On the eve of its 18th season, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, for nearly two decades an ensemble used to steady growth, faces for the first time the problem of survival.

After years of ostensible prosperity, the orchestra is now in the red more than $180,000. The LACO management and board of directors are now deciding how much of the orchestra's projected 1985-86 season it can reasonably expect to salvage.

"One of the things we must do," says board president Ron Rosen, "is look at the worst that can happen." In separate interviews, both the Chamber Orchestra's executive director, Robert Elias, and president Rosen told The Times that "the orchestra could fold."

Naturally, both also promise they will not let that happen. Toward that end, the orchestra's board of directors has launched a search for grants and contributions, aiming to eradicate the deficit by Aug. 1.

What happened?

"Operating on a deficit is a way of life in the arts," explains Rosen, seated in his tastefully decorated, beehive-busy, 19th-floor law offices in Century City. "The Chamber Orchestra, like all other such organizations, is in the business of losing money.

"But, of course, we have to maintain the balance between artistic excellence and fiscal responsibility. Expanding at the modest rate of 20% a year, as we did between 1983-84 and 1984-85, doesn't seem like a lot--unless you find yourself short."

Operating in 1984-85 on a budget of $1.4 million, L.A. Chamber Orchestra supports a full-time administrative staff of seven people. As the resident chamber orchestra at Ambassador Auditorium, it performs several concert series there, as well as series at UCLA and in Santa Barbara, Santa Ana, Claremont, and in San Diego County. Its repertory ranges from the exclusively Baroque (in one series at Ambassador) to contemporary and brand-new works.

At the chamber orchestra's comfortable offices in the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation annex in Pasadena, executive director Elias and the orchestra's part-time development counsel, Mary K Bailey, admit that, as Elias calls it, the "shortfall" of some $120,000 for the season just past was the result of "a confluence of unfortunate events."

These events, Elias outlines, included "some problems on the board," and "some problems in communications."

"A major part of this deficit is a $60,000 carryover from the 1983-84 season," Elias says. "Also, the lack of a major benefit on behalf of the orchestra in 1984--an event which could have raised between $50,000 and $60,000--is another reason for the shortfall.

"Finally, if there is a culprit, it may have been the board, when they created an overly ambitious budget for 1984-85. That budget, as it turned out, called for a 93% increase in contributed income.

"That wasn't realistic."

Bailey agrees, and says the shortfall had been predicted as early as August, 1984, five months after she became a consultant to the orchestra, and two months before Elias was hired.

"The figure remained constant throughout the season," Elias acknowledges. "Frankly, I was so busy putting out fires and meeting our payroll, it was a problem I never addressed directly. Now, with the help of our board of directors, we are all addressing it."

He outlines two basic attacks on the problem.

"First, we have made, and are making, numerous grant proposals to major foundations and corporations for one-time special grants. Some of these foundations and corporations are old friends, some are first-time contacts.

"Second, there is a concerted effort on the part of board members for each one to bring in new, individual contributors. Again, these may be old, new or returning contributors.

"In the case of reaching corporations, we are depending on our board members to gain for us entree to those organizations."

Since its beginning, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra has presented a prosperous front, but Rosen says the orchestra "has always scrambled financially.

"Going back over our history, I see that at one point our deficit was even larger than this one. But also, going back only two years, I find that, at the end of the tenure of (board president) David Ingalls in 1982-83, we had a surplus of $70,000."

Rosen admits the present financial crisis is serious and that, indeed, the orchestra could go out of business if the deficit is not erased.

"But," he adds, "that option is unacceptable.

Also unacceptable, he states unequivocally, is the rumored cutback of the 36-member orchestra to the size of a string octet.

"Cut back to a tiny ensemble? That never was an option. We are commited to continue to support this orchestra at its present size in the repertory appropriate to that size. Cutting down, we would lose the interest of our subscribers."

The basic problem, according to Rosen, is that "excellence, the musical excellence this orchestra has introduced into this community, costs a lot of money.

"And we, the board, have

been ambitious, perhaps overambitious, to implement, gradually of course, the artistic growth that (music director) Gerard Schwarz has always envisioned for the orchestra."

Besides raising the funds to pay off the deficit, Elias says the board of directors has embarked on plans to raise a "matching reserve fund" of an additional $250,000 "to ensure the financial health of the orchestra."

"It's not enough to survive," he says, "We also have to ensure the future."

In mid-June, the LACO board of directors canceled four of the 13 concert programs scheduled for 1985-86.

"Cutting back by four programs seems to me very intelligent," says Wayne Shilkret, director of performing arts for the Ambassador International Cultural Foundation, which co-sponsors LACO in its home season at Ambassador Auditorium.

"Listen, losing money is a way of life for all arts organizations," says Shilkret. "Everybody has financial crises.

"The Ambassador Foundation wants to see the Chamber Orchestra survive. Once in the past, we were able to make a large contribution toward that survival. This time, we will wait until the board of the orchestra clears up this present deficit. Then, we can help them with the next season at Ambassador."

According to Shilkret, the contributions the Ambassador Foundation makes to the Chamber Orchestra vary from year to year, and the amount available for 1985-86 is not known at this time.

However, in 1983-84, the foundation contributed, according to Elias, $50,000 in cash to the orchestra, and "a similar amount in contributed services." In 1984-85, Elias said, "the contributions were similar, except that, in the spring, the foundation made an extra, emergency contribution of $35,000."

Geoffrey Brooks, manager of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, which has presented LACO in the San Diego area for three years, says the orchestra's recent cancellation of four of its six scheduled concerts at the East County Performing Arts Center in El Cajon might have spoiled forever a happy relationship between San Diego and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra.

"Fortunately, we were able to salvage the season by adding performances by touring chamber orchestras of international caliber," Brooks told The Times.

"But we almost lost it. You see, we, the presentor, had put together a beautiful brochure, one which looked great, and had begun to sell subscriptions. Then, LACO canceled.

"Our board of directors was so angry, they were ready to cancel the whole thing--and never present LACO again. 'Why bother?' they were saying to me.

"But we saved it. What would have happened, I'm sure, is that, after being away for a year, LACO could never come back to San Diego. Certainly, the ill will they would have engendered, on our board alone, would have been immeasurable."

Pebbles Wadsworth, executive director of the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, was also caught unaware, when, three weeks ago, the management of L.A. Chamber Orchestra informed her that they could present only one of the four concerts promised to UCLA next season.

"They canceled. UCLA didn't," Wadsworth makes it plain.

"They left us with one concert, which doesn't constitute a series. Now, we are now talking to Gerry (Schwarz) to see how we can present the one concert they can afford."

Wadsworth says she will not hesitate to present LACO at UCLA in future seasons, "once they get back on the financial track." But she expresses "great distress" with the orchestra's administration.

"UCLA has been very commited to presenting the Chamber Orchestra on the West side. I only wish their administration had come to us to tell us they were having problems. They told us about the cancellation with a single phone call--absolutely no warning was given--long after we had gone to press with our season brochure.

"I find it businesswise very unprofessional that they didn't tell us that they might have to do this.

"Artistically, we have no complaint about the orchestra. It's a splendid ensemble. But, administratively, I think some bad decisions have been made."

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