Taking the Baton (Away From Clark) : Alone at the Top of Pacific Symphony, Louis Spisto Faces Budgetary Challenges and Critics

For nearly 2 years, Music Director Keith Clark and Executive Director Louis G. Spisto battled for control of Orange County’s Pacific Symphony orchestra.

Last week, the battle ended. Clark took his final bow Thursday night from the podium, leaving Spisto victorious in a bout which had been characterized by some as a struggle between art and commerce.

At 32, Spisto has staked his reputation as boy wonder of arts management on the emergence of the Pacific Symphony as a major regional orchestra. He believes the organization’s fiscal health, as much as its artistic reputation, will be the measure of his success.

He has been described by one critic as a “dictator,” but his approach apparently works for him: The tall, slender Spisto already has succeeded in the bitter fight for primacy over the organization, which employs more than 90 musicians and operates on an annual budget of nearly $4.7 million.


His steady rise has coincided almost precisely with Clark’s decline and fall. In October of 1987--five months after Spisto’s appointment--the symphony’s board voted to offer Clark a 1-year contract, a strong suggestion that he was on his way out. In February, 1988, in a close and controversial vote, the board decided not to extend the contract beyond May 31, 1989, and Clark announced his resignation.

In July, 1988, the board voted to change its by-laws, in effect removing Clark as a member. Three months later, the symphony signed a 3-year contract with the American Federation of Musicians that took significant personnel and decision-making prerogatives from Clark--and his successors.

Although Spisto and Clark declined last week to discuss the circumstances of Clark’s departure, Spisto’s critics say the two career trajectories are no accident.

Spisto says he did not come here to get rid of Clark--who supported his selection--nor did he ever directly ask the orchestra’s board to choose between himself and the conductor. But Bob Peterson, the orchestra’s personnel director and a Clark ally, who resigned in September of 1988, said “The minute this guy (Spisto) came into his office, his mission began.”


Spisto did say that his and Clark’s working relationship deteriorated after his arrival, and that if Clark had been retained, he would have left.

But two former board members, who requested anonymity, insisted last week that within two months of his appointment, Spisto was telling board members that he could not work with Clark, who already had gone through four other chief executives whose tenures ranged from six weeks to just over one year.

Those directors “felt enough was enough,” said one of them, Geoffrey R. Brooks, citing the difficulties of working for the sometimes-imperious Clark. “Somebody had to make a stand,” Brooks said. “Lou was the one.”

Some of Spisto’s assumptions of power have been subtle and barely noticeable. For example, the current musicians’ union contract ostensibly shifts artistic control from the music director to the orchestra members, while at the same time greatly liberalizing rehearsal and performance requirements. But one provision also gives the executive director veto power over orchestra members’ appointments.

Questions have been raised about Spisto’s leadership. They focus on the financial status and future of the symphony and the impact of the new contract on performances, as well as the role of Clark’s as-yet-unnamed replacement, who is scheduled to begin conducting during the 1990-91 season (see accompanying story).

The grandson of Italian immigrants, Spisto grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island attending parochial schools, playing the trumpet in the high school marching band and studying voice. At the age of 11, he recalls, he attended a Broadway production of “George M” and “fell in love with the theater.”

A business major at the University of Notre Dame, he found time to direct and act in various musical and dramatic productions, including summer stock. “It was at that time that I began being interested in the production of arts events and seeking the funding and marketing,” he said last week during an interview at the Pacific Symphony office in Santa Ana.

Spisto acknowledges that his background in classical music is not a strong one.


“I don’t consider myself a musician,” he said, adding that he would still like to learn piano. “I had a good singing voice.” At one point during his college years, he sang the bass-baritone title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera “The Mikado.”

After graduation, rather than taking a job in marketing--his specialty at Notre Dame--Spisto applied to the master’s program in arts management at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “I liked working with artistic people,” he recalls. “I like working with musicians and performers.”

At Madison, he impressed E. Arthur Prieve, director of the arts administration program. “From the time he applied, the selection committee was very impressed with this guy,” Prieve said.

He also impressed Willoughby Newton, for whom he interned at WNET Channel 13 in New York, one of the best-known public television stations in the country. Newton, now vice president for external affairs of General Theological Seminary in New York, remembers Spisto as “a vibrant and aggressive and charming young man. He learned very quickly, and was a tremendous help.”

Spisto’s first major job after earning his master of arts degree was director of operations and development for Cal Performances, overseeing major performance series at UC Berkeley on a $4.5-million budget, from 1981 to 1984. There, he began what was to become a career pattern of early, dramatic success and rapid acquisition of additional responsibility.

“He came at a time when we were having some serious accounting and cash management problems,” said his boss at Cal Performances, Susan Farr, now executive director of the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters in Washington. “He cleared them up in the first year he was there.

“He expanded his work to overhaul management of the box office. . . . We had a sizeable deficit when he came: $700,000. We retired the deficit 3 years later and the program has run in black ever since. . . . Lou grew tremendously the first year he was there. He was very quick to pick things up. He understood financial management very clearly. . . . He left a much more serious and mature manager than he had arrived.”

Deborah Borda, general manager of the San Francisco Symphony at the time, observed him as “a very highly organized, very energetic young man.” Borda, now executive director of the Detroit Symphony, said, “I knew he was going to have a career in the arts if he wished to” and tried to “entice” him into working for her, without success.


Spisto’s next rung up the ladder was Pittsburgh, where the symphony--between music directors and in financial doldrums--was looking for a marketing director. Prieve, from Madison, was happy to recommend him. “People thought he was a little young,” Prieve recalls, but “when he interviewed he said he was up to the challenge, and he was.”

By most accounts, including one in the New York Times and another on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” Spisto’s 3 years in Pittsburgh were a resounding success. Supervising a full-time staff of 22, he started new series packages for singles, aiming to build a new audience of younger symphony-goers, and he piped the symphony’s music into the subways. He increased the subscription base for the core symphonic series and created a corporate sales division.

“He was the best in his job that we ever had here by far,” said Robert Croan, music critic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He managed to sell out concerts without a (permanent) conductor. That had very much to do with his creativity and good taste. We haven’t been able to do that with Loren Maazel as director.”

Spisto’s decision to apply for the opening in Orange County in 1987 did not surprise his co-workers in Pittsburgh. Marshall Turkin, now retired executive director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, recalls Spisto as “a first-class guy, very talented.” Although Turkin was sorry to see him leave, he understood that Spisto “wanted a grander career than being a staff person.”

Moving on was “just a matter of growth for him,” said Sylvia Turner, head of public relations for the symphony. “I expected that his horizon would broaden.”

Spisto’s first 2 years at the Pacific Symphony, though arguably because of factors beyond his control, have been rocky.

When he arrived, the organization had a surplus of more than $100,000. Within a year, the surplus was gone and the symphony was in debt by another $250,000. According to Spisto, the deficit for this year will be $350,000, although former employees and board members and several orchestra members believe the actual deficit may be far greater than the announced figure. This past season, financial pressures forced the symphony to cancel its 10th anniversary concert.

The reasons for the symphony’s financial state are in dispute. Spisto and symphony President Stewart C. Woodard say the first year’s deficit should not be blamed on Spisto, because he did not prepare the budget on which it was based.

In a May 3 memo to the California Arts Council, Spisto said the deficits of the past 2 years were “technically” the result of “mistakes in budgeting (by a former administration) . . . an increase in marketing costs . . . a shortfall in contributed income . . . the downturn in subscription renewals . . . additional marketing programs” and “a lack of major gifts.”

“During fiscal year 1987-88, the board devoted most of its energy to dealing with the artistic transition and was severely weakened in its attempt to raise funds as a result,” Spisto wrote.

But former employees and board members claim that Spisto spent excessively on staff, program and advertising expansion when he arrived in Orange County. One member of the executive committee, who asked for anonymity, was so concerned about the spending that he sought, unsuccessfully, to get Spisto to draft his own budget for the second 6 months of his tenure, one for which he would have to be accountable.

Within the symphony’s staff, there was also turmoil and intrigue of near operatic proportions, much of it surrounding the battle between Spisto and Clark. Spisto’s supporters openly charged that the orchestra had outgrown Clark’s artistic capabilities; Clark’s supporters maintained that Spisto and some of his supporters on the board were so musically unsophisticated that they could not even pronounce the names of major European composers.

At the height of the controversy, Spisto said during an interview--a remark he says he now regrets--"the point is that Keith Clark was a bad conductor, and that’s why he’s not going to conduct this orchestra anymore and we are going to find a conductor who will. That is all that matters. None of the rest of it. None of it . . . Keith Clark is a dead fish in the water.”

Departures from the staff began within the first month of Spisto’s arrival; so far, 12 of the orchestra’s 14 full-time employees either have quit or been fired--secretaries, box office and development personnel and the symphony’s bookkeeper, Millicent Alexander. Few would speak on the record about Spisto, and those who would were terse.

“I’m not a fan of Lou Spisto,” said Alexander. “I have nothing positive to say about him,” she said, declining to elaborate.

“When he came, things fell apart,” said Dorothy Smith, a former executive secretary. “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing.”

Off the record, some describe Spisto as emotional and explosive, verbally abusive and prone to tantrums.

But others, like Larry Duckles, the symphony’s artistic administrator who is also assistant principal flute in the orchestra, say Spisto is bright and that they have enjoyed working with him.

“You’re never going to find the perfect boss,” Duckles said. “There’s always going to be flaws. I respect his acuity, his intelligence and his sense of the market. I don’t find it that difficult to work with him. Some say he’s high-strung.”

“Lou is the most intelligent person I’ve worked for,” said W. Andrew Powell, director of marketing and public relations for the symphony, who has worked for several advertising companies, including Chiat/Day in Los Angeles. “He has become noticeably stronger as executive director in the two years I’ve been here, and more inclined to delegate.”

Spisto acknowledged that he has “rubbed a few people the wrong way. You don’t take these jobs to be liked by everybody. You always strive to get people who will stay, and in arts organizations that’s very often difficult to do because of salary. And, because there is so little growth, people have to move on to move up.” The average tenure for people in arts organizations, Spisto said, is about 18 months.

However, there has also been turnover in board membership. At least two former members, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they left when the board gave Spisto a new, 2-year contract at $67,000 per year. A former member of the executive committee said that Spisto is “singly responsible for the slow demise of the musical ability of the orchestra. The man is a dictator.”

But Spisto retains the support of the board and its president, Woodard. “Considering all the challenges before him and the pressures of adjusting to a new community, he’s doing a remarkably good job,” Woodard said. “He came in with a budget established by people other than himself, a budget that was not realistic. . . . He’s knowledgeable. He has tremendous dedication and tremendous energy. He’s a quick learner. He works well with other cultural organizations and he has proven to be extremely effective dealing with leaders of the community.”

Most observers agree that the day of the music director--the maestro who puts his stamp on a musical institution for decades, men like Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia or George Szell in Cleveland who lived in the area year-round with no other major commitments, and had nearly unquestioned power to hire and fire--is over.

“U.S. orchestras in the ‘80s and ‘90s are not going to be like the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s. “It’s an evolving institution,” said Detroit Symphony director Borda.

Top symphony conductors are more likely to take as many as three conducting assignments, some of which are thousands of miles apart, living out of a suitcase or a hotel suite. When a music director has multiple posts, he or she “just doesn’t have the time to give to an institution,” Prieve said from Spisto’s alma mater. “Somebody, something is going to get shortchanged.”

The Pacific Symphony “more than likely” will be sharing its next music director with “at least one other orchestra,” according to Preston Stedman of Cal State Fullerton, who is chairman of the search committee. In such cases the resident executive director assumes day-to-day authority. In that sense, the rise of Louis Spisto at the Pacific Symphony is reflective of a national trend.

Another key factor is contracts like that signed last fall by the Pacific Symphony, which provided tenure for most members and gave them an equal say with the music director in filling new vacancies. Such provisions are becoming standard across the country.

“My sense is that the work is being shared differently than it was, say, 20 years ago,” Spisto said. “In fact, many music directors of major orchestras are spending less and less time with the community and therefore the executive director is the year-round presence. . . . Twenty years ago it was much more realistic for a music director to have complete control over everything that happened.”

Keith Clark, for one, is not pleased with this turn of events, which he says is “becoming more widespread and very much of concern to music directors. . . . Musical vision should embody any orchestra.”

The most recent and, some say, extreme example of this shift is the recent resignation of Andre Previn as artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a power struggle with Ernest Fleischman, the executive director.

Spisto is quick to emphasize that his musical background is not at the same level as Fleischman’s.

“Lou Spisto does not have background to decide what the musical life of this orchestra should be,” Spisto said, “but I do have the marketing ability to understand what the needs of Orange County are and I do have musical knowledge to . . . help the board make some decisions about matching the kind of music director to this kind of community. . . . I think the board should set the financial parameters, and the music director should actually go and develop the kind of programming he wants. . . .

“If the Pacific Symphony can get through the next few years and prosper, as I hope we will and as I think we will, we can stabilize it and hopefully grow it (and) I will be very, very proud.”