The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra is again thriving.
With a balanced $9.77 million budget, the SPCO is again on firm financial ground, less than two years after a difficult contract dispute and lockout of the musicians that resulted in a smaller orchestra.
That marks the 19th time in the past 21 years that the organization has ended the year in the black. It also saw a 15 percent overall increase in donations.
"I've been in this business a long time," SPCO President Bruce Coppock said before the organization's annual meeting Tuesday afternoon. "And I don't think I have ever been through a year like the one we just went through."
More importantly, a lot of people came through the door. Average attendance at concerts was 90 percent of capacity.
"We had our all-time highest attendance, best we can tell," Coppock said. "Highest attendance in 20 years."
Coppock credits the SPCO's aggressive program of making tickets, and concerts, as available as possible for its rebound. The orchestra performs at 11 different venues around the Twin Cities, including churches and synagogues in Minneapolis, St Paul and the suburbs.
It has cut ticket prices to make them affordable, even offering a membership plan where for $5 a month patrons can attend as many concerts as they want. The audience figures are remarkable when compared with the experience of many other orchestras around the country.
Coppock said while orchestras nationwide experienced a decline in ticket sales of more than 20 percent in the last decade, the SPCO audience has increased by more than 40 percent.
He believes the SPCO's increase in attendance also reflects community excitement about the concerts, new artistic partners and visiting musicians -- and the orchestra itself.
It hasn't always been that way.
The contract dispute and 191-day lockout of musicians silenced the SPCO in late 2012. To resolve the dispute, the musicians eventually agreed to pay cuts, and a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 34 to 28 players. Ten musicians took buyouts.
"Coming out of a difficult period, there is a real sense that the SPCO is undergoing a renaissance," Coppock said.
It will take years to audition and hire permanent replacements for those players, but Coppock said the process will inject energy into the organization. The SPCO recently appointed Julie Albers, a regular guest soloist, as principal cellist.
Coppock said the dispute led to a new understanding among management, musicians and the public. He said people now recognize just how fragile orchestras can be.
"They really require careful attention." he said. "They require loving support by the community. They require huge amounts of internal discipline to make sure the train stays on the tracks."
As busy as the last year has been, next year promises to be even busier. In March, the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts will open its new concert hall in downtown St. Paul, a venue designed for the SPCO.
There will also be visits by the latest crop of artistic partners: pianist Jeremy Denk, violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja and clarinetist Martin Frost. They represent a focus that allows musicians to set the artistic agenda for the organization.
"During '13-'14 we began to get a taste of what the SPCO's potential really is," Coppock said.
He said the orchestra is weighing domestic and overseas tours that could take it to Asia.
"It's extremely heartening to see that the community is responding to new ideas and new presentations," Coppock said. "It really feels like this is an organization on the move."