Nearly 30 musicians sat tuning their instruments as they waited for their new conductor to step up to the podium, his baton poised, ready to begin weekly rehearsal.
Instead, a member of the group's board of directors approached the podium in a music room at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. Nowell Wisch was armed, not with a baton but with an advertising rate sheet.
He didn't ask the musicians to play from their soul or remind the string section to play Brahms at the lower end of their bows--those instructions came later from Charles Blackman, the recently hired conductor. Wisch just asked the musicians to think of the business people they meet each week and to try to sell advertising in the concert programs.
Expenses Going Up
The 37-year-old Beach Cities Symphony Assn. is going through a transition brought on by financial problems. Although fund raising and membership are at record highs, expenses have gone up faster than revenue, according to David Bradburn, president of the symphony's board of directors.
The association's annual budget is $30,000 and the association has grown to 400 members--most of whom are from the South Bay or Long Beach--who pay $15 to $1,000 each to join each year, he said. The association usually puts on four concerts a year, which are free to the public.
But the board, citing financial woes, recently canceled a concert, prompting the symphony's music director, Herman Clebanoff, to quit after more than six years with the 65-piece orchestra.
Bradburn said the board realized that it could not produce all the scheduled concerts without running into deficit, so it decided in February to cancel the third concert despite notification from Clebanoff several months ago that he would quit if any of the concerts were canceled.
Clebanoff, 69, said in telephone interview that he feared that the cancellation would harm fund raising, slow the growth of audiences and association membership and destroy the momentum of the continually improving orchestra.
"I didn't do it as a threat," he said. "I did it because I didn't want to cancel the momentum and demoralize the orchestra."
Bradburn praised Clebanoff for greatly improving the orchestra musically during his tenure, but said the conductor actually contributed to the association's financial troubles because of his demand for excellence. "Dictator" was a word used more than once by people associated with the orchestra to describe the former conductor.
Clebanoff increased the number of paid professionals within the orchestra and was perhaps too hard on the volunteer, non-professional musicians, Bradburn said. Clebanoff admitted few non-professionals to the orchestra after he took over as part-time music director in 1980, Bradburn added, keeping their number at slightly more than a third of the symphony.
Clebanoff--who earns his living playing violin and conducting for recording, television and movie studios--said he was not too demanding on any of the musicians. "I'm demanding on the music because I feel a responsibility to the composers," he said.
In addition to the non-professionals, another third of the orchestra is made up of professionals, and the remainder are students, usually in college, Jefferson said. Some people associated with the group, however, said the professional membership has gotten as high as one half or two thirds.
Bradburn said that the professional musicians have been the principal operating expense of the orchestra.
Orchestra manager Jeanne Jefferson disagreed, however. Jefferson, who formerly was a professional flutist with the orchestra and now hires the musicians and handles other concert and reception arrangements, said the insurance, printing and technical costs have risen greatly and are the main reasons the association is having financial troubles.
Defends Hiring Practice
Clebanoff defended his hiring of more professionals--who are paid $55.50 for one dress rehearsal and $68.70 for a concert--saying, "I did what I feel was necessary to build an orchestra in a realistic way."
While he called the non-professional musicians "the very lifeblood of the orchestra," he said they benefit greatly from the student and professional members and learn a lot working with them.
It is a "fragile makeup of the orchestra that has to be nursed along," Clebanoff said, adding that it is a necessary three-tiered structure.
The music, he said, and not the finances, should be "the bottom line."
Clebanoff, an Encino resident who said he has been conducting for more than 45 years and playing the violin since he was 5 years old, said it is not unusual for a community orchestra to operate at a deficit.
"If I felt that the deficit was unreasonable and one you could not turn, I would be the first one to say (to the board), 'You're doing the right thing,' " he said. With new funding sources being developed, Clebanoff said, the Beach Cities Symphony's projected deficit of $6,000 for the season, was not large enough to merit canceling the concert.
"The deficit wasn't a real one, it was projected . . . a worst-case scenario," he said.
But despite the troubles, Clebanoff said he has missed working with the orchestra during the past month and does not harbor any resentment. "I hope the orchestra will take it from this plateau that we were on and go from there," he said.
"I still hope the orchestra will achieve the hopes I had for it," he said. "My hope was that the Beach Cities Symphony would be the finest community orchestra in Los Angeles."
Clebanoff will be missed, too, said Bob Peterson, a non-professional French horn player and one of about five members who have been with the orchestra since its inception.
"Every conductor is unique," he said. "He creates the orchestra. A friend of mine once said, 'It's not the horse, it's the jockey,' and I think that's true in the orchestra."
Peterson, 65, said that while the former conductor was demanding, he also "was putting together some of the best concerts I've ever been a part of."
Charles Blackman of Los Angeles will lead the orchestra for its final concert this season on June 12--the Young Artists of the Future. Next year, the symphony will have a guest conductor for each concert, one of whom will likely be selected as the permanent conductor.
Clebanoff served as a guest conductor before he was hired as the replacement for Louis Palange, who guided the Beach Cities Symphony from 1956 until his death in 1979.
"We won't have any difficulty finding another music director--that's the bright side," Bradburn said. "There are more conductors than orchestras."
Although having four conductors in one year may make it difficult for the orchestra to "buckle down," as one member put it, and the finances need a further boost, the general feeling is that orchestra members and associates are looking forward to the symphony's future with optimism and enthusiasm.
"I feel optimistic about the situation," Bradburn said, "and I think that we're going to continue to present a good concert program. We have a lot of pluses.
"We play in the best concert hall anywhere in the South Bay area at El Camino College, and we have a large constituency of friends and supporters, and we have a large nucleus of orchestra members, and we're receiving a lot of interest from a number of people interested in being our conductor. I think the prospects are excellent."
The association is continuing to solicit new members and income, plans to hire fewer professional musicians and wants to attract more community musicians, especially strings.
'Thrilled to Death'
"I'm thrilled to death" about the transition, said Diana Barliant, a non-professional violinist with the orchestra for 1 1/2 years. "I sense a tremendous change in the orchestra around me," she said, explaining that the musicians seem more comfortable and more willing to take chances under Blackman's leadership. They rehearse longer and are prouder of the outcome, she added.
She said Blackman is more of a teacher than Clebanoff and is more willing to help the non-professionals get through difficult pieces. Blackman seems also to have the mastery of music that Clebanoff has, she said, "and certainly in a much more pleasant vein."
Most of the musicians rehearse in solemn concentration, while Blackman uses his face and, of course, his baton, to try to communicate the feelings and sounds he is trying to extract from the orchestra.
But when that doesn't work, he stops the music by dropping his arms and tells--or sometimes sings to--the musicians exactly what he wants and how to get that sound. He's a man who likes to use analogies--comparing music-makers to everything from mocking birds to traffic cops to orators.
Finally, after more than 45 minutes, when he got the sounds he had been waiting for, he smiled and said: "You're beginning to sound like an orchestra."