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. It 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.

Just like that. Debt-free from one day to the next.

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's finished the past two seasons in the black. Next season, it's musical director designate, respected Israeli conductor Yoav Talmi, assumes his post.

It's 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.

In short, it's gone from the cellar to the penthouse.

"It's not dumb luck," said the symphony's executive director, Wesley Brustad, who came to San Diego in the summer of 1986 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.

"When we restarted, the board president (now chairman), Herbert Solomon, and myself realized we could no longer go to this community and promise that great things were going to happen in the future. When I first came here, I had to structure a business plan for recovery. It had about as much credibility as the biggest crook in the world. What's funny is that we're doing it now. We're following that plan.

"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 Federal, Great American and San Diego National--to forgive almost $2 million in loans. Given the orchestra's troubled financial history, the gift 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. And it would have remained the strategy for the next year to year and a half. We were hoping for the 1991-92 season as a time to do a public campaign. By then we would hopefully have had five years in the black, one year under Talmi, and we thought our credibility would have improved."

That debt is history and the plan is no longer necessary, thanks to the donor, whose name the symphony has zealously guarded. At the press conference announcing the donation, Solomon, who is credited with securing the gift, inadvertently referred to the donor as a "he," then said it wasn't necessarily a male. He wouldn't even confirm that the donor was a U.S. citizen. 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 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 was contingent upon the banks' forgiveness of the balance. The consortium of banks, led by Bank of America, agreed to the terms.

The news was met by symphony 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 on 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 hopes management can "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. And they're all from our string section, which has 52 players. (Strings are) what you need. Everybody heard that when we had the Soloists of Leningrad play with us this fall. 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? We can't do both. I'd like to see the strengths put back in, but it's going to go very slow."

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

He 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. Between them and us exists Dallas and Houston, Baltimore, Indianapolis and Milwaukee. We've got to go through them to get there, but in five years that might be possible."

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