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Musicians Shocked by Announcement : Symphony Members Thought They Had Weathered the Worst

Like a California earthquake, the announcement of the San Diego Symphony’s impending bankruptcy caught members of the orchestra by surprise Thursday, and they are still feeling the aftershocks.

“It’s a traumatic experience, a real shocker,” said the orchestra’s principal bassoon, Dennis Michel. “The first thing you do is start taking stock of finances to see how long you can survive without a job.”

For Michel, the situation is a case of deja vu. When he joined the orchestra in 1981, the symphony was in the depths of another major economic crisis. Having resigned his teaching position in Kansas and been married for only a month, he arrived in San Diego to find an orchestra but no paychecks. Michel stayed with the orchestra to help prove that it was worth saving. “I felt from my first concert here that our best hope was to keep the artistic quality up.”

“I just cannot believe that the community of San Diego cannot support a major symphony orchestra,” said principal bass Peter Rofe. Rofe, who has been with the symphony since 1973, has had more lucrative offers to play in other orchestras over the years, “but I stayed here because of the positive potential of the San Diego Symphony.”

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Another longtime orchestra player, principal horn Jerry Folsom, noted one of the many ironies of the crisis. “Artistically, the orchestra is playing better than ever before, and the morale is really high,” said Folsom.

When the summer season was canceled in 1982, Folsom and others had jobs in the local recording industry, mainly television and radio ads, to fall back on. “But today the recording industry has gone way down in both San Diego and Los Angeles,” he said.

Folsom was hesitant to point a finger at symphony administration. “The marketing now is better than it has been in the past, although some concerts have been poorly attended,” he said. “In San Diego, both real good weather and bad weather are factors (in low attendance).”

Among the musicians who have come to the symphony this season is acting principal violist Cynthia Phelps. The current crisis broke while she was considering a contract offer from the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Symphony Orchestra.

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“I love the symphony here,” said Phelps. “It’s great and (conductor) David (Atherton) is great. I would have to say that David is absolutely one of the best conductors I’ve worked with. I really love San Diego, but the public doesn’t realize how good we are.”

Phelps, who substituted last spring with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, underscored the local symphony’s musical strength. “Of course, Los Angeles plays great, but when San Diego plays well, it’s every bit as good,” she said.

Another first-chair player, a newcomer to the orchestra who did not wish to be identified, said, “There are times when this orchestra plays as well as any orchestra on a given day. Even for people who don’t give a damn about classical music, this orchestra is a tremendous prestige symbol of the city. I hope people in San Diego wake up and appreciate what we’ve got here.”


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