2 Orchestras Squabble Over Plaza Scheduling : Thousand Oaks: The symphonies bicker over which should come first at the new performing arts center.


When first confronted with a noisy dispute between Ventura County’s two symphony orchestras, Larry Janss labeled it “a clash of titans.”

But half an hour of bickering later, Janss revised his metaphor, telling the symphony directors that their rivalry resembled “a lot of monkeys” mixing it up “in a small cage.”

Whatever the analogy, the relationship between Thousand Oaks’ Conejo Symphony and the Oxnard-based Ventura County Symphony has hit a sour note. And Janss--a member of Thousand Oaks’ theater commission--will likely listen to a lot more dissonance this week.

At the urging of the City Council, the theater commission Wednesday will revisit the issue of when to schedule orchestral performances in the new Civic Arts Plaza’s 1,800-seat auditorium, which opens in late October.


The director of the Conejo Symphony, Everett Ascher, has complained long and loud that the schedule as written gives an unfair boost to the out-of-town Ventura County Symphony.

The dispute has stripped away any lingering stereotypes of classical musicians as refined, sophisticated folk.

“Obviously, people who are very artistic in nature tend to get more emotional and more excited about issues,” said Karine Beesley, executive director of the Ventura County Symphony.

Chuckling, theater veteran Tom Mitze added: “It’s not genteel.”

But as executive director of the Civic Arts Plaza auditorium, Mitze said he recognizes that “the issue of scheduling never goes away.”

And indeed, the case of the dueling symphonies is coming back again at Wednesday night’s meeting--a full month after theater commissioners thought that they had resolved the issue.

Backed by Councilman Frank Schillo, Ascher plans to plead for revisions in the opening week schedule.

His primary concern: Although his Conejo Symphony will preside over the performing arts center’s grand opening, the rival Ventura County Symphony will launch its regular season of classical music with a splashy performance during the auditorium’s first full week of operation.


The Oxnard-based group plans a “symphony orchestra blowout, with quadruple woodwinds and brass” and up to 100 musicians, Beesley said. The symphony may also weave some of its funky trademarks into the show by flashing colored spotlights on the musicians or displaying slides on an oversized screen behind the orchestra pit.

Just three days after its rival’s sound-and-light extravaganza, the Conejo Symphony will kick off its own subscription series with a concert featuring renowned pianist Victor Borge.

The Conejo Symphony has snagged better dates--the concerts with Borge are scheduled Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, whereas the Ventura County Symphony will perform on a Wednesday evening.

But the mere fact that the Ventura County Symphony comes first in the schedule seemed a snub to Ascher and his Conejo Symphony.


Schillo agreed, telling the council last week that the schedule disturbed him. Reluctant to step into a cultural war, the other council members decided to refer the matter to the seven-member theater commission.

“I would much rather this be handled by the Civic Theaters Commission,” Mayor Elois Zeanah said. She added, however: “One of the reasons I’m excited about the new auditorium is that it will give the Conejo Symphony a place to perform. I certainly consider them our resident orchestra.”

City officials have always promised to give local groups priority in using the Civic Arts Plaza. Although they hope that the auditorium will gain fame as a regional cultural center, they also want it to serve as a showcase for home-grown talent.

By most reckonings, the Conejo Symphony qualifies as local. For 33 years, the orchestra has performed at a local school gym, wooing audiences despite the hard metal seats and occasional plink-plink of rain hitting the tin roof.


The musicians, like the listeners, have proved loyal.

Traveling professionals, they perform throughout Southern California. They play in many venues more glamorous than the California Lutheran University gym, but they return to Thousand Oaks season after season.

Of the 75 to 90 musicians featured in each concert, most consider themselves Conejo Symphony veterans, Ascher said.

Now these Thousand Oaks die-hards want to be the first to test Civic Arts Plaza’s vaunted acoustics with a full-scale classical concert. Their director believes that it’s their due, especially because the Conejo Symphony contributed nearly $400,000 to the Civic Arts Plaza fund-raising campaign.


“Given the commitment of our orchestra, board of directors and symphony guild to the city, it’s only right and fitting that we should open the regular season subscription series,” Ascher said.

Ascher said he has “no particular problem” with the Ventura County Symphony performing on Conejo Symphony turf. They can play in the Civic Arts Plaza any time they want, he said, “but we just don’t think they should have the privilege of opening the season subscription series.”

For her part, Beesley professes amazement at the fuss.

“I don’t understand what’s such a big deal here,” she said. “We wanted to be part of opening week, and it would be foolish of us not to take advantage (of a free night). We think we have an orchestra that deserves to be part of it.”


Both symphonies have thrived for three decades in the county, with overlapping but largely distinct audiences.

The Ventura County orchestra draws most of its 1,100 season-ticket holders from west of the Conejo Grade, and the Thousand Oaks group reaches more than 800 subscribers in the eastern valleys.

The orchestras also perform different types of music.

The Conejo Symphony usually sticks to familiar classical music, famous guest stars and scattered pop performances. “We don’t perform the stuff of poets and prize committees, because that would drive our audience out of the house,” Ascher said.


The Ventura County Symphony, on the other hand, aims for more off-beat, experimental productions. Next year’s season, for example, will feature a semi-staged opera and a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” backed by a women’s choir.

Despite the distinct styles, the symphony directors worry that for some audiences, classical music is classical music. And too much classical music could turn potential patrons away from the Civic Arts Plaza.

The Ventura County Symphony will perform three concerts there in the 1994-95 season, and the Conejo Symphony will present seven shows plus the grand opening. Eventually, Beesley hopes to bring a full six-concert Ventura County Symphony series to the Thousand Oaks auditorium.

“It could easily happen that because of scheduling conflicts, both symphonies could end up bleeding to death,” Ascher told the theater commission last month.


Commissioners declined to comment on the dispute.

But Schillo eagerly jumped into the fray last week, telling the council that the schedule disturbed him.

“It may sound like a small thing, but (opening week) is a onetime event,” he said. “I think there’s something wrong when we have another symphony open the season at our Civic Arts Plaza, no matter how good they might be.”

Symphony Season


Season tickets to the Conejo Symphony’s inaugural season in the Civic Arts Plaza will range in cost from $66.50 to $266 for seven performances. Ticket prices for individual concerts have not yet been determined. Here is the tentative program schedule:

Oct. 29 and 30: Orchestral concert with pianist Victor Borge.

Dec. 10: Performance with baritone Sylvester Blue and the Sherwood Singers.

Jan. 14: Concert featuring pianist Daniel Pollack playing Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5.


Feb. 11: Program featuring the music of American composer Gordon Getty.

March 11: Concert featuring violinist Glenn Dicterow, concert master and soloist for the New York Philharmonic, playing Brahms violin concertos.

April 22, 1995: Concert with pianist Vladimir Feltsman.

May 30, 1995: Pops program featuring Shirley Jones, actress and singer who appeared in movies “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”