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Chamber Made

Bruce Coppock’s radical quest to renew the American orchestra, starting in St. Paul

Chamber Made
Photo by David J. Turner
IN THE WINTER of 2004, Bruce Coppock, the president of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, announced an organizational change that was quickly dubbed a “radical” and “controversial” experiment by classical-music commentators—and a potential violation of American labor law by the Journal of Law & Policy. Musicians unions were wary, as were musicians themselves and even audiences. You would think that Coppock had stuffed the conductor in a tuba. And, in a way, he had.

The changes began the spring before, when the SPCO musicians approved a new contract that abolished the ensemble’s baton-wielding role of music director and gave much of the responsibility for choosing music, venues, and even new hires to, well, themselves. Two committees blending management and musicians would make these decisions, with additional input from a rotating cast of high-profile artistic partners, such as violinist Joshua Bell. The musicians would be empowered—or imposed upon, depending on how you saw it—to a degree unprecedented in American orchestras.

“There was a lot of fear—a fear of the unknown, the end of the orchestra as we know it,” recalls Dale Barltrop, a violinist with the SPCO. Yet the ensemble, the country’s only full-time professional chamber orchestra, has since flourished. Musicians the world over have been drawn by the buzz to openings in the orchestra.Its subscriber base has grown by almost 40 percent since the 2002–2003 season, the year before the change. Donations are up, putting the orchestra on pace to make its thirteenth balanced budget in 14 years.

This month, when the SPCO performs in hallowed Carnegie Hall in New York for the first time in many years, it will do so not just as a changed organization but a revolutionary one. Since implementing the new leadership structure (now known as the “St. Paul model” in orchestral circles), Coppock has led the retooling of nearly every aspect of the SPCO, from how it sells itself to the shape of the negotiating table when meeting with the musicians’ union. The result is an ensemble boldly billing itself as “America’s chamber orchestra” while functioning like no other in the country.

Coppock is the rare orchestra administrator who was once a musician. Rarer still, he was good, even if he demurs that “it was no particular loss to the music world” when his 20-year career as a cellist in the Boston area ended in 1989, due to a car accident that damaged his hand. He switched to management, and in short order became president of the renowned St. Louis Symphony. He quickly realized its reputation masked a morale issue that was beginning to affect the music. He would also soon understand that the problem wasn’t confined to St. Louis.

“There’s something about the traditional orchestral environment that makes musicians forget why they got into music in the first place,” he says, recalling his own playing days as being only occasionally inspired. The typical top-down management model can stifle creativity; musicians are rigidly defined as players, not thinkers—artists without much say in their art. And if the musicians aren’t uplifted, Coppock reasoned, patrons probably aren’t either—or giving to their full capacity. As such, Coppock’s advocacy for musicians is actually a unique theory of audience development, in which the inspiration level of musicians translates directly to the bottom line.

Once Coppock conceived the theory, he needed a suitable orchestra with which to experiment. It wasn’t going to happen in St. Louis, or in most other large institutions. “This tends to be a monkey-see, monkey-do business,” says Coppock. “There’s a paucity of leadership talent. People who break the mold get punished.” Jon Limbacher, the SPCO’s vice president of development and chief operating officer, agrees: “It’s an industry of orthodoxy”—though not necessarily to its advantage. “Most orchestras are still grappling with what the proper business model is for this kind of organization.”

By the time the SPCO went looking for a new president, in 1999, Coppock had moved to New York to manage Carnegie Hall and then to Washington, D.C., to work for the American Symphony Orchestra League, the country’s major association of orchestras. In the SPCO, he saw an ensemble suitable for his ideas. Its relatively small size—35 musicians as opposed to nearly a hundred in a symphony orchestra—made it potentially amenable to swift change. It was also at a crossroads. “They were looking for somebody with a tireless, entrepreneurial spirit, someone who could take the SPCO and imagine what one could do with an amazing jewel that’s really unique in this field,” says Brent Assink, who was then leaving the SPCO presidency to become executive director of the San Francisco Symphony. “Bruce has those qualities in spades.”

The SPCO was financially fine but struggling to distinguish itself, especially in relation to its larger cousin across the river: the Minnesota Orchestra. “It just looked like a small symphony,” says Coppock. Within the ensemble, he says, “There was a 35-year refrain: Tell us who we are.”

The SPCO, which celebrates its 50th season this fall, was founded not as a small anything but rather as a singular, almost rogue ensemble. One of its best-known music directors, Dennis Russell Davies, sported long locks and roared up to performances on a motorcycle. More recently, the idiosyncratic singer Bobby McFerrin served as its creative chair. But when Coppock arrived, he found an orchestra too immersed in managing the bottom line to elevate its music. It had much of the same repertoire and organization as the Minnesota Orchestra, but it had lost its identity.

Coppock and the SPCO board identified what they dubbed BHAGS (big, hairy, audacious goals) and concluded—not surprisingly—that the musicians themselves distinguished the orchestra. They are professional chamber musicians, a rare breed considering the limited opportunities to concentrate on this genre. As such, they should be playing the repertoire written specifically for them—several centuries’ worth, dating to chamber music’s ascent in the 17th century—and playing it in appropriate halls. The SPCO had been performing in the same venues as any other orchestra—in fact, they often played Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Now, they increasingly perform in churches and other intimate spaces. They’ve expanded their Neighborhood Series to the suburbs, where their audience lives—simply because, as a petite, flexible orchestra, they can. In 2005, they even lowered ticket prices from a high of $47 to as little as $10—a deliberate return to their scrappy origins.

More heretical moves followed, including the abolishing of the music director. It made so much sense that the SPCO’s music director at the time, Andreas Delfs, concurred and moved on in 2004. Most of the musicians also bought in, to the point that they agreed to major pay cuts in 2003. But within the larger orchestral community, questions arose. One observer, Coppock says, told him, “What you’re doing scares the hell out of the union.” Yet this hasn’t stopped him from taking his quest for artistic excellence right to the union’s door.

He is careful how he discusses the situation. “For more than 40 years, the unions have out-negotiated the boards [of orchestras],” Coppock says. “And I say, mazel tov! Good for them! They’ve had a highly coordinated effort and superior negotiating skills.” The problem, he says, is that nearly every orchestra has wound up with a similar contract—no matter their differences. “A job exceedingly well done—for the economic interests of the musicians,” he says. “But it doesn’t always jive with the economic capacity or artistic needs of the institution.”

It’s taken three contract periods for Coppock and the board to shift the negotiating dynamic to what is now among the most collaborative in the country. In typical negotiations, orchestra staff face musicians’ attorneys across a bargaining table and counter back and forth, like competitors in a chess match. Attendees at the latest SPCO negotiations have been encouraged to sit anywhere, and attorneys are scarce. “This symbolized the change,” Coppock says. “We don’t have to fight, we have to talk.”

For Coppock, this is no mere matter of money. Perfecting one’s art, he believes, is nothing less than a spiritual journey, as musicians can deliver a transcendent experience—if properly enabled. He’s pondered this idea of transcendence more and more lately—a recent diagnosis of cancer has him thinking about his legacy. He speaks calmly of “succession” at the orchestra, but he’s clearly motivated to solidify what he started.

“I think Bruce is the ultimate idealist,” says Barltrop, who believes the musicians are playing better than ever—a sentiment the boost in subscribers seems to echo. Coppock would suggest his idealism is the only attitude worth pursuing. “We’re going to be measured by how much value we add to the community,” he says, and though he’s speaking of the orchestra, one senses that he’s also referring to the rest of us.

Tim Gihring is senior writer and arts editor for Minnesota Monthly.

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