L.B. Task Force Hears Sidlin Blamed for Symphony Woes

Times Staff Writer

Murry Sidlin--the flamboyant, bi-coastal conductor hired to turn the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra into a world-class ensemble--has taken the brunt of blame for its demise during 11 hours of hearings held to decide if the orchestra will ever play again.

During three days of hearings over the last two weeks, speakers accused Sidlin of ignoring cost-cutting measures, running up huge long-distance telephone bills, having too much control over the symphony's artistic and financial direction, and hiring expensive, out-of-town musicians instead of local talent.

Sidlin's direction, combined with increased operating costs and lax financial management, contributed to the cancellation of the performing group's Golden Anniversary season last November after only two concerts, several speakers told the task force.

But the conductor said Thursday evening that the symphony's system of checks and balances kept one person from having the power and autonomy some have said he had. Sidlin said that he has done for the past five years what he was hired to do.

"The musical director is paid to dream," Sidlin said. "I envision the future of the organization. I dream for a living. Then I go to the executive director and together we translate that dream into reality."

Symphony Task Force

The Long Beach Symphony Blue Ribbon Task Force, meeting in the Port of Long Beach board room, heard from 38 speakers on Jan. 25, Jan. 28 and Jan. 31. It was created by the City Council to find out how the symphony amassed the $575,000 deficit that forced its doors to close and to make recommendations about how--and if--the symphony can resume performing.

The task force will meet six times in February to decide the symphony's fate and write a set of recommendations to be submitted to the City Council on March 1.

The main question asked by task force members was whether good judgment was exercised in running the symphony--a nonprofit, private arts group that ran up a debt of $1 million dollars and went dark in November.

The main answer given by most who spoke before the task force was: not always.

"We've been guided in the past by two wonderful fund-raisers--(Dan) Pavillard and (John) Hyer," James Herley, past president of the symphony association, said Monday. "But hard-headed planning suffered. We were carried away by enthusiastic, expansionistic ideas. We always thought we had to run up a deficit to get going."

Violinist Allen Carter agreed that Hyer and Pavillard--both past symphony managers--were "good and inspiring, but I felt costs sometimes got out of hand."

Mounting Debt

Soon after moving into the 3,141-seat Terrace Theater six years ago, the symphony amassed a $250,000 debt because of slow ticket sales and greater operating costs. The group has never fully recovered.

By November, 1982, then-executive director Dan Pavillard estimated that the group's deficit had reached $800,000. Two months later, the symphony association was on the verge of canceling more than half of its 1983-84 season because it could not afford to perform or pay rent, salaries and other expenses.

James Feichtmann, the symphony's current general manager, said the debt eventually grew to nearly $1 million in 1983, and a Save-Our-Symphony drive was launched to attack the deficit. That year, it raised $450,000, including a $175,000 interest-free loan from the city. In addition, the 33-member symphony board contributed about $375,000 from their own pockets.

Despite the bail-out, the symphony began to run its debt back into the $500,000 range. The group's cash flow was so bad that even small expenses loomed large.

That was the case last October, when the Internal Revenue Service seized more than $18,000 in back taxes, and the group was forced to make a $9,000 payment to a creditor who took the symphony to court to collect on unpaid bills. This forced the symphony into an abortive emergency drive. Launched Oct. 31, it could not raise enough money to keep the symphony alive.

On Nov. 13, the orchestra went dark.

Ruth Todd, past president and 20-year member of the symphony association, told the task force that one of the symphony's major problems was Sidlin, who showed "disregard for fiscal responsibility" since becoming conductor and artistic director in 1980.

"In my opinion, the conductor was much too influential in running the organization, both artistically and administratively," Todd said during a three-hour hearing on Jan. 25. "He had complete jurisdiction over programming and hiring of musicians. The employment of out-of-the-area professionals incurred excessive expense for the symphony."

Sidlin also is conductor of the New Haven Symphony in Connecticut. Living most of the time with his family in Connecticut, he commutes between the two states to run both groups.

Todd said that his "excessive travel expenses"--from $400 to $600 for each of numerous round trips--and long-distance telephone bills that often reached $1,000 a month added to the Long Beach Symphony's red ink.

Rocco Leggett, who was affiliated with the symphony for 44 years as a violinist and personnel director, told the task force: "Past administrations were content to follow the natural growth of the city. . . . The present symphony administration's intentions are admirable and worthy, but I believe it has outdistanced the natural growth of the city and the financial support that is presently here."

Size Increased

When Sidlin took over, Leggett said, the orchestra size was increased and more rehearsals were added at Sidlin's request. It was 1981, the deficit had grown to $500,000, and Leggett proposed a new budget to general manager Pavillard.

". . . By cutting at least 10 musicians and having four rehearsals instead of five or even seven for opening concerts, the association would easily save $100,000 a season or better," Leggett said.

The response was an Aug. 5, 1981, letter from Sidlin, which Leggett gave the symphony task force at the Jan. 28 hearing.

Sidlin wrote: "I am not interested in saving money!!! I'm interested in developing a GREAT ORCHESTRA and motivating the board to raise all that is needed to SUPPORT my visions, projects and concepts in the process."

Sidlin, however, told the task force that he had trimmed the symphony's programs on two separate occasions. Once, in December, 1982, when he made an estimated $400,000 worth of cuts in the 1983-84 season; and again in the summer of 1984, when he proposed cuts in the 1984-85 season amounting to $200,000. The first cuts he did on his own, he said, and the second were done at the association's request.

"It didn't make me happy, but I did it," he said.

Although he was hired to expand and improve the orchestra, Sidlin said that all of his major artistic decisions went through two committees before being voted on by the full association. This system of checks and balances, he said, prevented him from having sole decision-making power.

"I feel every decision I have made has been in concert with others (board members and staff) who also feel that the important thing is that the institution, the symphony, survive," he said.

Desire to Upgrade

But Sidlin's supporters point out that the symphony association hired the conductor specifically to upgrade the orchestra, that improvements cost money and that Sidlin took the job here under the condition that he would continue to conduct in New Haven.

"In spite of (money problems) the board has demonstrated that its dream has come true, and the orchestra is second only to the L.A. Philharmonic as far as quality is concerned," Gordon Lentzner, symphony association treasurer, told the task force on Jan. 28. "This is to Murry Sidlin's credit."

According to symphony creditors and the organization's treasurer, the orchestra's chances of paying off its $575,000 debt look bleak.

Bob Matheny, a Bank of America vice president, told the task force that the symphony owes the bank $117,195.72. Although Bank of America's foundation gives $3.5 million a year in corporate donations, Matheny said "it won't lend money to pay debts."

Nicholas Edwards, president of Queen Beach Printers, said his bill for the symphony is $28,785.81. George Matson, general manager of the Convention Center for Facility Management Inc., said his company is owed about $42,000.

The only money the orchestra is sure of getting is about $150,000--an estimated $100,000 from an upcoming fund-raising auction and $51,000 from a city grant, Lentzner said.

"If we receive no Terrace Circle money (donations from the symphony support group), no corporate support and no private support, we have no chance," Lentzner said at the Jan. 28 hearing.

Suggestions for Group

When asked what the symphony should do in the future to avoid repeating its financial blunders, Lentzner had some simple suggestions:

"I see first putting together a very, very realistic budget--one we can depend on. I would like to have a set of figures we can rely on and put together a program based upon what we can afford," Lentzner said. "I don't know if that's been done as well as it should have in the past."

But Jordan Bradley, past symphony treasurer, told the task force on Jan. 31 that even more drastic measures are necessary if the orchestra is ever to play again: declare bankruptcy and completely reorganize the symphony association.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
73°