Classically Trained: Making the music happen (without a baton)

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Carl St.Clair may be more recognizable to Orange County music lovers, but Pacific Symphony President John Forsyte leads the team who makes the music happen concert after concert, season after season.

Forsyte took the symphony's helm in 1998. During his 14-year tenure, the orchestra has not only toured internationally and called a new concert hall its home, but its stability has kept the music flowing, he said, and given it a national artistic reputation.

Before all that, Forsyte, 47, who lives in Long Beach, grew up in the Chicago area.

At age 7, he had a violin. It was one of the finer things in life exposed to him by his immigrant parents — his father is from Poland, his mother from Hungary.

"Music and art film, attending museums — it is really a part of my identity," Forsyte said. "That and Chicago sports."

Although initially an undergraduate studying biology, he found himself spending a lot of time in the music library. He was hooked.

"Slowly, to the utter disappointment of my parents, I announced that I wasn't going to pursue a medical career but was interested in arts administration," he said.

Forsyte spent a semester studying abroad in London, working for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Academy of Ancient Music.

He eventually graduated from the University of Illinois with a business degree and music-oriented path in mind.

"I found myself not wanting to be without the music and thinking I could make some kind of contribution to the quality of performance," he said.

To him, musicians were just as inspiring as great football or baseball athletes. And the degrees by which they could interpret the same piece using varied schools of thought — be they American, German, French, Russian and others — were equally moving.

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'I learned to do everything'

Forsyte's first job was general manager and then executive director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. He was 22.

Forsyte said he knew nothing about running an orchestra at the time.

"I learned to do everything," he said with a laugh. "I was driving trucks to raising money. I had a chance to experience what all the different jobs look like."

Later, after a year-long fellowship through the League of American Orchestras, he was chosen to run the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.

The Michigan town had arts and, with its corporate activity, it had money to support the arts, Forsyte said. And chunks of that money went into the orchestra to serve a sophisticated audience.

"It was a great place for me, a 26-year-old at the time, to really hone my understanding of what the marriage between community and orchestra is," Forsyte said.

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Achieving a third level

Forsyte sees his tenure with the Pacific Symphony in three stages.

When he arrived, it was a fine, professional orchestra, but it hadn't yet developed stability and or a national reputation, he said.

Then came the symphony's second stage: the orchestra's nine-city tour of Europe in the spring of 2006 and the opening of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall that September. After years of playing in venues like Santa Ana High School and the less-than-perfect Segerstrom Hall next door, the county's orchestra (as well as the Pacific Chorale) had a proper hall to call home.

The third stage these days is about deepening community and audience engagement programming, Forsyte said.

"The 21st-century orchestra is not just a performance organization, but an organization that finds ways to enhance the agenda of the community it serves," he said. "That includes enriching the educational infrastructure and helping to restore interest in the arts to a generation that hasn't had the same exposure that the last few generations have enjoyed."

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'A money-loser'

As a nonprofit, the Pacific Symphony's annual budget is a little more than $18 million, with less than 50% derived from earned revenue, such as ticket sales. The remaining half generally comes from contributions, which are overwhelmingly from individual donors, not corporations.

"It's so essential that if people want a first-class cultural institution, there is a philanthropic responsibility to maintain it," Forsyte said.

Money management has apparently been strong for the symphony: It has balanced its operating budget for 23 consecutive fiscal years, he said.

Still, there is always a tension between artistic risk-taking and commercial results.

"It's very difficult to serve so many different tastes," he said, adding that "some people really do appreciate the great traditions of this art form, whereas others want to have adventures in the concert hall."

And commercial results?

"Pretty much every concert we do is a money-loser," Forsyte said. "Even if we sell 10,000 tickets at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, the orchestra will lose money. It's a very high labor cost institution."

The conductor, dozens of professional musicians and the team of behind-the-scenes staff and administrators all must be paid and the performance space rented. Thus, running the orchestra is a balanced web of production values, audience development, philanthropic development and financial administration, he said.

All that can make it "as complex as any big corporate enterprise, but with the responsibility of public service," Forsyte added.

Such services include three youth ensembles; Heartstrings, which provides free concert tickets to various groups countywide; and Class Act, the symphony's longstanding educational project that partners with more than 30 elementary schools.

All in all, Forsyte wants to see the Pacific Symphony as "absolutely indispensable to the identity of Orange County" and as a great representative and ambassador to the world on behalf of the community.

"We're building the root system of a great tree," he said. "We're building a thick trunk and that when the winds come and blow, the tree stays standing."

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Memories, old and new

For the symphony's future, Forsyte said plans are in the works for Carl St.Clair's 25th anniversary in the 2014-15 season and for releasing more commercial recordings.

Forsyte said some of his favorite moments include hearing the orchestra in amazing acoustics in Munich, Germany; playing to a sold-out house in Vienna; last season's celebration of Nowruz; and the recognition of veterans in the audience.

"My parents, who are victims of Fascism, were essentially saved by American soldiers, Americans who came to the rescue of Europe in World War II," he said. "I think that the whole community gathering that takes place at symphony concerts — the diversity, the celebration of democracy and the celebration of artistic freedom — is really powerful imagery for someone who is the child of immigrants. That is always really moving to me."

BRADLEY ZINT is a classically trained musician and a copy editor for the Daily Pilot. Email him story ideas at bradley.zint@latimes.com or follow him on Twitter @BradleyZint.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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