When the houselights dimmed in the lush Terrace Theater on the opening night of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra's 1984-85 season, the curtains parted to reveal a polished, 86-member group playing Wagner's demanding Overture to "Tannhauser."
The orchestra "showed a higher level of instrumental accomplishment and polished ensemble than at any remembered time in its first 49 seasons," one critic raved. "The probing conductor uncovered myriad moments of poignancy, repose, anguish and catharsis, moments beautifully realized by the orchestra."
Opening night of the 1985-86 season--if it occurs at all--will be a very different experience.
If the tentative recommendations of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra Blue Ribbon Task Force are realized, the size of the symphony could be cut by 75%, the budget by about 70%, the board of directors could be halved and flamboyant conductor Murry Sidlin would probably be replaced by a music director who is willing to live in the greater Long Beach area.
Venue Change Proposed
In addition, the Terrace Theater could be abandoned temporarily in favor of the more austere First Congregational Church of Long Beach, which seats an audience of only 900. A full house will be about 70% smaller than for past performances at the 3,141-seat Terrace.
And, if some task force members have their way, the performing group may no longer even be called the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.
Although the symphony staff and board refuse to comment at length on these suggestions, the orchestra board's executive committee has sent a position paper to the task force endorsing only two of the recommendations.
So what will be left of the once-acclaimed group that went dark Nov. 13 because of a $575,000 deficit, only two performances into its Golden Anniversary season?
Robert Langslet, chairman of the task force charged with saving the orchestra, contends that no matter what the group loses, it will retain its artistic quality.
"Our primary goal is to maintain the excellence that has been achieved," Langslet said. "We're trying to implement these changes and keep the excellence . . . within a strict budget."
Not everyone in the local arts community, however, is sure that can be accomplished.
Concern for Integrity
"I would think that if they were going to cut the orchestra that much, it is going to jeopardize the artistic integrity," said Gordon James, a member of the Civic Light Opera board of directors and a longtime financial supporter of the beleaguered symphony. "To me, it's taking away from the production value.
"And I don't think it's a good idea to cut the board in half. Realistically, I don't think we have a symphony now. I think we had a wonderful one."
Symphony Manager James Feichtmann, who says he remains optimistic about the symphony's future, said the proposed changes are drastic.
"It won't be the same Long Beach Symphony Orchestra," Feichtmann said, "although it may be close."
The task force, which was appointed by the City Council and began meeting in January, held three public hearings to assess the symphony's problems and determine if the group had any future in Long Beach. When the hearings ended, three subcommittees wrote reports on the symphony's role in the city, the organization of the group and its finances.
The reports were combined into a document to be presented to the City Council on Friday. Although the report is currently in rough-draft form, as of late Thursday the task force's major recommendations included the following:
- The music director should live in the Long Beach area full time and be accessible at all times for public relations purposes and fund raising. Because Sidlin is also conductor of the New Haven Symphony, his main residence is in Connecticut. Langslet said that many task force members recommend not rehiring Sidlin, although no such formal statement has been made.
- The 33-member board of directors should be cut to 15. Of the 15 new board members, five should be chosen by the existing board from among its current members. The remaining 10 members should be chosen by Mayor Ernie Kell and Langslet from among the local business and artistic communities. Three of the 15 will be chosen by Kell and Langslet to serve as the executive committee and make all operating decisions.
- The new executive committee should reduce overhead expenses to the absolute minimum and create a temporary "bare bones" budget.
- Short- and long-range financial plans should be made, based on realistic expectations of revenue and expenses. In addition, the symphony should be run on a no-deficit philosophy.
- A schedule of baroque performances should be planned in an effort to keep a high-quality core of professional musicians and fulfill the existing obligation to season ticket holders.
"The board should not undertake this program until funding is in hand or assured," the recommendations say. Langslet said he hoped the symphony would play again by fall.
Feichtmann said a baroque ensemble consists of 22 to 28 musicians. Although the recommendation was not formalized, it was suggested during recent task force meetings that the scaled-down ensemble play in the First Congregational Church and have a budget not exceeding $300,000. The budget for the 1984-85 season was $1 million.
- Fund-raising efforts should be expanded by holding benefit concerts, starting new auxiliary support groups and a long-range endowment program and vigorously pursuing grants from foundations.
- The city should grant the symphony all revenues gained from a recent 1% increase in the local bed tax.
But it is the task force's final recommendation that could create the greatest change in the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, its local identification and its artistic reputation.
The report recommends that the new 15-member board consider reaching out to nearby cities for support and concert engagements. In addition, it recommended the board consider changing the symphony's name to reflect its broader base.
Langslet said Thursday that he thinks the revamped symphony would still be based in Long Beach. However, by playing in outlying cities and by reaching out to surrounding communities for support, the symphony could become stronger, he said.
"This doesn't mean that the name would remain the 'Long Beach Symphony Orchestra,' although I personally would like to see the name remain," Langslet said. "But other members of the task force don't think it's necessary."
Although many members of the Long Beach city government and the symphony staff and its board members refuse to discuss the specifics of the recommendations, the board's executive committee submitted a position paper about the proposals to the task force Tuesday.
In the paper, the 10 executive committee members said they "applaud and endorse" only two of the task force's recommendations so far: that the city commit the increase in bed tax revenues to the symphony and that the city lease the Terrace Theater to local arts groups at reduced prices. The theater had charged the symphony $1,100 rent per evening.
In addition, the paper disagreed with reducing the symphony board and instead suggested increasing the group. The executive committee is to meet with several task force members Monday to discuss the recommendations.
While the task force has worked to forge a future for the symphony, the orchestra's staff and board members have continued their fund-raising efforts. Crescendo '85, a black-tie dinner and auction Feb. 9, netted the group $120,000, and work is under way for a new money-making plan called Shares for the Symphony.
With Shares for the Symphony, the orchestra will raffle a $25,000 stock portfolio donated by various community members and businesses. Raffle tickets are $50 each, and the group hopes to sell 2,000, raising $100,000.
In addition, John Garcia, owner of a Long Beach gay bar called Ripples, raised $12,500 for local arts groups at a Valentine's Day weekend event called Hearts for the Arts. It is expected that Garcia will donate some of the money to the symphony. He has already given $5,000 to the Long Beach Civic Light Opera to improve the sound system for its upcoming performance of "Song of Norway" at the Terrace Theater.
And, although the proposed changes have caused concern in the arts community and its supporters, "no one has questioned or has any trouble with the spirit of what the task force is trying to create, because everyone agrees there is a fundamental need to change the perception of the organization in the community," Feichtmann said.
"We just need to continue to work with them (the task force) to ensure that the final recommendations allow the symphony's strengths to remain," he said.