Maelstrom Over a Maestro : Long Beach Symphony Hasn't Been the Same Since Sidlin's Swan Song

Times Staff Writer

Things have not been the same around the Long Beach Symphony since its directors announced that Murry Sidlin's contract would not be renewed.

A board member resigned in protest. Orchestra musicians have angrily withdrawn from participation in a decision-making process they consider bogus. Outraged residents flooded area newspapers with a stream of critical letters.

And recently some of Sidlin's supporters formed a committee aimed at keeping the popular music director. "The (board's) action didn't represent the voice of the public," said Norman H. Gottlieb, a local attorney who was the host of the first meeting--attended by 16 people--of a group called Save Our Symphony and Sidlin.

Tactics being planned by the group include circulating a petition, staging a demonstration at the orchestra's next performance on Jan. 16 and writing letters to symphony guild members and corporate donors asking for support.

"I've been in Long Beach since 1946 and I thought (Sidlin) was the first conductor we had that was really outstanding," Gottlieb said.

Members of the symphony's executive committee, which made the original recommendation not to retain the 47-year-old conductor, have consistently refused to discuss in detail the reasons for the decision. In an interview last week, however, George M. Murchison, one of three members of that committee and president of the symphony's 37-member board of directors which ratified the recommendation on Oct. 1, hinted broadly at two reasons for letting Sidlin go.

'Like a Football Team'

First, he said, symphony managers believe the orchestra can do better artistically than it has under Sidlin, who has been director since 1979. And secondly, he said, the symphony needs a director who--unlike Sidlin, who is also director of the New Haven Symphony and lives in that Connecticut city--is willing to commit at least 50% of his time to Long Beach.

"I look at it like a football team," said Murchison, president of a local accounting firm. "I see the music director as the quarterback and we want to improve the team's record. I want to see a better passer in there."

Reached at his home in New Haven, Sidlin would not comment directly on the issues pertaining to his employment by the Long Beach Symphony. "Obviously I am very gratified that there is positive sentiment in the community for what contributions I have made," he said. "I do not, however, like to become a sociological controversy."

Although Sidlin would not say whether he would be willing to continue as director if the symphony board could be prevailed upon to change its mind, Gottlieb said the maestro told a member of his committee that, indeed, he would be.

Although Sidlin has generally been given high marks musically, this is not the first time the issue of his residency and availability has been raised. Two years ago, a Blue Ribbon Task Force convened by the city after the symphony went dark because of a $758,000 deficit, recommended replacing Sidlin with a director more committed to Long Beach and more available for public relations and fund raising.

That recommendation was never formally endorsed by the orchestra's board. And over the next two years, the symphony made a dramatic turnaround largely by reorganizing its management, persuading creditors such as the Bank of America to renegotiate outstanding debts and the City of Long Beach to forgive $100,000 of a $175,000 loan.

This year, according to Murchison, the symphony is expected to operate on a $1.4-million budget with an ending balance of about $65,000. At least some of the credit, he admits, goes to Sidlin.

Which is why patrons were astonished by the announcement two months ago that the director's contract would not be renewed after it expires in June.

"Murry deserved better," said Judith Luther Wilder, a local patron of the arts and longtime symphony supporter. "This came at a time when people were beginning to sit up and take notice and the reviews were good. I think the symphony will be hurt by this; the timing was terrible."

One board member, Betty Hamer, resigned to protest Sidlin's pending departure. "I think he's brought the greatest music to Los Angeles since (former Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor) Zubin Mehta," she said. "We were fortunate to have him and it was a tragedy to lose him."

Board Liaison Abolished

And a majority of the orchestra's 85 musicians responded to the news by voting to temporarily abolish the position of board liaison, a seat on the board traditionally reserved for a representative of the symphony's musical personnel.

"There was a feeling that the position did nothing," said John Hollenbeck, the orchestra's principal trombonist and most recent occupant of the seat. "The frustration of the musicians was that we were totally left out in the dark on this thing."

Long Beach Symphony musicians, who perform on a part-time basis, earn as much as $6,000 a year--about the same as players in other orchestras of similar size and stature. But Hollenbeck said he fears the loss of Sidlin could result in defections and recruitment problems.

"The orchestra connected with him and he connected with the orchestra," the 12-year symphony veteran said of his director. "We were a family. Live music in Los Angeles is undergoing a renaissance, so the demand for this kind of quality musician is growing. The thing that held Long Beach together was the spirit, the feeling of being a group. I've heard several musicians say that this job isn't as special now as it was."

Defeatist Talk Discounted

Murchison discounts such talk as defeatist. "I feel good about our direction. We have a strong music plan and a strong business plan. I'd like to see those people's efforts redirected in terms of assisting in the orderly process of supporting the symphony," Murchison said, referring to Gottlieb's newly formed committee.

Toward that end, orchestra officials say, they have formed a search committee which is already considering possible replacements. After the expiration of Sidlin's contract in June, they say, the orchestra will perform under guest conductors for a year before naming a permanent musical director by April, 1989.

For the right person, according to Murchison, the symphony is willing to pay as much as $80,000 a year. Sidlin reportedly makes about $65,000.

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