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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 9, No. 1

Calgary's Model

by Natasha Gauthier / September 3, 2003

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Less than a year ago, the Calgary Philharmonic was just another orchestra on the brink of collapse. Staggering under the load of a million-dollar deficit, the CPO filed for bankruptcy protection last October and suspended concerts for 45 days.

Flash forward 11 months. Ticket sales are booming, all excess fat has been trimmed, the coffers are being steadily replenished and the whole organization is buzzing with the voltage supplied by its new president and CEO, Mark Bregazzi.

"I'm truly am feeling very optimistic," says Bregazzi over the phone, just 34 days into his job. The CPO lured the 66-year-old former CEO of Gulf Canada from retirement in late June. "I'm a high-energy type of guy, and this felt like the right challenge for me."

One of Bregazzi's first tasks was to chart an ambitious new course for the orchestra, which emerged from bankruptcy protection in February. One of the new strategic plan's focuses is on increasing seat sales through a combination of traditional concerts and new, community-programming initiatives, such as concerts in nearby Banff and Lethbridge and participation in events like Asian Heritage Month.

"We want to get more bottoms in seats," Bregazzi states. "The goal is to have 50% of our revenues coming from ticket sales within three years. It's something nobody has been able to do, but we feel quite confident."

To help achieve this goal, Bregazzi says the CPO has made it much easier to subscribe: "People can now pick and choose whatever concerts they like instead of having to take one from this series and one from that series, as was the case before. But we aren't just focussing on subscriptions; we want to increase single ticket sales too."

Recent sales figures indicate that the new management is on the right track. By July, the orchestra had already earned $1 million in advance ticket sales, and Bregazzi is proud to note that not a penny will be spent until performances begin.

"I'm not a fiscal conservative, I'm a fiscal miser," he says. "This organization had already been pared down to the bone when I got here, and in some cases into the bone. But non-essential, that is to say offstage, costs will be kept to a bare minimum. We've done no re-hiring. Anything that doesn't absolutely need to be done from within will be outsourced. It's just good business practice."

Bregazzi says the main spending priority is getting the orchestra itself back up to speed. "There will be no compromise when it comes to the core of what we do, the performances," he says. "We are in the process of completing auditions and we will be operating with our full complement of 65 musicians. Our season for this year is 38 weeks, and we have plans to increase that by one week each year over the next three years, up to a 41-week season."

Bregazzi says the orchestra will also be increasing the size of its chorus, although members will still have to pay a fee for the privilege of singing.

There has been a growing trend in recent years for arts organizations to hire their directors from the business community. While some find the transition from the corporate to the cultural sector difficult, Bregazzi says he has been impressed both with his welcome and with the quality of the work done by the administration before his arrival. However, he has noticed one major difference from his days in the oil and gas business. "I'm amazed by the plethora of special-interest groups," he laughs, listing the unions, the Friends of the orchestra, the volunteers, the donors, and so on. "Of course, we know they're all special, but some like to believe they're more special than others." Natasha Gauthier

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