SPCO annual meeting brims with optimism

The term "difficult year" came up again and again during the annual meeting of the St Paul Chamber Society on Tuesday, but the speakers were all looking to the future. While they all acknowledged that includes financial challenges, by and large what they see is bright.

Speaking just before the meeting President and Managing Director Bruce Coppock expressed delight at the way St. Paul Chamber Orchestra audiences have shown support of the orchestra since the April contract agreement, and into the start of the current season.

"We've had the largest renewal rate of any year in recent memory, so our audience has come back," Coppock said. "Every single one of our concerts this year has exceeded our goals, larger attendance and more revenue than we anticipated And our annual fund is running way ahead of our expectations."

The nuts and bolts of the annual report included an end of fiscal year 2012-2013 surplus of $281,264, which will go to paying down the previous years deficit of $793,205. The SPCO aims to retire the rest of the debt over the next four or five seasons.

But it was audiences and the future which held sway at the meeting.

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The board members who filled the SPCO Center in downtown St Paul warmly welcomed Mayor Chris Coleman, who asked to speak to the meeting. Colema, who is credited with bringing the management and musicians together to reach a final agreement after a seven-month lockout, described the situation as difficult. But he described the SPCO as the cultural heart of the city, and said it had been vital to find a way forward.

"We don't have to look very far to see what would have happened if we did not find, not a perfect solution, but solution," he said in an apparent reference to the ongoing dispute at the Minnesota Orchestra.

"I have to say not as mayor, but as a son of St. Paul, how fundamentally important this organization is," he said.

Coleman talked about not only the present, but the importance of looking to the future, and developing new audiences. He mentioned how he hoped his proposal for the renovation of the Palace Theater as a midsized music venue aimed at younger audiences might have part to play in the SPCO's Liquid Music series.

The importance of a new venue was also part of Coppock's remarks, although he talked about the work underway at the Ordway Center to create a new concert hall for the SPCO. He described the construction of the hall as a "truly transformative moment" for the SPCO. He described the hall as essentially an acoustic instrument which the orchestra will play.

"The joy and prospect is hardly containable," he said. He said as with all great halls the audience response in the new Ordway space will feed back to the players and elevate the performance.

Coppock talked about how the SPCO audience is interested, knowledgeable and engaged, which he said is vital.

He also talked about the coming task of hiring nine new musicians to replace the players who took the buy-out package offered as part of the contract agreement. He said that many musicians who join the SPCO remain for the rest of their careers, so the new players don't just have to fit in, they will help lead the orchestra into the future.

Coppock said the SPCO is working on three or maybe even four tours. There are plans to re-establish the organizations recording schedule which he says has lain dormant for almost two decades. Negotiations are also underway with three and maybe four new artistic partners. There are also plans for high-definition video and audio equipment in the new hall which will be available to serve SPCO audiences in new ways.

As the SPCO looks forward to the opening of the new hall in 2015, Coppock said, planning as already well underway for the first two seasons in the facility.

Coppock's remarks served as a warm-up for the keynote speaker, Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO's principal second violin who recently also took on the role of Senior Director of Artistic Planning.

Playing in an orchestra on the level of the SPCO while also serving in management is unusual. What makes Kim's position even more uncommon is he had been serving on the musicians negotiating committee during the lockout. He told the story of how the lockout led him to audition for the New York Philharmonic. His wife Pitnarry Shin was also locked out from her job as a cellist at the Minnesota Orchestra, and with young children to support too, it made sense to try out. He won the job, and was set to go, but began feeling uneasy about leaving.

When Patrick Castillo announced he was leaving the position of senior director of artistic planning it was Shin who suggested Kim seek the position, while also continuing to play. He talked with Coppock who was eager to retain the violinist, and he won the St Paul job too. The day before he was due to start in New York he told his the Philharmonic he wasn't coming.

Kim admitted the dual job is the hardest thing he has ever done. However he said he loves it. He brings the perspective of a musicians into the administration offices, and the perspective of a manager into the music room for rehearsals and performances. He says it's allowed him to have ideas and be there for every step along the way as they come to fruition - or not. He talked about the need to take risks in the new world of classical music.

"We are not going to get to where we need to go by taking baby steps," he said. He talked about how music schools and conservatories now teach entrepreneurialism to young musicians, and he said he sees this as a growing force in classical music.

He said the collaborative artistic partner model the SPCO adopted in 2003 makes such developments much easier, and he expects great things in coming years. He too praised the audiences, saying how visiting artist after visiting artist raves about them after concerts.

"This is the most amazing audience in the world-hands down,' he said.

"And that's why I am staying in St Paul," he said.