Long Beach's JoAnn Falletta Offers an Alternative

In daily Calendar this week, interviews with three other new music directors: Glendale Symphony's Lalo Schifrin, San Diego Symphony's Yoav Talmi and Stewart Robertson at the Inland Empire .

"The world of the symphony orchestra has changed," says JoAnn Falletta, incoming music director of the Long Beach Symphony. "Everything is different now, and there is no safe or certain way into the future. We have to figure it out as we go."

The advantage for the half-century-old Long Beach orchestra, the conductor claims, is that its major crises are behind it.

"Remember, this was one of the first orchestras, nationally, to air its financial problems publicly (in the crisis of 1984-85, when the orchestra did not perform for a year).

"As a result of that, the organization seems to have built quite a solid base of support here. After the entire community decided to get behind the orchestra, our future began to take shape.

"Our greatest strength, I believe," says the 35-year-old musician, "is the fact that the people of this city, in one particular moment, chose not to let this orchestra die."

A second crisis period for the orchestra began two years ago, when the then-board of directors decided not to renew the contract of the previous music director. After much organizational soul-searching and a formal period of auditioning conductors, Falletta--already heading three successful orchestras--was chosen in April. Her first concert as music director takes place Saturday night in Terrace Theatre at the Long Beach Convention Center.

Now, the conductor acknowledges, "We--the orchestra and its leaders--must decide exactly what our mission is. And what our reasons for being are."

Falletta--who continues to hold reins of leadership at the Queens Philharmonic (her 11th season) in New York City, the Denver Chamber Orchestra (her seventh season) and the Bay Area Women's Philharmonic--says that, for the Long Beach ensemble, its location is both a challenge and an advantage.

"Because Long Beach is the second city in this huge metropolitan area, we have to accept our place as the second orchestra (to the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

"That has to be stimulating, since we are not, with our six-concert series, really competing with the L.A. Philharmonic and its year-round playing schedule. We can offer an alternative, not only in programming, but in focus. And we benefit tremendously from the large pool of first-class players available to us.

"At the same time, we must serve the audience, or that part of our audience in Long Beach that depends on us for its only symphonic experience. As well as those who attend the L.A. Philharmonic, and may also buy tickets to the L.A. Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles in the area and see us as an alternative.

"To serve both these audiences, we have to play the standard repertory in a mix also including contemporary and avant-garde music. In the past, that mix has given us a certain niche. We now have to rethink and maybe expand that niche."

Still, she adds, there is no safe path, "no fortress of safety in running an orchestra. Right now, we're pleased that our subscriptions are projected to sell out 94% of our auditorium (which seats 3,056 people) by the time we open the season." This has to be a landmark for the $1.5 million-budget orchestra, which just five years ago had an accumulated deficit of $780,000. Today, according to Symphony Manager Mary Newkirk, "We operate completely in the black and have paid all our debts--except for a long-term loan from Bank of America, the one we took several years ago for $100,000, and have now paid down to $88,000." In addition, Newkirk says, the association keeps in cash reserve an amount equal to 10% of its current operating budget.

But, of course, that kind of success creates new problems.

"It's marvelous to sell that many tickets," says Falletta. "But the next step up, which may be to double our number of concerts, to give the same program twice in the same hall, is still a long way off. Our temporary problem is, what do we do in the meantime?"

She admits that she and her board of directors are still looking for other potential concert sites in the area, in much the same way her predecessor did.

"The important thing is not to flounder," Falletta says.

"I see it this way: The more constraints you have, the more creative you have to be."

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