Specter of Dragon Looms Over Choice of New Conductor

Times Staff Writer

For the second time in a year, the Glendale Symphony Orchestra is looking for a new conductor.

The first search was prompted by the death of Carmen Dragon, its conductor for 20 years. The second has been triggered by the resignation, after only one season, of Dragon's replacement, Daniel Lewis, amid what some orchestra members said was Lewis' disagreements with the symphony's executive board over the choice of music.

Lewis' departure highlights an identity problem for the symphony, according to several musicians and board members: Should it stay with Dragon's format of familiar classics and audience-pleasing Pops or push into more modern--some say challenging--and more serious classics?

Friction Denied

John A. Grande, president of the Glendale Symphony Orchestra Assn., "unequivocally" denied that the resignation announced last week was prompted by any friction over the repertory.

"That is just a perception," Grande said. "And I think it's a perception of those who may not be on the board or do not attend the meetings regularly." In fact, he said, although Lewis' contract had been for just one year, the board had hoped "this wasn't going to be a short-term thing."

In a statement released by the symphony association, Lewis was quoted as saying that he was leaving at the end of this season to devote more time to his work as chairman of the conducting studies department at the University of Southern California and to his guest-conducting engagements. After 11 years as conductor of the Pasadena Symphony, Lewis resigned in 1983, bitterly criticizing the Pasadena board for financial ineptitude and unsophisticated musical taste.

Lewis, 59, was reported to be out of town this week and could not be reached for further comment on his resignation from the Glendale position.

Comments on Future

His move, however, has prompted much discussion about the future of the symphony which, although it performs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles, is widely considered Glendale's most important cultural and social organization. Its 21-member executive board and large support organization is peppered with people well-connected to Glendale's wealthy business community.

The comments by board members, musicians and subscribers vary widely, but one theme recurs: that Dragon and the Glendale Symphony were so well-matched that it may be very difficult to find a similar, long-term marriage. People still speak of Dragon's death last March with shock, because his struggle against cancer was apparently kept a secret from most of his professional associates.

One high-ranking member of the orchestra, who spoke on the condition that he would not be identified, said he regretted Lewis' resignation but was not surprised by it.

"I think he is a little too snobbish for our audience," the member said. "Carmen Dragon was perfect for Glendale, probably for all American audiences. Some light stuff and some heavy stuff, quite a good mixture."

A Different Direction

Another musician, Sheridon Stokes, the symphony's first-chair flutist, said, "While Dan Lewis is certainly a fine conductor, I think the board had a different direction in mind for the orchestra, maybe not as classically oriented as he wanted."

The majority of the executive board of the symphony wants to find another long-term relationship with a conductor, according to member Robert Kadz, and to keep the same basic Dragon flavor to the repertory. Dragon once said that he liked to have about 70% of the symphony's music to be recognizable to the audience.

"And then every now and then I throw in a far-out piece," Dragon said in 1983. "But the far-out piece, if it is contemporary, requires more rehearsals, and then you are taking a chance on whether it is going to be appreciated by your ticket-holder. So we make it short and sweet--middle of the road."

The current season includes four nights of classics, two nights of Christmas music and an evening of movie music, guest-conducted by John Green, which was the only sold-out event so far this year. Lewis is scheduled to lead the two remaining classical concerts.

Incident Over Anthem

Although Kadz denied there had been any arguments over music, he said of Lewis: "He wanted to go in a certain direction that wasn't going to take us where we want to go."

Many people outside the board speculate that the relationship between the board and Lewis may have gotten off on a bad footing last fall, when Lewis said he did not think it was fitting to start each concert with the "Star Spangled Banner" and that he did not want to conduct it. He did conduct it at the first concert, but, in a compromise with the board, his assistant conducted it at the following concerts, board members and musicians said.

"I knew Dan Lewis and Glendale would never make it together over the long term. The confrontation was immediate," said one orchestra member. "He could have taken a softer attitude. After all, is the 'Star Spangled Banner' too terrible a price to pay to conduct the orchestra?"

'Rather Provincial'

Another musician called the board's insistence on the anthem "rather provincial." "It's not the kind of thing a polished orchestra does; it's not a sporting event," the musician said.

Grande, Kadz and other officials dismissed such comments, saying the discussion over the anthem has been blown out of proportion.

"Daniel perceived a performance to have a logical beginning, middle and end," said Grande. "He felt that playing something other than the program's selections was extraneous to the whole evening's experience. On the other hand, we have our traditions, too. And having the assistant conduct it was a nice solution."

The "Star Spangled Banner" debate was "in itself not an issue to make or break a contract," said Kadz, who is president of a real estate escrow company. "The real issue is where the orchestra wants to go. We really don't want to change the general tenor of what we do. We are happy with our structure. Dan Lewis understood that. There was no real disagreement."

Sound Improved

In fact, symphony officials stressed that Lewis had chosen this season's music mainly from Dragon's past programs.

As for future music: "We hadn't even gotten into that with Dan Lewis," Grande said. He stressed, however, that Lewis had improved the sound of the orchestra, which some musicians said was floundering during Dragon's illness.

Over the years, Kadz said, there has been some discussion about trying to make the symphony into "a world-class orchestra," something he said was impossible. "We are excellent at what we do," said Kadz. "But I just don't think a community like Glendale can support something like that. We are not going to be another New York Philharmonic or Philadelphia Orchestra."

Asked if the Glendale Symphony might move toward becoming a Pops orchestra, Grande, who heads a fund-raising foundation for Glendale Community College, said: "While Pops has always been our most popular music, I'm not sure we should move to a total Pops program. But we should continue to develop a format that provides an evening's entertainment for our audience."

Founded in 1924

One board member, who asked not to be identified, said: "I think the Glendale board does not really want a symphony. What they really want is a Pops orchestra and a reincarnation of Carmen Dragon. Lewis has some very high principals and left rather than compromise."

The Glendale Symphony, founded in 1924 as a partly amateur group, is now comprised of professional free-lance musicians, many of whom make their living playing at movie and television studios. They are paid union wages for performances and rehearsals. The board allowed Lewis to increase the number of rehearsals from three per concert in the Dragon era to four.

The symphony was able to increase rehearsal time because it has avoided the financial problems that regularly plague other cultural organizations, board members and musicians agree. The orchestra's expenses, budgeted this year at about $412,000, are usually less than its revenues, said symphony treasurer Alan Emmons, who is a vice president in charge of tax planning for Glendale Federal Savings and Loan, one of the symphony's main benefactors.

2,400 Subscribers

Ticket sales account for about 42% of revenues, donations about 25% and the rest comes from government grants, Emmons said. For example, the city of Glendale gave $20,000 and Los Angeles County $22,500 this year.

The symphony now has about 2,400 subscribers, guaranteeing that 63% of the seats in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion will be sold. With non-subscriber ticket sales added, attendance ranges from about 70% of capacity for some classical concerts to full sell-outs for some Pops nights.

Was Lewis a draw? " Even with Carmen here, it was always a challenge to keep ticket sales up because people are always moving away and passing away," said Emmons. "But Mr. Lewis this year kind of stemmed the decline. Our ticket sales are up a small amount."

"I hope we find some recognizable name to help us sell tickets, and I hope we find somebody soon," he added.

Flood of Applicants

A six-member committee has already met once to discuss choosing a new conductor, Grande said. After Dragon's death last year, the symphony received about 40 inquiries from possible candidates, and officials expect a wide field to choose from again.

Grande said that he hoped a decision could be reached by May, when the 1985-86 program is scheduled to go to the printers, but he also said that the symphony might go with a season of guest conductors next year.

"I hope they go with guest conductors," said one orchestra member. "It will give the orchestra a breather."

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