Is County Willing, Able to Help Orchestras? : Music: Optimistic observers say more groups will foster support for programs. But others fear the competition could spell disaster for struggling organizations.


"I would say most orchestras were formed when an insatiable conductor feels the need," says Ami Porat, conductor of the Mozart Camerata. "When that need is matched with the need in the community, then there's a chance (to succeed) . . . The New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony were formed . . . the same way."

Several times in Orange County, a conductor or musician has shown "the need" to launch and lead an orchestra. While these small orchestras, such as Porat's, so far have not become New York Philharmonic, those most familiar with the county's classical music scene insist that the groups play an important role because they help develop musicians and build an audience for classical music.

Some even say that given time, such groups as South Coast Symphony, the Mozart Camerata, Orange County Chamber Orchestra and Orange County Four Seasons Orchestra could turn into cultural pearls for Orange County.

A key question, however, is whether Orange County is willing or able to support all these orchestras beyond their growing pains and into potentially promising adulthood.

The most optimistic observers say the more, the merrier. Competition is healthy--if you want one restaurant to do well, open another next door. The diversity will help audiences develop a taste for classical music, according to this school of thought. More groups will mean more support for music, which will allow stronger, higher quality groups to evolve.

But that "free marketplace for the arts" theory is hogwash, according to conductor Micah Levy, who says his Orange County Chamber Orchestra is already in heavy competition "for the nonprofit dollar, the entertainment dollar and against all leisure-time activities."

"Anyone who tells you that (competition isn't a problem) isn't telling you what they think or they are naive," Levy said. "The more (groups that are) around, the more difficult it is for us to compete."

As a matter of philosophy, South Coast Symphony music director John Larry Granger believes there should be many orchestral groups in Orange County. But from a standpoint of building an audience and raising funds, he admits that "it would be nice if South Coast Symphony were the only (orchestra) in the county."

Granger's orchestra still carries a $34,000 deficit from a financial crisis it hit in 1988. At that time, orchestra officials partly blamed a drop in subscriptions on competition from concerts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--specifically those by their better-established Irvine-based counterpart, the Pacific Symphony.

But today, Doreen Hardy, executive director of South Coast Symphony, blames the orchestra's former problems on weak fund raising by its old board of directors. South Coast actually caters to a younger, lower-income audience than the Pacific Symphony, she says, so the groups are not in direct competition.

Even those who believe the county can support all these groups issue a caveat.

"If they don't compete and they agree on what they're going to play by gentleman's agreement, then more business is good business," says Preston Stedman, a music professor at Cal State Fullerton and longtime Pacific Symphony board member. "They can compete musically and that's good. But if they compete for the same audience, it's a bottomless pit. That's not productive."

Erich Vollmer, executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society, which presents the Los Angeles Philharmonic and other major touring orchestras in Orange County, added that if the local groups are to survive, they must develop active boards of directors so that all responsibility for fund-raising doesn't fall on the director's shoulders.

"I really think in the case of all these organizations that if the musical leader were to depart, the organization would disappear," Vollmer said. "The boards of these organizations have not been cultivated to take over the leadership."

South Coast Symphony is reorganizing its board to avoid just such problems. To secure its future, South Coast plans to increase its board from 18 to 30 members, who will actively raise funds, Hardy said.

"Larry (Granger) is a very talented man," executive director Hardy said. "But if he were to move on, we feel the organization would survive. We are working very hard to make this a board-directed organization. It's very dangerous to have a founder-directed organization. I am not putting these founders down, but in the long run, you've got to let go and let other people take ownership."

Even with help from board members, some wonder whether these groups will be strong enough to weather a repeat of the tough economic times they've seen in the past six months.

"Whether or not all these groups will be around at the end of the decade is a very good question," said Louis G. Spisto, executive director of the Pacific Symphony. "I believe in the '90s there could be some kind of a shakeout." Blaming the recession, conductor Porat noted that the Mozart Camerata has seen a drop in donations of about 25% over the past six months.

"This year has been the most difficult year of any I can remember," he said.

This season Porat also encountered charges of inept musical leadership, late payments and other violations of Musicians Union regulations made by some disgruntled Camerata players.

Nevertheless, Porat says he is optimistic about the orchestra's future, claiming that subscriptions grew from 800 during the 1989-90 season to 1,200 this season, at least in part a result of doubling the number of concerts this year. (Each of five programs is played at the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, the Camerata's longtime home, and then repeated at the new Irvine Barclay Theatre.)

The Orange County Chamber Orchestra and South Coast Symphony both noted slightly slower ticket sales than expected, but both also say donations are up. South Coast experienced a 150% increase in individual donations since November, Hardy said.

There are some encouraging words about these orchestras from state grant givers, but because of a looming state budget deficit, the compliments don't necessarily translate into money.

The California Arts Council considers such groups "artistic resources to the community," said spokeswoman Jo Ann Anglin. So far, however, only South Coast Symphony has received funding from the CAC and that group's ranking with the council has fluctuated over the years.

But in general, Anglin said, "there is a lot of regret (among council members) that there aren't more funds to support these groups."

As a result of the pinch in both private and government funding, Toby Halliday, spokesman for the American Symphony Orchestra League, says there is "a lot of anxiety about the current economic situation and what it's going to mean for orchestras."

But small and medium-sized orchestras may find it easier to ride tough times because they are more flexible than larger, more-established organizations, he said.

"Some are not as bound to musician contracts," Halliday said, "And while they have obligations to do the best they can for their musicians, they're not faced with paying all their bills or bankruptcy, like some of the larger ones are. They're more likely to downsize, or cut back their schedules."

The full effects of the year's economic downturn have not yet been felt, but Hardy and Levy vow slow growth for their organizations in the next year or so.

If these groups are to succeed in the long run, Orange County donors will need to have more faith in local music groups, Granger says.

"There's lots of money spent bringing groups from outside the county, but a lot of the same people don't support the groups that are grown here," Granger said. "Which somehow says we're not good enough to invest in for the future."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World