musicians also seem to be excited by the fact that the SPCO has a chance to head in new, creative directions, giving the chamber orchestra a unique status not only in the Twin Cities but in the rest of the country.

“This is a time of great momentum for the SPCO,’’ said Coppock, an astounding statement given that many wondered less than a year ago if there would be any future at all.