In the course of four years, Pacific Symphony has gone from losing money in outdoor summer concerts to anticipating a modest profit this season.
Formed in 1979, the Pacific began venturing a summer series only in 1987. The initial effort suffered from poor ticket sales. A three-concert series at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre in Irvine had to be cut back to a single "Tchaikovsky Spectacular" and a Tony Bennett show.
Nonetheless, orchestra and Meadows officials said that they were encouraged enough to try again and even to expand to five concerts the following year.
The second time at bat, the series drew about 34,000 people. (Capacity at the Meadows is 15,000, including 5,000 on lawn seating.) But the orchestra lost about $80,000.
Still, officials decided to keep plugging.
Last year, at another five-concert series at the Meadows, attendance rose to about 37,000, and the orchestra broke even.
This year is the turning point. Already enough subscriptions have been sold--4,682 as of June 22--to cover costs, which officials estimate at $550,000. (Last summer, the orchestra sold fewer than 2,700 subscriptions.)
With $570,000 of subscription income already in the bank, a profit is certain. Still, representing only 11% of the 1990-91 projected $5-million budget, the summer series at Irvine Meadows won't be the cash cow for the Pacific that Hollywood Bowl is for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. At least, not for a while.
Credit the Pacific's steady growth to its focus on the tried-and-true, "very popular classical music," says Louis G. Spisto, the orchestra's executive director.
The concerts, which start Wednesday, have been organized around such "themes," as the opening "All American Celebration"; all-Mozart and all-Beethoven programs July 21 and Aug. 18, respectively; an "Espana" program Sept. 1 and the closing "Tchaikovsky Spectacular" Sept. 15. Conductors are Evans Haile July 4; Toshiyuki Shimada July 21; Kate Tamarkin Aug. 18; Lucas Richman, the Pacific's assistant conductor, Sept. 1, and Bruce Ferden Sept. 15. The opening and closing will have fireworks.
"Certainly the themes have helped sales," Spisto says. "People like to feel, when coming to a summer venue, that they are there to hear and experience music they already believe they will enjoy. They're not coming for new experiences.
"That's true for us and for Hollywood Bowl as well," he adds. "They want music that is pleasant, pleasurable and to a large extent entertaining. We make no excuse for the programs."
While the Pacific is a long way from making Irvine Meadows the Hollywood Bowl of Orange County, Spisto does envision further growth, but on cautious lines.
"It is very likely that we will be expanding in future seasons. But not next year," he says. "We want to have two to three seasons of a real solid base before we expand. One thing that is clear about other orchestras which have gotten into trouble: When you expand too fast, you wind up paying for it later. We're very happy with doing five concerts."
What: Pacific Symphony summer series
When: 8:30 p.m. on July 4 and 21, Aug. 18, Sept. 1 and 15. Fireworks on July 4 and Sept. 15 programs. Picnic grounds will open at 6 p.m. each day.
Where: Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Laguna Hills.
Wherewithal: Series tickets: $65-$185; single concert tickets: $10.50-$37.50 ($8.50 for lawn seating).
Where to call: (714) 474-4233.