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Laurie Niles

August 29, 2003 at 6:41 PM

My friends in the now-defunct Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra have had a rough year, left with no health insurance for their families and a major source of income gone because of the dissolution of the orchestra in March. Some have even have even needed food boxes from a local charity to make it through.

And though the orchestra looks to have a strong chance of re-forming as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, I have to wonder why this happened in the first place. From everything I've read and everyone I've talked with, it looked like the orchestra's board was either grossly negligent -- or just wanted to bust the union.

Before moving to California, I had a full contract with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra. It was a desirable job, which is why I auditioned three times to get it. We played three concerts of every performance, all to a fairly full and appreciative house. We had health insurance through the orchestra, a major benefit for a musician here in the U.S. where there is no public health care, and having insurance is tied to your employment. We played a full season, with a few summer concerts thrown in. And the location, location, location... this city stands right at the foot of the great Pikes Peak, the mountain on which Katharine Lee Bates penned "America, the Beautiful" in 1893. Beautiful indeed!

Still, it wasn't exactly a luxurious living -- $13,000 a year. But it provided enough salary and benefits that a musician could live in the area if he or she taught or did other work.

In the year I left, 2000, the symphony's endowment was at $2.7 million, according to the Colorado Springs Independent. The organization was run by Susan Greene, an energetic director who was good at raising funds.

For reasons that mystify both the musicians and the public, Susan Greene left her post unexpectedly in Dec. 2001. Following her departure, the board hired a management company from Michigan to run the orchestra, flying in an interim executive director twice a week, according to the Independent. Management costs tripled. The board started borrowing against the symphony foundation's endowment, according to the Independent.

"There was a long period of time where the orchestra musicians were refusing to see the writing on the wall," said Lynne Glaeske, a violinist from Denver who played under contract for the former CSSO. "They just couldn't believe that the board was doing this."

Then came some missing paychecks in December 2002. The CSSO started canceling rehearsals and concerts on a weekly basis. Musicians coming to get their music Jan. 15 were greeted with a sign on the doors of the symphony office that said, "No Checks, No Music." The CSSO was placed on the international musicians' union's "unfair" list.

On Jan. 10, the CSSO filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. A month later, the CSSO Association asked the bankruptcy court to reject the musicians' union contract and force the musicians to play under contract conditions desired by the board. The judge did the first part, abolishing the union contract, while rejecting the second part of the CSSO board's request as illegal. The 75-year-old orchestra, one of the 132-year-old city's elder institutions, was dead.

It's a scary story for any musician to hear; we all know what a shaky foundation any orchestra in the U.S. stands on. The good news is that the story doesn't end here.

The musicians stuck together, and in the midst of this crisis they gave several concerts to raise money for a musicians' relief fund. The community rallied around them. The first concert happened in February, when the musicians and the former CSSO conductor, Lawrence Leighton Smith, gave a free concert at Grace Episcopal Church, the place where the orchestra had held its very first concert 75 years before. About 1,000 people jammed into the church to hear the orchestra play Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Dvorak's "New World Symphony," according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Shortly after the dissolution of the orchestra in March, Susan Greene held a press conference announcing the formation of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. The new orchestra has the same music director, Smith, the same assistant music director, Thomas Wilson, and the same musicians. Greene will be its executive director, with a new board headed by Thomas Cross, a Colorado Springs attorney.

Their 2003-2004 season looks pretty full. They plan to have seven classical concerts, five pops concerts, four performances of the Nutcracker Ballet and four family concerts. Instead of three performances of each classical concert, they will have two. Still, not too shabby.

And let's just say they are trying really hard to raise money. For example, the orchestra raised $12,000 playing a 24-hour musical marathon at King Soopers, a local grocery store.

They also secured a grant larger than any grant the Colorado Springs Symphony ever did, a two-to-one challenge grant of $325,000 from four regional foundations, according to the Denver Post. That means they have to raise $650,000 in cash or pledges by an Oct. 31

The orchestra will play Beethoven Nine for its first concert of the season on Oct. 18 - that ought to bring in the masses.

The economy, so often cited as the cause of this catastrophe in Colorado Springs, is no better than it was a year ago. Yet the newly formed orchestra is leveraging grants and moving on with the next season. Why couldn't the board of the CSSO do that? Perhaps the board members in this ultra-conservative town just get tired of dealing with the musicians' union Or maybe they simply had become too dependent on Susan Greene to raise all the money and neglected to do so in her absence.

Whatever the reason, things remain difficult for the musicians, who still don't have the health insurance and other benefits provided them in their previous contract. They have fewer services to play this year. The orchestra's library, with more than 1,200 scores, was auctioned off. Musicians who were not paid after January are still struggling to make ends meet.

But they do have an orchestra, and it appears to be in good hands.

"They're fighters," Glaeske said of the Colorado Springs symphony musicians. "There are a bunch of real fighters in that group. I think they have a very good chance of making it work."

Best wishes, and have a great season, you guys.

* * *

How you can help

According to the Pikes Peak Musicians Association, AFM 154, donations to the musicians of the former Colorado Springs Symphony can be sent to:

CSSO Players Assembly
C/o Mary Anne Lemoine
1942 Essex Lane
Colorado Springs, CO 80909

The Pikes Peak Community Foundation has agreed to accept contributions for the new Colorado Springs Philharmonic until 501c.3 non-profit status can be established for the Philharmonic. Tax-deductible contributions to the Colorado Springs Philharmonic can be made immediately to:

The Colorado Springs Philharmonic/PPCF
c/o Pikes Peak Community Foundation
P.O. Box 1443
Colorado Springs, CO 80901

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