Master Symphony Homeless, in Debt : Norwalk Ends Support to Orchestra

Times Staff Writer

The City Council has ended its financial support of the Master Symphony Orchestra, leaving the professional musicians nearly $11,000 in debt and homeless for the second time in three years.

The council’s 3-2 decision last Monday prompted some city officials to predict that without expected city funding, the 7-year-old orchestra would fold soon. Orchestra officials, however, said they would stay in business by seeking donations from other cities and businesses.

The orchestra has performed classical and pops concerts in Norwalk since 1983, with the aid of $96,000 in city donations and the use of a free office at City Hall. The orchestra’s original sponsor, Cerritos Community College, discontinued funding in 1983 because of revenue losses caused by the passage of Proposition 13.

During the summer, the City Council had agreed to give the orchestra an additional $46,000 for the 1985-86 fiscal year, after the apparent success of a June 15 “Gershwin Spectacular” concert performed by the orchestra and its new music director, Peter Nero. But city officials canceled the payments in August after they learned that symphony officials had given out a large number of complimentary tickets because of poor ticket sales for the concert. The city lost $19,759 on the Gershwin concert.

Disappointing Attendance

“I’m not sure that Norwalk is ready for Peter Nero or violins,” said Mayor Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez at a council meeting Monday.


Councilman Bob White said the disappointing paid attendance for the Nero concert disproved claims by Master Symphony officials that Nero had a “magic name” that would lure a sufficient number of music lovers to the city to support the symphony.

“Peter Nero is not really a magic name in Norwalk. A lot of guys might think he played third base for the Angels,” White said.

Nero, the conductor of the Philly Pops Orchestra in Philadelphia and a composer and arranger known for his Grammy-winning “Summer of ’42" album, could not be reached for comment.

“Even Rocky lost a fight,” said orchestra general manager John Barcellona after the meeting. Orchestra chairman Ada Steenhoek said the orchestra would seek other sponsors and “go where the money is.”

“It (the Norwalk council’s decision) will give us even stronger motivation to go after corporate funding for the best orchestra in California,” Steenhoek said.

Steenhoek complained that the council Monday treated the orchestra like a “stepchild.” She added that by the city’s own estimates, 25,000 persons had attended symphony concerts in the past year, which for a cost of $72,000, was “probably the wisest use of Norwalk’s funds all year.”

City May Reconsider

Councilman Lou Banas, who proposed ending the city’s sponsorship of the symphony, said the city would reconsider if the orchestra demonstrates that it can raise money on its own.

“The door is not slammed shut,” Banas said, adding that while he wished the orchestra members luck in soliciting funds, he would not be surprised if the orchestra folded.

Orchestra members had sought $20,000 to pay $10,883 in debts from the Nero concert and pay for orchestra operations until new funding could be obtained. But Banas’ motion to table the orchestra’s request indefinitely effectively ended the city’s sponsorship of the orchestra, Banas and other city officials said.

Siding with Banas in the 3-2 vote were Rodriguez and Peg Nelson, while Bob White and Cecil Green spoke in favor of granting the orchestra more city money.

The orchestra will be given a “grace period” to move out of its City Hall office, said Charles Rough, assistant city administrator.

After the Gershwin concert, city officials had charged that Master Symphony officials had “papered the house” by giving away as many as 1,200 complimentary tickets. But after discussions with Master Symphony officials, city officials Monday said they had overstated the amount of complimentary tickets given away, lowering the amount to between 600 and 800. There were 761 tickets sold for the concert, which attracted between 1,400 and 1,600 people, city and orchestra officials said.

Steenhoek said symphony officials gave away the tickets because Nero’s manager had told them that unless the Gershwin concert played to a full house, it would be Nero’s last appearance with the orchestra.

In a plea to council members, new symphony board president Steven Bills said that the Nero concert was a financial failure but an artistic success.