Former SPCO President and CEO Bruce Coppock dies at age 71

SPCO president
St. Paul Chamber Orchestra president Bruce Coppock socializes with a musician before the SPCO plays in the newly completed concert hall at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

Bruce Coppock, who served twice as CEO of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, died Monday at age 71. A cellist by training, he is credited with transforming the SPCO. Under his leadership the orchestra eliminated the music director position, and replaced it with a musician-led program with visiting Artistic Partners.

He pushed for lowering ticket prices in the early years of the millennium, an effort which broadened audiences, and started a similar drive at orchestras across the US. And he pushed for a new hall for the SPCO, resulting in new Ordway Concert Hall opened in 2015.

Bruce Coppock
Bruce Coppock in 2007 as he reassumed the job of president and CEO of the SPCO
Photo courtesy SPCO/Ann Marsden

During his career he also struggled with cancer and left the SPCO in 2008, apparently with not long left to live. He had bile duct cancer, an aggressive disease which at the time had just a two percent survival rate for patients.

Remarkably he beat it, at least then. He told MPR in 2012 the experience changed him.

“I've made no secret of the fact that I faced a near certain death,” Coppock said. “I can't tell you how transformative that experience has been. I spent literally eight, 10 hours a day listening to music.”

“A visionary”

In his early career Coppock performed and taught around Boston, focusing on chamber music, but also playing regularly with the Boston Symphony.

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A hand injury in 1989 resulted in a move into orchestra management. He was Executive Director of the St Louis Symphony from 1992 until 1998. He became SPCO CEO in 1999, serving until 2008. He returned to St. Paul from 2013 to 2016.

During his career he also held senior executive positions at Carnegie Hall, the League of American Orchestras, and the Cleveland Orchestra, but spent the last few years teaching, again with a focus on chamber music.

The SPCO’s Artistic Director and Principal Violin Kyu-Young Kim worked with Coppock during both of his times as CEO at the SPCO. He described Coppock as a visionary.

Kyu-Young Kim
SPCO Artistic Director and Principal Violin Kyu-Young Kim.
Image courtesy SPCO

“He was the rare package of someone who understood all sides of an organization,” Kim said. “And I think, actually even more than just musical organizations. But his passion was, of course music. And he loved orchestras. He loved, in some ways, what what he believed the potential that an orchestra could be or could reach, both artistically [[and]] in terms of serving the community too.”

Kim said Coppock also had a great belief in what musicians could do if they devoted themselves to an orchestra, which translated into a transformation of the SPCO through the adoption of its new musician-led structure.

Kim credits Coppock for working hard to recruit the roster of visiting Artistic Partners to appear with the orchestra.

“And I think that certainly helped engender excitement in the community because we had such incredible people to work with. Joshua Bell and Roberto Abbado and Nicholas McGegan, who had been with us for a long time, and Stephen Prutsman, who is doing really interesting creative programming. So he really made sure that the artistic partner was really rich, and that the orchestra wouldn't feel that absence of a music director.”

National influence

Coppock’s influence reached far beyond St Paul. The innovations at the SPCO created a ripple effect across the US.

In a statement the former longtime President and CEO of the League of American Orchestras Jesse Rosen said, “His bold outlook was instrumental in helping the entire field discover new pathways and strategies for achieving vibrancy in the 21st century. We will all miss him, though his legacy is played out every day in orchestras across America and in the many colleagues he taught and mentored.”

SPCO President John Limbacher says the organization looks forward to formally honoring Coppock in coming months. Artistic director Kyu-Young Kim says a lot of people will be thinking of Coppock this weekend as the SPCO continues its Thanksgiving tradition of playing American music for concerts over the holiday weekend.

“We happen to be having programmed the Barber “Adagio for Strings” for these concerts so we will dedicate those performances to Bruce's memory,” he said. “So I'm sure there will be, you know, a few tears shed both in the orchestra and in the audience this weekend. But I think it will also be a very joyous set of concerts and it's Thanksgiving. It's a wonderful time to celebrate with music, and so he would love that too.”