Colorado Springs Philharmonic has been silenced by labor dispute, but parties hope the music will start again soon


the Colorado Springs Philharmonic hasn’t played together since September. A few days after their last performance, the philharmonic management – citing financial constraints caused by the pandemic – tore up the five-year contract they had just signed with musicians in April.

Now the parties are locked in arbitration, trying to come to an agreement to allow the musicians to start playing again. But, the parties argue over almost every detail. Sarah Wilson, president of the Pikes Peak Musicians’ Association, said the philharmonic leadership is blaming the pandemic for the shutdown instead of finding new ways to bring music to people.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic struck instead of adapting and reimagining the Philharmonie’s 2020 and 2021 concert season, and continuing to serve our community, they used the pandemic as an excuse to opt out illegally and unilaterally from our contract and put our musicians on leave, ”said Wilson, who is also cellist with the Philharmonic Orchestra.

Bass trombonist Jeremy Van Hoy said he was frustrated by the management’s brutal decision.

“We immediately said we were happy to negotiate a side letter to the new contract, to make it work for all parties to the pandemic,” Van Hoy said. “Because the musicians recognized that things were not normal.”

One of the members across the negotiating table is Nathan Newbrough, President and CEO of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. He said he disagreed with the musicians’ assessment of the situation. He said the musicians’ union had not come up with a legitimate return-to-work offer.

“I’m sorry to say their requests were just, simply beyond pallor and disappointing,” Newbrough said.

While countless arts organizations from coast to coast are reeling from an unprecedented year, many orchestras were already struggling to stay afloat, such as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. Large metropolitan symphonies often benefit from larger donor bases, such as the Denver-based Colorado Symphony, which recently received a $ 2 million gift from an anonymous donor. But regional groups like the Colorado Springs Philharmonic say they can’t count on that kind of money. During the pandemic, Indiana Fort Wayne Philharmonic Also fell out with his musicians union after the band was put on leave without notice last summer. The union representing the musicians accused the Philharmonic of an unfair labor practice complaint, but the National Labor Relations Board dismissed the accusation in January.

A look back at the Colorado Springs Philharmonic Nonprofit Tax Returns reveals an unstable fiscal situation, alternating profitable years and others marked by significant losses. In fiscal 2018 – the last complete files available – the Philharmonie recorded a net loss of over $ 138,000. The previous year shows that they made over $ 880,000 in net income.

The orchestra’s management tried to help the musicians overcome their financial difficulties during the pandemic. At its July 2020 meeting, the Philharmonic Orchestra’s board of directors approved funds to help pay musicians’ health insurance premiums and set up a $ 60,000 relief fund – administered by a third party – to help musicians. musicians to pay their bills.

Most musicians supplement their income by teaching, working freelance or playing with other orchestras. While about half of the administrative staff who continue to work for the Philharmonic have been put on leave, those who remain have suffered a 25% pay cut. That includes Newbrough, who earns a six-figure salary. And although the Philharmonic season was largely canceled, the management continued to pay the musicians until July as part of their contract – and with the help of a PPP loan.

The current contract stalemate comes shortly after the parties signed a new contract. After months of initial contract negotiations in 2019, the Colorado Springs Philharmonic board of directors agreed to a new contract with the Pikes Peak Musician Association in February 2020. The parties formally signed the five-year contract on April 2, after the coronavirus pandemic. already forced the closure of artistic businesses and businesses across the state.

Newbrough said he and the rest of the board did not want to go back on a deal they had already made, but the pandemic forced them to. Talks began to renegotiate a new contract, and management quickly made a final offer.

“The orchestra [musicians] reviewed it, voted, but turned it down because it really disrespected our new contract and allowed them to change what they wanted about it in the future, ”said Van Hoy .

Newbrough said he didn’t understand why they rejected the offer. He said the pandemic made the pursuit of philharmonic dangerous and untenable.

“At this point, the board of directors had no choice but to cancel the entire current contract with the musician’s union, due to a case of force majeure,” he said. . This is a legal clause that allows the dissolution of the contract when extraordinary circumstances beyond the control of both parties affect the ability of the parties to perform the contract.

But Wilson does not accept the force majeure argument. “From June 1, with the more secure home order from Governor Polis, concerts can continue,” she said. “The Philharmonie has demonstrated this on several occasions when it offered our musicians to work, in accordance with the contract, with smaller ensembles and outside venues.

Newbrough said one of the issues affecting the board’s decision to end its contract with the musicians is the Philharmonic’s origin story: the Colorado Springs Symphony – which was formed in 1927 – said bankruptcy in 2003. The Philharmonic rose from its ashes the following year. Since then, the specter of bankruptcy has followed the Philharmonie. The newly signed contract is said to have raised musicians’ salaries to $ 13,000 per year, a sign of the Philharmonic’s expected growth, but Newbrough said the salary hike was untenable during the pandemic.

“It’s simple math,” Newbrough said. “We could continue to pay them, but our organization doesn’t have the cash backstop that other organizations can have. In fact, we have a structural deficit which has been a long-standing problem for us, dating back to our previous bankruptcy in 2003. ”

Van Hoy said a philharmonic terminating a contract with musicians is rare.

“There isn’t much history of it in the orchestral world,” he said. “We see a lot of orchestras working under new conditions for the pandemic, or they are put on leave with a promise to come back later, but keeping their contract. Why would they take a tough line, especially when we had a five-year contract that had just been signed? “

Yet Van Hoy is optimistic for the future of the Philharmonic.

“I just feel dedicated to a good result to help the orchestra survive and thrive after the pandemic,” he said. “We leave school with a degree in music performance, which is basically worth less than the paper it’s printed on, and then you just start going out, auditioning and networking and getting a job like this.” is a dream come true for all of us. “

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