A Labor Dispute Has Silenced The Colorado Springs Philharmonic, But The Sides Hope The Music Will Soon Start Again

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4min 56sec
Courtesy Mary Malizia Evans
From right, Chandler Spoon, Michael Yopp, and Jenny Doersch play as part of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic.

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

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

“When the COVID-19 pandemic hit instead of adapting, and re-imagining the Philharmonic’s 2020 and 2021 concert season, and to continue serving our community, they used the pandemic as an excuse to illegally and unilaterally back out of our contract and furlough our musicians,” said Wilson, who is also a cellist in the Philharmonic.

Bass trombonist Jeremy Van Hoy said he’s frustrated with management’s abrupt decision. 

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

One of the members on the opposite side of the negotiating table is Nathan Newbrough, the president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. He said he doesn’t agree with the musicians’ assessment of the situation. He said the musicians union hasn’t offered a legitimate offer to return to work. 

“I'm sorry to say that their demands were simply, simply beyond the pale 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 — like the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. Larger metropolitan symphonies often benefit from larger donor bases, like the Denver-based Colorado Symphony, which recently received a $2 million dollar gift from an anonymous donor. But regional groups like the Colorado Springs Philharmonic say they can’t rely on that kind of money. During the pandemic, Indiana’s Fort Wayne Philharmonic also fell out with its musicians union after the group was furloughed without notice last summer. The union that represents those musicians charged the Philharmonic with an unfair labor practice claim, but the National Labor Relations Board dismissed the charge in January. 

A look back at the Colorado Springs Philharmonic's nonprofit tax filings reveals an unsteady fiscal picture, alternating between profitable years and others marked by significant loss. In fiscal year 2018 — the most recent complete filings available — the philharmonic posted a net loss of more than $138,000. The year before that shows they made over $880,000 in net income. 

The orchestra’s management has attempted to help the musicians with their financial difficulties during the pandemic. At its July 2020 meeting, the Philharmonic’s Board of Directors approved money to help pay for musician health insurance premiums and set up a $60,000 assistance fund — administered by a third party — to help musicians pay bills.

Most musicians supplement their income with teaching, freelancing or performing with other orchestras. While about half of the administrative staff that remain working for the Philharmonic have been furloughed, those who remain have taken a 25 percent pay cut. That includes Newbrough, who earns a six-figure salary. And although the Philharmonic’s season was mostly canceled, management continued to pay musicians through July as part of their contract — and with the help of a PPP loan.

The present contract impasse comes shortly after the sides signed a new contract. After months of initial contract negotiations in 2019, the board of directors behind the Colorado Springs Philharmonic accepted a new contract with the Pikes Peak Musician Association in February 2020. The sides formally signed the five-year contract on April 2, after the coronavirus pandemic had already forced closures of business and artistic ventures across the state. 

Newbrough said he and the other board members didn’t want to back out of an agreement they had already made, but that the pandemic forced them to. Talks began to renegotiate a new contract, and management soon brought a final offer to the table. 

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

Newbrough said he doesn’t understand why they voted the offer down. He said the pandemic made it unsafe and untenable for the philharmonic to continue.

“At that point, the board had no other option but to cancel the entirety of the current contract with the musician's union, due to the force majeure,” he said. That’s a legal clause that allows the contract to be dissolved when extraordinary circumstances beyond control of both parties affects the sides’s ability to fulfill the contract. 

But Wilson doesn’t buy the force majeure argument. “As of June 1st, with Governor Polis’ safer at home order, concerts can continue,” she said. “The Philharmonic demonstrated that repeatedly when it offered our musicians work, according to the contract, with smaller ensembles and outdoor venues.”

Newbrough said one of the issues affecting the board’s decision to end its contract with musicians is the Philharmonic’s origin story: The Colorado Springs Symphony — which was formed in 1927 — declared bankruptcy in 2003. The Philharmonic rose from the Symphony’s ashes the following year. The specter of bankruptcy has followed the Philharmonic around since. The newly signed contract would have bumped up musicians’ salaries to $13,000 a year as a sign of the Philharmonic’s expected growth, but Newbrough said that bump in pay was untenable during the pandemic. 

“It's simple math,” said Newbrough. “We could continue paying them, but our organization does not have the cash backstop that some other organizations may have. In fact, we've got a structural deficit that's a long-standing issue for us going back to our previous bankruptcy in 2003.”

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

“There's not much history of that in the orchestra world,” he said. “We see lots of orchestras who are working under new terms for the pandemic, or they're furloughed with a promise of coming back later, but maintaining their contract. Why would they take the severe course of action, especially when we had a five-year contract that was just agreed to?”

Still, Van Hoy is optimistic for the future of the Philharmonic.  

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