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Eager, humble Bruce Coppock to reassume SPCO leadership

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Bruce Coppock
Bruce Coppock, who ran the SPCO for a decade before retiring to fight cancer, is now set to reassume the job of president and CEO of the orchestra.
Photo courtesy SPCO/Ann Marsden

For many years, Bruce Coppock held the job of Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra president and CEO, but he left five years ago to fight an aggressive cancer. Now in good health, he is expected to be re-appointed by the SPCO board -- and challenged with repairing the damage incurred by a bitter contract dispute.

As he sits down in an office at the SPCO Center in downtown St Paul, he looks much the same as he did a few years back. Now 61, he's a little trimmer, perhaps a little grayer, but showing no real signs of the battle he has survived.

"I've made no secret of the fact I faced a certain death five years ago," Coppock said.

Coppock was president and CEO of the SPCO from 1999 to 2008. He retired after being diagnosed with bile duct cancer, a rare but usually fatal condition. Coppock knows he is among the lucky 2 percent who survive.

"I can't tell you how transformative that experience has been," he said.

The ordeal changed his family relationships, how he treats other people, and he said, it's changed his relationship with music. Believing he had little time Coppock immersed himself in the art form he loves.

"I spent literally eight, 10 hours a day listening to music the last four years," he said.

The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra returns
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra returned to the stage May 9, 2013, for the first time since musicians and management reached a labor settlement, playing for 800 people at the Shepherd of the Valley Church in Apple Valley.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

He learned a lot, he said. As it became clear his cancer was in remission in 2009 after extensive chemotherapy, Coppock has also been learning as he worked with other orchestras and classical ensembles around the country. He ran the Cleveland Orchestra's Miami residency for a while, he consulted with the Detroit Symphony, the Boston Philharmonic, the Eighth Blackbird new music ensemble, and a number of chamber ensembles.

Coppock next challenge will be to restore the SPCO after a protracted and bruising contract fight and lock-out. Coppock says he is glad for a contract deal that saved the last five weeks of the SPCO season. It will allow musicians, the board, and audience members to sit together for concerts, he said.

"And I think the making of music, and the listening of music, and sharing of music together will be terribly important in starting what will obviously be a long rebuilding process," Coppock said.

Musicians agreed to a contract deal which cut salaries by 20 percent and reduced the size of the orchestra by six players, leaving 28 - a cut that is expected to be made through attrition and a retirement package in the contract for musicians aged 55 and older. With half of the current players being at least 55, there could be many more departures.

Coppock was on the SPCO board during the lockout, and some musicians have quietly indicated their distress about his role developing management strategy. Coppock knows there are "rough feelings" among the musicians, but he believes time, and music making will heal those wounds. He wants to ensure there is a proper celebration and recognition for those who step down as they have served SPCO audiences with distinction.

"And if they choose to retire, God bless them because they have really done their job." Coppock said.

Coppock wants time to reflect as he becomes SPCO president again. He describes himself as being wired for innovation. It was under Coppock's leadership that the orchestra moved away from having a music director and instead has artistic partners -- musicians who come to St. Paul to work with the SPCO for a few months each year. He is also very excited about the prospect of the new hall at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts designed specifically for the SPCO.

"The building of a concert hall whose architectural specifications are absolutely perfect for a chamber orchestra could have dramatic implications for how the community perceives this orchestra," Coppock said.  

Asked about the challenges facing all classical organizations Coppock said he believes the SPCO has cracked the code with its commitment to providing affordable concerts at multiple venues. He said he knows the cheap tickets were a bone of contention during the lockout, but also that the SPCO has bucked a national trend by dramatic increases in audiences. It's something upon which he hopes to build.

 The SPCO board is expected to ratify his reappointment Tuesday afternoon, and Coppock will begin his new job in June.