San Diego Symphony Hopes to Capitalize on $2.5-Million Gift


You know that uneasy feeling of having something hanging over your head?

Like a late tax return. Or some repairs around the house. Or a debt.

The management at the San Diego Symphony knows that feeling. They had a $4.4-million debt hovering about--the amount still owed from the 1984 purchase and renovation of the 1929-era Fox Theater as the symphony's permanent home.

But on Jan. 25, the symphony called a press conference to make a stunning announcement. An anonymous donor had made a $2.5-million contribution, and the four banks that had loaned the symphony money for the purchase agreed to forgive the balance.

You know that feeling of removing something that's been hanging over your head?

In an era when good news is a rarity among American symphony orchestras, the San Diego Symphony finds itself in an enviable position. It holds the mortgage on a 2,260-seat hall. It has finished the past two seasons in the black. Next season, its musical director designate, Israeli conductor Yoav Talmi, assumes his post.

The symphony has recovered about as well as can be expected--and rather quickly--from a disastrous period that saw the cancellation of the 1986-87 season, caused by multimillion-dollar capital and operating deficits, and a prolonged contract dispute with the musicians.

"It's not dumb luck," said the symphony's executive director Wesley Brustad, who came to San Diego in the summer of '86 from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where he helped restore that organization's financial standing.

"I don't want to sound self-aggrandizing, but I think the method in which the orchestra operates is totally different from how the community saw it operating before. That speaks louder than anything we could say, plead, beg or do.

"I think there's finally some credibility coming to the way we conduct business here."

One sign of that renewed credibility is the $2.5-million gift and the subsequent willingness of four banks--Bank of America, Home-Fed, Great American and San Diego National--to forgive almost $2 million in loans. It was not an unplanned occurrence, but given the orchestra's troubled financial history, it was to some degree unexpected because some individual and corporate donors had cooled to the symphony.

"We felt we could not get into a public capital campaign for another year at least," said Brustad, describing what had been the long-range plan for eliminating the capital debt. "In the meantime, our strategy was very simple: go after a very select group of donors one-on-one."

That debt is history, thanks to the donor, whose name the symphony has zealously guarded.

Speculation as to the donor's identity has included the usual names--McDonald's heiress Joan Kroc and newspaper publisher Helen Copley. Also mentioned were Rachel and Dr. Judson Grosvenor, who have been leading symphony patrons in recent years. Even board president (now chairman) Herbert Solomon has been mentioned as the source of the gift, which, according to symphony officials, materialized in late 1989. Whoever it was, it was someone with enough clout to stipulate that the gift be contingent upon the banks forgiving the balance. The consortium of banks, led by Bank of America, agreed to the terms.

The news was met by the musicians with the kind of good will that is rare between union members and their bosses. Even members of the musicians committee that last fall negotiated a new, two-year contract, refused to speculate whether management knew about the gift earlier and used the deficit as a bargaining ploy.

One musician, violist Becky Campbell, chose to focus on the future and said she hoped management could "increase the number of weeks in the season, and our salaries, so that we can be comparable to orchestras in other cities that have 2 million people."

"I think salaries is more the issue than number of weeks," Brustad said. "The number of weeks gets almost to the point of being ludicrous after a while. Next year we'll have 36 weeks . . . (which) in any community is a lot of concerts.

"The size of the orchestra is also an issue. At 81 players, we're eight down from our high. But I think the issue is going to be real simple: What's first? Putting more positions back in the orchestra or increasing salary levels?"

There are other financial issues. The orchestra needs to raise money for a capital fund ($500,000 in immediate needs, plus $100,000-$150,000 annually), a cash reserve (about $500,000), and an endowment (about $20 million)--all Brustad estimates.

Brustad also said one of the symphony's goals for the next five years is "to be perceived as being in the top 15 orchestras in the country. There are some people we can start to give a run for their money: Atlanta, Detroit, Minnesota and Cincinnati. Those are the bottom-rung guys in the top 15 that we'd like to move in on."

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