Executive Director Elizabeth McGuire recently interviewed Morgan O’Brien, Development Director of the Colorado Music Festival & Center for Musical Arts, about his career path and history with music; the ways donors, audience members, faculty, and students have supported the organization during the pandemic; the exciting plans on the horizon for the Festival and Center; and more.
Watch the interview or read the full transcription below.
Elizabeth McGuire: So I’m here with Morgan O’Brien, who’s the Development Director of the Colorado Music Festival & Center for Musical Arts. I’ve been wanting to highlight staff members, especially during COVID so that people can get to know our staff while everyone’s in quarantine or not spending time together in groups. So let’s get started, Morgan. Thanks for doing this.
Morgan O’Brien: Hey, my pleasure. It’s fun to be with you, even if it’s virtual.
Elizabeth: So just a few background questions. When you graduated from college, what were your career plans?
Morgan: Well, I was a film and photography, journalism major, and I planned to become a filmmaker — documentaries, and art films, and really do work that would impact lives and change the way people think and live.
Elizabeth: Well, I guess you came full circle into that goal, but in a different path. At what point did you shift into development?
Morgan: Well, that’s an interesting question. Those things did ultimately lead me back, but the film work that I did do for six years was mostly commercial and industrial and it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot, but that was a very business-focused world. So I ended up going back to business school and spent the next 20 years in executive roles in media companies, including CFO and CEO, first with MGM, and then later in print advertising, and finally I came to Colorado to run a direct mail company.
Elizabeth: Wow. And I’m certainly aware of your vast experience, but I was curious, and I certainly asked you this during the interview process, but what drew you to this particular organization at this time?
Morgan: I have a long connection to music, especially classical music. I sang in classical choruses for over 25 years. And when I made the shift back for non-profit when I had that opportunity, I saw a lot of things open up in that world. And from what I learned along the way about classical music organizations, I hate to say this about some of our compatriots, but they often couldn’t get out of their own way. I don’t think there’s a single significant classical music organization that hasn’t been in big financial trouble, at least once over the last 25 years and in some cases more than once. And some of that is just management issues, but some of it is also strategic and where they try to head in what they want to do.
And when I first talked to you, I really got excited about [Music Director] Peter [Oundjian] joining, the vision he brought, the competence and excellence that you have instilled in the organization from a business standpoint. And I really felt like there was an opportunity for this organization to do the “Destination Boulder” idea, and actually make this a world-class and world-known (because it might actually already be world-class), well-regarded worldwide festival.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I would agree. Thank you for that and I would also say still very much the plan to do that, but of course we’ve been taken aback a little bit by COVID-19 and I was wondering what kind of major shifts to our internal development plans have you made as a result to COVID-19?
Morgan: Just like the Festival and [music] lessons have gone online, we’ve really stepped up our online communications. I miss the face-to-face interactions we had with donors. If you’re out there, I can’t wait to get back together and have a picnic and see a concert together. So we’ve done a lot that way and the response has really just been so gratifying. If you had told me that we could shut down the Festival and increase our audience base and increase our donor base while doing that, I wouldn’t have believed it, but sure it’s about some of the things that we do, but it’s really much more about our supporters and the way they’ve reacted in terms of how this year has played out.
Elizabeth: That’s right. Can you recall any specific instances where you were really inspired by the way that the donors responded to the crisis that everyone’s undergoing and particularly to us in this organization?
Morgan: Well, a big one was when we asked folks to consider donating the tickets they’d bought for the season to help pay our orchestra members, at least part of what they would have made had they come here. And I think over 90% of folks said, “Yeah, I’ll do at least some of that or all of it.” And we were able to generate a fund in just a few weeks that paid everyone at least half of what they were scheduled to make had we had the festival in Boulder.
And I think as much as the musicians love coming to Boulder and playing in the great hall that Chautauqua is, this is part of their livelihood and it makes a real impact to have thousands of dollars that you were expecting just disappear. And so I’m really grateful to everyone who stepped up and helped us make that possible.
I think a second thing that caught me off guard was sort of a widespread influx of new donors, mostly at a small dollar level, but people who maybe saw one of the virtual concerts or read one of the newsletters or blogs and they just logged on and sent $20 or $50 or $100 and really tripled the number of new donors we usually get in here.
Elizabeth: Yeah, I agree. Those have all been heartening facts for us to realize as a staff too, because it’s a different type of motivation that we’re running on this year. Normally, at least I’ll speak for myself, but I’m so motivated by the musical product, both at the Center and the Festival, even here — because we are at the Center for Musical Arts right now — sometimes I can just walk around the building and I see a music therapy session happening, or I see a lesson with an adult student and a teacher. And it just reminds me of these daily reminders of why I do what I do. If something is challenging or I need a break, I can get this immediate positive feedback that I draw upon the rest of the day. And most certainly the Festival performances are that for me, every year, we spend so much time planning just for this fast and fleeting six weeks and those musicians have become like part of our extended family in a way. So we miss them personally and we miss the music and the experience.
So really the donors have been that bridge for me, thinking about the amazing feedback that we’ve received from people. First of all, the gratitude from people about the work that Peter [Oundjian] did with the Virtual Festival and the staff as well. And just the content that we’ve put out means the world to us. It’s kept us going. It’s kept us motivated. So, whoever’s watching this, I thank you. Thank you so much for that from the bottom of my heart.
Speaking of [the Colorado Music] Festival, you know that we’re planning for a really, really dynamic festival in 2021 in total hopes that we’re able to do it, and we’ll be celebrating a major milestone as well with the 25th anniversary for the Center for Musical Arts. What two anticipated 2021 programs are you most excited and proud about?
Morgan: Well, I think there are… For sure one is the four world premieres. That just knocks my socks off.
Elizabeth: The Festival, yeah.
Morgan: Yeah. We don’t always have one, let alone two, three or four. And some of that is carried over from premieres we would have had in 2020 had we had a full-scale festival.
Elizabeth: These are all major composers too, yeah.
Morgan: They’re major composers, and they really further our aim to be broader and more inclusive in both the music we present, the people who present it and our audience. The emphasis has been on women composers, composers of color, Wang Jie, Joel Thompson, all the way down the line. It’s really been exciting to see that play out. And we haven’t lost sight of the Mozarts and the Beethovens, that’s still our bread and butter. Although I think we kind of bring an energy to it that not everyone does, they’re not just workhorses for us—
Morgan: —they’re new explorations and new energy in how we present them. To be able to seamlessly mix those things together, I think is one of the big things I’m excited about.
Elizabeth: I agree. And I had a conversation with Peter the other day and he made a terrific comment about that. He said that the fact that we’re doing so many world premieres and that we’re able to draw these composers and draw individuals who will support these efforts, really legitimizes our ability to perform the Beethovens and the Mozarts and the chestnuts. They come together. They are not exclusive of one another so far as the excellence of the orchestra. So I think it’s exciting. And I look forward, of course we really wanted to embark on this in 2020, but now we get to do it with even more gusto in 2021 because you’re right: we have now four world premieres that have compounded upon one season, which is kind of unheard of. I think it might be unheard of especially for a summer festival. Anything at the Center [for Musical Arts] that really has caught your eye lately?
Morgan: Several things. One is the extension of our inclusion, which already is strong. Our student body is 40% people of color, 15% LGBTQ, 15% differently abled, especially neuro-diverse. So we’re doing those things in a strong way. And I think our efforts have already started to show that in our offerings educationally. The Coro Santuario, for example, in which I sing, an all Spanish language choir was new this past year. And that’s a huge thing. Musical Freedom: taking music lessons into correctional facilities. And now we’re going to start the mariachi program next year. And it’s going to be certified, I guess. And who knew that that was even a thing, that mariachi programs were certified? My wife and I had a good chuckle over that.
It’s really, really exciting. And it fits in well with the 25th anniversary, which is next year as well, because as much as people like to look back and reminisce on an anniversary, which is important and we’ll do that, I like to think of them as stepping-off points in “what will the next 25 years be like.” And I think that some of this new programming, but also moving towards accreditation, are really exciting and timely things for us to be doing.
Elizabeth: I agree. I couldn’t agree more. Also excited about those things, and yes, the mariachi program is something that we’re hoping to extend into Denver as well. And it will be curriculum-based. So yeah, it’s going to be particularly helpful and it’s going to really allow people to connect not only with their own cultural background, but others to share in that. So that’s what we’re about really, ultimately, in music.
So what else can our supporters look forward to in the coming months? From the development perspective, you’re always talking to people about upcoming programs and trying to get people excited to support certain programs. What’s on your list?
Morgan: Well, I think the most exciting thing is the possibility of actually getting back together again. When I talk to supporters, that’s the number one thing on their mind. They would just love to be back up at Chautauqua and to hear music live again. As much as they loved the Virtual Festival, and I just want to give a shout out about that to everyone who put it together, Peter [Oundjian], Alberto [Gutierrez], Mike Quam, and all those folks. It wasn’t just musicians on the stage playing and then it’s over. The interviews that Peter did with the guests artists were so intimate and so revelatory. It was really, really a special experience and I get those comments from people all the time.
Elizabeth: I do too, and we’re looking for ways to integrate those experiences with a live festival in the future, because it was so popular. So that’s something that we’re planning to do as well.
Lastly, last question, and thanks for taking the time out to do this. What are things that people may not realize about the Center and the Festival?
Morgan: Well, I think everyone appreciates the excellence of the Festival, it’s self-evident, but I don’t know if enough people appreciate the excellence at the Center. The vast majority of our faculty have advanced degrees. They’re very interpersonal. They’re very innovative in the things that they do and I think that is part of what spurring the accreditation, although not exclusively. And I think it’s going to be pretty seamless because of that excellence. And I’m someone who’s taken a lot of private lessons directly with teachers and through schools and including a couple of our competitors in the metro area, and none of them really can hold a candle to the professionalism of what we do here.
Elizabeth: Well, I’m sure our faculty would really appreciate hearing that sentiment from you. Thank you, Morgan.
Morgan: My pleasure.