'It will be hard to think of myself and my life without the Pacific Symphony, but I have some wonderful opportunities to make music ahead of me.'
He has been called "a dead fish," but Pacific Symphony conductor Keith Clark says he will keep his career in the swim despite the symphony board's vote last February to force him to resign from the orchestra that he started 10 years ago.
"It will be hard to think of myself and my life without the Pacific Symphony, but I have some wonderful opportunities to make music ahead of me," said Clark, speaking publicly for the first time since he resigned. He said he is exploring prospects in Vienna and did not deny rumors that he may start a new orchestra in Orange County.
He described his rise and fall as he sees it, offering a counterpoint to the theme offered by symphony officials--that he was a domineering type who offended supporters, disappointed critics and stifled the orchestra's growth.
Clark says his efforts have been underestimated. Also, he said the arc of his local career reflects issues inherent in the county's sudden cultural ambitiousness, including whether it can stress the importing of "world-class" talent at the same time it nurtures the local commitment of resident groups.
So far the tumult surrounding Clark has left little room for cool-headed talk about the ensemble's future. Clark provokes a clash of emotional extremes: one board member flew to New Jersey just to hear Clark conduct the Verdi Requiem, while Louis Spisto, the ensemble's executive director, made the razor-edged dig that Clark is "a bad conductor . . . a dead fish in the water."
The vote to drop Clark's contract could not have been closer. The 12-11 tally--to end his contract at the end of 1988 instead of letting it run through 1989--aroused as much furor as his orchestral tenure. Since the vote, symphony-goers have written to newspapers, board members have argued and musicians remain divided, with 35 signing a petition assailing as "inappropriate and humiliating" the campaign to oust the 44-year-old conductor.
A Times survey of Pacific Symphony season ticket subscribers indicates that most of the orchestra's supporters believe that Clark's dismissal has been handled poorly by the board. (See accompanying story.)
Clark, who has the softening good looks of a former choir boy, is struggling to retain his composure amid the uproar. He apparently hasn't lost his sense of humor. He wore a fish-shaped tie to a post-concert gathering with fellow musicians recently. He punned to a reporter that he won't "carp about Spisto's ('dead fish') remark."
Still, it quickly becomes clear that hurt, not humor, dominates his response. "I have never seen such outward efforts not only to get rid of a person but to sully the person's name," he said, his usually resonant voice lowering. He takes issue with monolithic characterizations of his musical ability that he said will hurt his career by omitting any reference to strong or mixed reviews.
In fact, though, his positive reviews--most from Times music writer Daniel Cariaga--are overshadowed by other reviewers' disappointment and, at times, even dismay with his performances.
Clark seems stunned by the "acrimony" he says is reflected in the vehement tone of Spisto's remark and what he insists is the dogged determination of some board members to get rid of him. But he also acknowledges that it might have seeds in his friction with co-workers as he acted out his "obsession" to establish an orchestra in Orange County.
"I became a zealot or something," he said in an interview at his Spanish-style Fullerton home, where a grand piano holds a prominent place beneath a photograph showing the gnarled face of Viennese composer Anton Bruckner. "I thought that here was the one opportunity in my life to do something meaningful."
His furious focus on seeing the symphony succeed, he admits, had its dark side: "I've learned a lot about myself through all that has happened. I know I've hurt some people. . . . "
Depending on who is doing the talking, Clark is portrayed either as a true cultural pioneer in the suburban wilderness or a petty tyrant.
Former orchestra manager Geoffrey R. Brooks--one of four executive directors the orchestra had before Spisto--told how Clark pushed him to get the cellist Leonard Rose to perform for a bargain fee (he wouldn't). And another ex-manager, Topper Smith, told how Clark blamed him for failing to get superstar tenor Placido Domingo to a post-concert benefit reception despite great odds.
Ruefully, the conductor recounted how he "probably humiliated" the chairman of the symphony board--Michael Gilano--by lambasting him in open session over a personnel dispute. He also admits to being disorganized about administrative details.
Yet Smith, Brooks and many others who worked with Clark also speak of him in quasi-heroic terms.
"He's probably the most manipulative person I've ever met, but he's also one of the most talented," said Smith. "There is this great, cultural inferiority (complex) in Orange County . . . . They didn't have the sophistication to understand the kind of (grass-roots) support he needed and there was a lot of jockeying for power among the other (arts) organizations."
Said Brooks: "He was there (in the office) when I arrived in the morning and there when I left at night. He never stopped working." To this day, Clark points out, many symphony board members complain about his inability to transform the organization into a "world-class" orchestra, while fewer than half of them have personally donated more than $1,000. Clark said he gave money from his own pocket to help pay for, among other things, the orchestra's several recordings, one of which received a Grammy nomination this year for the performance by featured soprano Marni Nixon. He said he has not kept precise track of how much he has personally put in, though he estimates it is "more than $8,000."
"Now there's this elegant new (Orange County Performing Arts) Center and a lot of society interest in the orchestra; now, they want to trade me in," Clark said, his voice rising. "For what? Do they really want an organization with a commitment to Orange County? Do they want children's concerts and outreach? Or will they get some glamorous name who will fly in and out?
"I don't think they know what they want, and that's a bigger problem than whether I should stay or go," he continued. "People will say I'm difficult to work with. Yes, I admit it, I can be difficult to work with! . . . I'm not saying that the end always justifies the means, but this orchestra has meant a lot to me."
Its future worries him. He says he is troubled by what he believes are signs the Pacific Symphony may become a so-called full-contract orchestra. Now, Clark said, it is "a delicate balance" of local professionals and Hollywood free-lancers who work their jobs by day and are paid piecemeal to play with the symphony by night.
Were the orchestra to emulate major American symphonic organizations, musicians would be salaried. Contracts would include medical benefits, pensions, even tenure provisions.
Some board members have said management favors this kind of orchestra. "There has definitely been talk about moving in that direction," said outgoing board member Richard B. Larner. But symphony officials have said they have no firm plans.
Said Clark: "I think that should be the goal, but it would be a very dangerous direction for the orchestra to go in at this time . . . . It would be too expensive. We are facing very high costs at this point, and we are a very young and fragile organization." He noted that the orchestra is increasing its budget from $3.5 million in 1987-88 to $4.6 million in 1988-1989 at the same time it faces a deficit projected at anywhere from $200,000 to $350,000. "We must do whatever we can do for the musicians--but not at the risk of taking any chances with the orchestra's survival," he said.
As hard as Clark worked to focus on the future of the orchestra, he often circled back to his anger at how his removal was managed: "I'm not concerned about losing a job but about the mean-spirited way in which this was done."
On Feb. 22, the board voted to give Clark two options--he could either resign effective at the end of the 1988-1989 season or resign immediately. He says board members then approached him in his office and gave him five minutes to make up his mind. "I had five minutes," Clark said, shaking his head.
Clark said he told the board members that he "wasn't comfortable" with the vote. He had heard that the board chairman had phoned a potential Clark supporter and told him to stay home. The chairman had made such a call, although he has since said it was not intended to affect the outcome of the vote. The board agreed to give him time, but the story that his departure was imminent appeared in print the next morning as he prepared to leave for a Czechoslovakian recording date. It infuriated Clark that board members had spoken off-the-record to an Orange County Register reporter.
Clark's responses to questions from The Times included his statement that the orchestra faced a financial short-fall--which turned out to be accurate. Board members, angered by his openness, phoned him in Europe, and he agreed to resign. The conductor admits that he could have spared himself the rough exit. Three years ago, Brooks advised him to announce at the time the Center opened in September, 1986, that he would step down at the end of that season. Said Brooks: "He should have announced to the world: 'I've done this, I've brought this orchestra up from nothing and we're here in this wonderful hall, and I'm moving on.' But he didn't. He couldn't give it up. He was forced out."
Brooks, a friend of Clark who has spoken with Spisto about the situation, acknowledged that there may have been a touch of ruthlessness to Clark's removal but added: "There was desperation on the part of the staff. They felt enough was enough. Somebody had to make a stand. Lou was the one."
These days, Clark is clearly fighting for his career. He said that fallout from the events of this season could have a "moderately disastrous" impact on his career. Meanwhile, it is clear that many people regard Clark as a man with a future.
"He studied with me for five years at UCLA, and he was my assistant at the Master Chorale, and he is a first-class musician, a star pupil," said Roger Wagner, the well-regarded choral conductor. "He'll do fine when he puts this behind him."
In New Jersey, Michael Redmond, music critic of the Newark Star Ledger, said Clark's problems in California were strange news to him. The critic said he has reviewed 10 of Clark's concerts with the Cathedral Symphony Orchestra, of which Clark is music director. Like the Pacific Symphony, it is drawn from free-lance artists. "I've seen a lot of conductors in my time fake their way through concerts, and I've never seen Keith do that," Redmond said. "It hasn't all been perfect, but there have been some beautiful concerts."
In his final year with the Pacific Symphony, Clark said, he will have the power to hire and fire musicians, select soloists and shape the programs. "I will continue as music director in every sense of that word," he declared.
At the interview's end, he tried coming up with a last fish joke, but his voice turned sober. "I don't want to make light of something that is closest to my heart," he said. "We're dealing with music and my association with a group of great musicians. If the conclusion of 10 years' work is being described as a dead fish, that is sad. For me, it's been a very exciting decade."