Symphony Still Searching for Director as Season Nears

Times Staff Writer

Two and a half years after his death, the Glendale Symphony Orchestra has yet to find a successor to Carmen Dragon, who was its musical director nearly two decades.

The upcoming season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, like last year’s, will offer a series of well-known guest conductors. Some of those six men are candidates to fill Dragon’s shoes permanently, but no decision will be made, at least until after this season, symphony officials said this week.

“We are looking for a special marriage,” Shirley Seeley, the symphony’s vice president in charge of administration, said of the search.

“Maybe at the end of this season, everything will come into focus and we will see this is our man and perform the wedding ceremony.”


Leading Contenders

The leading contenders, she said, are Lalo Schifrin and Anshel Brusilow, each of whom led two Glendale Symphony programs last season. They are back for one concert each this year.

Schifrin is best known as a composer of movie and television scores but has been working frequently as a symphonic conductor. Brusilow is now director of orchestral activities at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he was head of the Dallas Symphony.

Harlan Huebner, a patent attorney who is the Glendale Symphony’s president, commented: “One of these days, the ship should have a rudder.”


After Dragon’s death in March, 1984, the symphony signed Daniel Lewis, former director of the Pasadena Symphony, to a one-year contract as conductor. But Lewis and Glendale parted ways after that season after he failed to sway the symphony’s board to change its emphasis from light classical and pops music to the more serious music Lewis wanted.

That stirred debate over the future of the orchestra, which is considered the most important cultural institution in Glendale. Its executive board and large support organization are peppered with people well connected in Glendale’s wealthy business community. Founded in 1924, the symphony is now composed of up to 95 free-lance professional musicians, many of whom make their livings playing movie and television scores.

Since Lewis’ departure, the symphony has become increasingly pops-oriented, the upcoming season even more so than the last. Only two of this year’s six concerts will offer a full evening of light classical music. The others include pops programs such as conductor Skitch Henderson and the Phoenix Chorale in a Nov. 22 concert of music associated with Broadway lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, and Brusilow on Jan. 18 leading a wildly eclectic evening of music by or made famous by Tchaikovsky, Judy Garland, Willie Nelson and the Beatles.

“Some people have this snobby attitude that there is no room on the symphony stage for this kind of music,” said Seeley. But, she said, “We will never be able to copy the L.A. Philharmonic. We are trying to fulfill a need for light-classical and popular music. This is simply common-sense marketing. It’s what sells.”


To bolster that argument, symphony officials point out that their two best-attended concerts last season were given by Henry Mancini and John Williams, conducting their own film scores.

Of the 3,213 seats in the Chandler Pavilion, about 2,150 were held by the orchestra’s subscribers last season, leaving 1,063 for box-office sales and complimentary tickets. The Williams concert in April sold 1,001 tickets at the door. The Mancini concert in November sold 778. In contrast, classical evenings conducted by Brusilow in January and February attracted only 264 and 179 non-subscribers.

Pops Fare Sells Tickets

Alan Emmons, symphony treasurer and a Glendale Federal Savings & Loan executive, said he is pleased with the pops emphasis. The music, he said, “is certainly lighter now than it was a few years ago. If it weren’t, we’d probably be seeing fewer ticket sales.”


For the first time in its history, the Glendale symphony had an operating deficit two seasons ago. That deficit, of $48,000, was covered by the symphony’s reserve fund, which Emmons said amounts to several hundred thousand dollars.

The books are not closed yet on last season, but Emmons said he expects the symphony’s revenues to once again fall below its expenses, which totaled $450,000.

The main cause, he said, was the fire in July that destroyed the new Rusty Pelican restaurant in Glendale, where the symphony was to have had a major benefit dinner. That dinner, which officials hoped would raise at least $15,000, is expected to be held in December or January, after the restaurant rebuilds.

“We are fortunate because we can survive many, many years of deficits,” Emmons said, referring to the reserve fund. Nevertheless, he said, the symphony is working on better fund raising to ensure that the upcoming season will be profitable.


90% of Seats Sold

Ticket sales have been rising over the past few years, according to Seeley. Last year, about 90% of the seats were sold, contrasted with 87% during the year under Lewis and 78% the previous season when Dragon, dying of cancer, had to drop out of several concerts.

About 44% of the symphony’s budget last season came from ticket sales, considered an unusually high percentage in a time when many arts groups are having financial troubles. Most of the rest came from private and public donations, including $41,000 in grants from the city and county governments.

The symphony’s leaders are concerned that it may be squeezed out of prime weekend schedules because of the opera company coming this year to the Chandler. Being pushed to a weekday schedule or even an all-Friday night schedule could hurt ticket sales.


The uncertainty over scheduling in 1987-88 complicates the search for a musical director. Most conductors in demand are booked years in advance, explained Stuart Canin, the symphony’s first violinist and concertmaster. So a guarantee of good dates at the Chandler “is absolutely essential” for signing a popular conductor, he said.

Spirit of Carmen Dragon Remains

Canin and other musicians said that the ghost of Carmen Dragon still haunts the symphony. “I think it is normal and natural that they are a little uncertain in choosing because they had such a successful time under Carmen,” Canin said.

Asked if the players might be unhappy with the shift away from classical music, Canin replied: “Musicians are fatalists. They are happy if they can get a chance to play and there are not 50 synthesizers on the stage.”


Besides the Henderson and Brusilow shows, the Glendale Symphony’s schedule this year includes:

Oct. 31. Lalo Schifrin conducting music by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, and Rimsky-Korsakov, with guitarist Angel Romero performing Schifrin’s Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra.

Dec. 6. Newton Wayland, a pops conductor who worked in Boston and Houston, leading a Christmas music, along with the Northridge Masterworks Chorale.

Feb. 6. Richard Hayman, a former chief arranger for the Boston Pops, heading an evening of love themes from movies. Pop singer Toni Tennille, Carmen Dragon’s daughter-in-law, is to perform standards from the 1930s and 1940s.


April 25. Conductor and piano soloist John Covelli playing on a program that includes Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Richard Rodgers’ “Victory at Sea” and Saint-Saens’ “Bacchanale.”