The Current Issues Facing the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO)


Symphony orchestras have coped with numerous challenges in the past year.  The art world has followed the trials of the Detroit Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and others as well.  Though it is hard to read between the lines of news articles, one of the orchestras I have been following is the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO).  Right around the time when the Philadelphia Orchestra declared bankruptcy, the CSO had an article in the Denver Post saying that they were thriving.


2009-2010, 12.5% pay cuts and four-week furloughs concession

Pay went from $47,065 for a 43-week-loing season to $41,182…

In April of 2011 the CSO announced an increase of 4.5% (up to $43,018).


In May of 2011 the Denver Post featured another article talking about all the things that they were doing to increase revenues.  James Palermo, the symphony’s president and chief executive mentioned everything from changing their concert schedule, appointing a new music director, and a newly built venue to using Groupon, participatory and collaborative concerts, and having a “broader variety of guest artists” including Broadway star of Wicked, Idina Menzel, “singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, the Irish fiddling group Bowfire, and the indie-rock band the Airborne Toxic Event.”


Even though ticket sales are up, subscriptions are up 73.3%, and there are more first-time attendees than ever before, the symphony is still stuck with the 2009-2010 deficit of $300,000.  “In November 2007, Denver voters approved $60 million for a new concert hall as part of a sweeping $550 million bond issue for infrastructure and other improvements.  Issuance of the bonds is contingent on the symphony raising the $30 million it pledged toward the project, but it has not been able to muster the necessary support.”

Come September, however, the CSO has changed their tune.  Financially they are in BIG trouble…  “ ‘If the Colorado Symphony does not adopt all of the above recommendations in full and achieve success in their implementation, it faces a high probability of demise within the next two years,’ said the committee’s report, an internal document obtained by The Denver Post.”  At the end of their last fiscal year they had a $647,000 deficit.  They are about $1.2 million in debt with only $16,000 in cash reserves.  Obviously the 4.5% raise for musicians is not going to happen.  “At the same time, it’s true that the Colorado Symphony has done a better job than most orchestras selling tickets. Earned income increased nearly 19 percent, from $4.55 million in 2009-10 to $5.4 million in 2010-11, a big achievement in a tough field where just holding even is considered a success.”

In late September, “Colorado Symphony musicians voted unanimously Tuesday to delay a decision on an emergency contract revision that calls for a 14 percent pay cut and a significant increase in performance time.

Facing what it termed a “cash crisis,” orchestra management told musicians this week the concessions were necessary for the CSO to stay in business.

But Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association, said the “emergency urgency” of last week’s negotiations did not constitute good-faith bargaining.

“We felt like there was a gun to our heads the whole way just in terms of these deadlines,” he said.”  Keep in mind that this new cut would be on top of the original 2009-2010 12.5% pay cut…

The latest news on the CSO is that as of yesterday, “20 of the 30 community members on the symphony’s board of trustees have stepped down, including three who were set to become the chairman, vice chairman, and treasurer.”

“But the musicians’ initial decision Tuesday to postpone a vote on those proposed salary cuts provoked anger on the board and led to the 20 resignations, according to Young Cho, one of the board members who has remained.

“Board members were really so mad,” he said, “because, unfortunately, our musicians are sometimes so stubborn.”

In addition, Cho said, board members feel like the musicians often place the blame on them for the orchestra’s financial struggles, even though the board has covered many of the orchestra’s budget shortfalls in recent years.

“Board members are sick and tired of the musicians’ complaining,” he said.”

“Pete Vriesenga, president of the Denver Musicians Association, said the musicians have been extraordinarily cooperative, considering that they accepted a pay cut in 2009 and this most recent one.

“At that point, you would hope you’d be respected by the board,” Vriesenga said.”


Obviously, this situation was not handled well.  The CSO may have planned ahead, but their contingency plans failed.  Knowing that they were in debt, they probably shouldn’t have been so ambitious.  Symphony orchestras have many areas in which they can ‘cut back’- the number of concerts, the quality/ cost of guest artists brought in, not programming huge pieces of music that take extra musicians, etc…

From the standpoint of the Media Management book, the CSO did a lot of things right.  They used the resource-based view (RBV) and highlighted their unique “assets and skills”, occupied a niche, tried to “maximize efficiency and optimize financial performance” in past years, and did major restructuring of their organization with new leadership and improvements (such as retooling their website.)  Being an outsider, it is hard to say if this situation could have been avoided in late April (when the first article was published.)  Two to three years prior, those leaders perhaps- should have had better foresight.  The semi-current leaders, however, tried the ‘new product development theory’ when they changed around their concert offerings, ‘diffusion theory’ when they used new media (collaborations) to alter consumer behavior, and more!

To get to my point- I think the current leaders did what they could to remedy a bad financial situation.  They managed to boost the CSO’s ticket and subscription sales and more, but it was not enough.  Before building the new performance venue, the board of trustees should have seriously considered what might happen if the economy took a turn for the worst, or at least waited to build until they had most of the money in hand (through grants, bonds, pledges, capital campaign efforts, etc.)

Symphony orchestras in general are hard to understand.  Since I have worked on the administrative staffs of multiple symphonies and played as a professional violinist in twice as many as I have worked for, I have a very different perspective from most musician or administrators who only see the situation from one side of the fence.  The quote from the board member really bothered me as a musician- and I agree with the union president.  They need to make a living and should be paid at a comparative level as 1) other professional musicians and 2) for their level of training.  From the administration’s standpoint, however, they are at their wit’s end.  They aren’t left with much choice.  Also- professional musicians are a dime a dozen- hundreds apply for every opening…  It will be interesting to see what happens…

Deuze, Mark. “Organizational Culture Theory.” Managing Media Work. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2011. 18-19. Print.

Emmalyn Helge

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