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Deficit, Internal Discord Threaten Orchestra : Arts: The Ventura County Symphony is looking to raise cash, cut costs. It also faces competition from its thriving cross-county rival, the Conejo Symphony, in effort to attract a wider audience.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the musicians on vacation, the conductor out of the country and the first concert months away, August would typically be a very quiet month for the Ventura County Symphony.

Not so this year.

Burdened with the largest deficit in its 33-year history, the orchestra is fighting to preserve its season, raise emergency cash and drastically pare operating costs. At risk of being canceled are programs aimed at nurturing young musicians.

“We have operated close to the vest every year,” said Karine Beesley, executive director. “But this is the worst year we’ve had. . . . It is a crisis.”

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Symphony board President Felice Ginsberg described the orchestra’s projected $80,000 deficit--which has grown fourfold in three years--as worrisome but not unexpected.

The fiscal woes, she said, are a sign of “growing pains” in an organization committed to improving its artistic standards, presenting contemporary composers and attracting a wider audience.

With the opening of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza this fall, the symphony is also hoping to expand on its traditional west county base and snare a bigger corner of the east county cultural market. Symphony officials, though, acknowledge that it will be a difficult task.

“Growth is going to cost money upfront,” Ginsberg said. “This is just part of the natural process.”

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Adding to the symphony’s difficulties is discord between musicians and management. For the first time in the organization’s history, the two sides are locked in tense contract negotiations over such issues as tenure and the right to replace less talented players.

“It’s kind of difficult to remain a cohesive group when players are being shuffled in and out,” said Steven Thiraux, a bassoonist who is part of the musicians’ negotiating committee. “We’re concerned about losing our identity.”

If a compromise is not reached soon, the symphony’s first concert in October could be in jeopardy. Board members say they would rather cancel the performance than risk the threat of a last-minute strike.

“We can’t risk refunding subscribers’ tickets because of a strike,” Ginsberg said. “We just don’t have the financial wherewithal to go through that.”

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For the county’s largest performing arts group, the troubles couldn’t have come at a more critical time.

With the opening of the much-touted Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, the Ventura-based orchestra faces new pressure to expand beyond its home turf at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium.

In struggling to attract more east county patrons, the Ventura County Symphony will face direct competition from its thriving cross-county rival, the Conejo Symphony.

Already, announcement of the opening week’s schedule touched off a public spat when backers of the Conejo Symphony complained that the Ventura County Symphony was booked to play the first full-fledged classical music concert in the new 1,800-seat auditorium Oct. 26.

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The Conejo Symphony will open its season three days later with a performance featuring pianist Victor Borge.

The Ventura County Symphony is also slotted to play at the Civic Arts Plaza twice during the spring. But symphony backers say those concerts are now in question.

“We’re looking at financial reality here and looking at what our ability is to assume risk,” Beesley said. “And right now our ability to assume risk is pretty low.”

The Ventura County Symphony draws about 70% of its audience from Ventura. The rest of the season subscribers come from Camarillo, Oxnard, Ojai and Santa Paula, with a sprinkling from Thousand Oaks.

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A telephone survey last year showed that 80% of season ticket holders preferred to attend concerts in Oxnard rather than Thousand Oaks.

Nevertheless, board members and musicians alike say it’s important for the symphony to establish some sort of presence at the county’s newest venue.

Said principal clarinetist Caroline Tobin: “I look at Simi and Moorpark and areas where we really aren’t known. It is a county symphony, and it would be nice if the whole county could be able to hear us play.”

Running a deficit is nothing new for the Ventura County Symphony, nor for other much larger groups throughout the country.

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Indeed, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra carries a nearly $1-million deficit, as does the New York Philharmonic. Regional orchestras throughout the country are also struggling.

“Running a deficit is no great shame,” said Everett Ascher, executive director of the Conejo Symphony, which ended last year with a $60,000 deficit but doubled its season subscriber base in anticipation of performing at the Civic Arts Plaza. “What you do is work your way out. They will and we will.”

What is striking about the Ventura County Symphony’s deficit is that it has doubled in one year, surging from $41,700 in June, 1993, to a projected $80,000 for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

And while many of the county’s premier orchestras have enormous endowments to draw upon in tough times, the Ventura County Symphony’s endowment sits at just $12,000.

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Ironically, the difficulties come at a time when audiences at the symphony’s bread-and-butter concerts at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium have been near capacity.

Attendance swelled to an average of 1,400 last season, after hovering around 1,200 in previous years. Patrons have credited Canadian conductor Boris Brott, brought in two years ago to replace symphony founder Frank Salazar, with recharging performances.

“We’ve always had a good symphony, but it seems that with each concert, they get sharper and clearer,” said Ventura County Supervisor Maggie Kildee, a past board member and longtime season ticket holder.

Symphony directors say a number of factors contributed to the deficit, including steep increases in rent and production costs at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, and the overall state of California’s economy.

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Part of the revenue shortfall also stems from an attempt to draw in untapped audiences by introducing contemporary composers and non-European music. The “Music Alive!” series, which featured musicians from India and China, won critical praise last season but proved a financial flop.

Less than half the number of tickets needed to break even were sold, and the concerts lost $25,000 altogether.

Beesley blames the loss on a lack of marketing, unrealistic expectations and unfamiliarity with music.

“We’ve been moving quicker than we could afford to do,” she said.

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For orchestras the size of the Ventura County and Conejo symphonies, ticket sales are critical. And at a time when orchestras throughout the country are struggling to pay musicians, some wonder if the Ventura County Symphony should stick with what is safe.

“You’re not going to earn royalties (off recordings),” Asher said. “The only thing that keeps you going is people coming to your concerts.

“If your ticket sales are off, you need to ask why.”

Ginsberg, for her part, believes that Ventura County audiences are interested in music beyond Mozart and should be given a chance to hear contemporary performances.

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Low ticket sales for the annual Discovery Artists concert and a series of fund-raising setbacks also contributed to this year’s deficit.

Symphony directors had hoped that the Discovery Artist concert, which features young Ventura County musicians selected through auditions, would break even despite the lack of a major underwriter.

Instead, the concert sold about $4,000 in tickets, less than the cost of renting the Oxnard Civic Auditorium. After paying musicians’ salaries, the concert lost about $15,000.

Roughly 55% of the symphony’s total revenue comes from ticket sales. Private contributions, corporate donations and a small amount of public grants account for the rest.

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In May, the symphony’s most successful fund-raiser, the Design House, brought in $73,000. Other efforts, however, were less successful.

A golf tournament in Ojai netted just $500 when the sponsor of previous years, Waste Management Inc., declined to underwrite the event after losing a bid to open a landfill in Weldon Canyon.

Most recently, legal snafus forced the symphony to postpone its newest and most novel fund-raising attempt--the Ventura County Symphony Rubber Duck Race.

Officials from the district attorney’s office said the event, built around 10,000 plastic ducks bobbing down the Santa Clara River, was being promoted illegally as a lottery.

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With adjustments in the fine print, the race has been rescheduled for Saturday at the Freeman Diversion Dam. The two-month postponement generated extra publicity, but also delayed the arrival of much-needed cash.

Duck races, run by a company in Scottsdale, Ariz., have helped raise money for hundreds of nonprofit agencies and service clubs throughout the country. But this is the first time that it will be used by an orchestra, a company official said.

By asking supporters to sponsor plastic ducks for $5 each, symphony backers are hoping to net $15,000 to $20,000 from the race. So far, about $18,000 in pledges have been received, enough to cover the costs of running the race.

In addition to searching for new approaches to the highly competitive business of arts fund raising, the Ventura County Symphony is also engaged in an effort to reduce its operating budget and develop a long-range plan.

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Between 1992 and 1993, the symphony’s budget grew from $650,000 to $710,000. Directors are now trying to shrink expenditures for 1994 back to $600,000. Salaries are frozen and the glossy brochure to attract season subscribers has been scaled back to a less flashy version.

“We’re going to get lean and mean here,” Beesley said. “It could mean we have to downsize the orchestra a little bit, and some of the plans for the future may be delayed a year or so.”

To cover immediate expenses, a group of board members has loaned the symphony $10,000. Ginsberg said the symphony hopes to repay the loan by November.

As a result of the deficit, three programs aimed at inspiring young musicians are now in jeopardy.

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According to Beesley, the symphony can no longer afford to subsidize the Ventura County Youth Symphony, classical performances in the schools and the Discovery Artists concert. To continue, those programs must be self-supporting.

That means schools will have to pay $550, rather than $200, for a string quartet to play. And parents of youth symphony players will have to pay more than the $75 annual tuition and conduct their own fund raising for the first time.

Tom Olson, a former symphony board member whose 15-year-old son plays the clarinet, said he believes that an increase in tuition is not unreasonable. The youth symphony, he said, fills a gap left by a dearth of music programs in public schools.

“If you can’t raise a few thousand on a program like this, then maybe you’ve got to take a look at whether it’s a worthwhile enough program,” he said.

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And while the youth symphony is important, Olson said, it is peripheral to the orchestra’s central mission: playing classical music for the community.

“The primary task for the symphony is to have a performing orchestra out performing,” he said.

As for the Discovery Artists concert, symphony officials are trying to secure a corporate sponsor to cover the cost of the concert, eliminating a financial risk if ticket sales are low.

Likewise, the symphony plans to continue the “Music Alive!” series, but with all or nearly all of the cost underwritten by a private foundation. Beesley said the symphony has a verbal commitment from the Barbara Smith Foundation, but details have not yet been worked out.

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To reduce the costs of producing that series, symphony officials say they plan to import small, contemporary groups, such as the Kronos Quartet, rather than using their own musicians to accompany a guest artist.

That, however, does not sit well with the pool of musicians.

“Are we a producer of concerts or a supplier of activities?” Tobin asked. “I think this is something the community needs to make their feelings known about.”

Despite the symphony’s financial troubles, Ginsberg said she is optimistic that this year is a turning point in the symphony’s struggle to become an orchestra with a regional reputation.

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“We scramble like everybody else does in tough times,” she said.


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