When Nathan Newbrough was hired as CEO of the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, hopeful followers heralded it as a watershed moment — the 35-year-old would bring fresh ideas, youth and enthusiasm.
A year later, he's also brought results.
"I don't want to say we're out of the woods," Newbrough says, "because we're still struggling. But we are seeing people respond to our dramatic programming."
Season ticket sales for 2009-10 have more than doubled last year's. Additionally, ticket sales for the Philharmonic's Vanguard performances — combining the work of "vanguard" composers and contemporary music — have hit more than 700, as compared to the total of 54 for last year's poorly performing Encore series.
The buzz owes much to a slate of shows ranging from the full Hotel California LP by the Eagles to Cirque du Swing, a partnership with the Boulder-based Frequent Flyers Aerial Dance Theater.
"If we look at each program, I think we can see that the orchestra is really going beyond where they've gone before," Newbrough says. "We've stopped being quite as safe as we have before."
When asked to talk about the performance that will start the season, Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème, Newbrough leans forward and breaks into a smile.
"[La Bohème] is something I've wanted to do for a long time — a semi-staged concert version of a major opera," he says. "It's kind of like the signal: Good things are on the way."
In a semi-stage production, performers go without full background sets and props. However, this show — a collaborative effort with the Colorado Springs Chorale and Opera Theatre of the Rockies — will include costumes, dramatic lighting and (for those who skipped Italian class) English super-titles above the stage.
"We're doing things that are a little bit revolutionary," Newbrough says with a grin. "Normally when we're working with a chorus, they will be on risers in the back."
Grabbing a pen and a program, he goes on to sketch the show's layout: On each side of the main soloists' platform will be the inward-facing chorus, something none of the directors have done before. Behind them, a wall of shifting, three-story-tall pillars will represent the Paris skyline. Special lighting effects will be combined with a large screen dropped behind the pillars to help ease the loss of traditional stage effects like falling snow.
For Newbrough, and the Philharmonic, La Bohème is about more than just putting on a great show: It represents a turning point in the fundamental attitude of the Philharmonic. Previously, performances were chosen based on where they fit into the budget.
"When we started planning for the 2009-10 season, we decided, 'No, we're not going to talk budget while we're talking about the programs. We're going to talk about it purely from an artistic sense,'" Newbrough says. "... And this is an organization that has needed to turn around for a long time, so that's what we focused on."