Musical Chairs : With Merger of 2 Symphonies, Idle Players Are Moving to Smaller Orchestras

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The empty storefront, adorned with a "Space for Lease" banner in a Simi Valley strip mall, is a far cry from Thousand Oaks' palatial Civic Arts Plaza.

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But Philippe Fanjeaud hopes musicians cut loose by the merger of the Conejo Symphony and the Ventura County Symphony will not notice the rickety folding chairs and dusty surroundings as they practice for upcoming performances in the vacant building.

"There are going to be many musicians without jobs as a result of what they are calling a 'merger,' " said Fanjeaud, the director of the year-old Santa Susana Symphony, which has about 20 members who regularly show up for rehearsals. "What I'm trying to offer is a place where people can play interesting music."

Fanjeaud and the leaders of two other small, community symphonies in Ventura County said they sympathize with the musicians who do not make it past the auditions of the New West Symphony, the entity formed after the Conejo and Ventura County symphonies were dissolved in March.

But they are looking forward to an influx of idle musicians looking for a place to play.

"The opening of our student symphony to community members is the direct result of the merger," said Cal Lutheran University Orchestra Director Dan Geeting, who plans to double membership of the university's orchestra to 50 musicians.

Geeting, who played clarinet with the Conejo Symphony for 11 years, has moved his rehearsals to evenings and sent letters to his fellow musicians in hope of drawing some of the talent.

Symphony officials have yet to set a date for auditions.

The New West Symphony will comprise about half as many players as the 150 who played for the two dissolved orchestras. But conductor Boris Brott said the New West Symphony still must reach an agreement with the union representing the Ventura County Symphony.

The union threatens to file a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board if the new symphony's managers do not recognize earlier agreements between the union and the Ventura County Symphony.

Meanwhile, Brott said he hopes the merger gives a boost to community orchestras. "There is no greater joy than making music as an amateur, for the love of it," he said.

John Forder, 71, who has played viola for the Conejo Symphony for a decade, is forgoing tryouts for the New West Symphony. He said he remains bitter about finding out about the Conejo Symphony's demise through a newspaper article.

"Playing in the arts plaza was a great experience, but I'll play anywhere," the retired engineer said. "I'll miss those impromptu lessons from Conejo musicians who were far more adept than I am."

This season, Forder will find himself one of the most experienced musicians as he plays with the Cal Lutheran symphony.

Roger Walters, another Conejo musician, said he also would not try out for the New West Symphony.

"I can't compete with full-time studio musicians," said Walters, who plans to join the Cal Lutheran symphony after playing French horn with the Conejo Symphony for 25 years. "I'll miss playing some of the music that a smaller orchestra isn't capable of playing, but I like playing with students. They keep me young."

Geeting said the older musicians would be an inspiration to his CLU students. "They'll see people who work eight- and 10-hour days who would rather come over here and play for three hours than go home and sit in front of the TV and watch 'Melrose Place,' " he said.

Cal Lutheran practices will begin in September when school starts. Geeting said first picks will go to talented student musicians, but he expects to fill half of the 50 seats with non-student members.

The Moorpark College Symphony also allows community members.

Geeting maintains that there are differences between Cal Lutheran's orchestra and the more ambitious Santa Susana Symphony.

"There are people who want to get on the orchestra track," he said. "I'm not interested in doing that or in professional musicians. I'm interested in people who play music for the love of it."

Fanjeaud envisions a renowned community orchestra that can nudge Simi Valley into the cultural spotlight. He hopes to use the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center for performances once renovations are done.

Until then, he will continue his Tuesday evening rehearsals in the Target discount store strip mall. The music attracts passersby and patrons of the nearby gym and video store, who often stop on the sidewalk to listen.

"The effect of the merger is going to be quite good," Fanjeaud said. "What I can offer is that if we grow, our musicians will be awarded financially."

Right now, he pays his musicians about $20 per performance. He expects it will take several years to match the $4,000 average annual salary paid to the former Conejo and Ventura County symphony players.

He asks the displaced musicians for the same patience they extended to the Conejo Symphony in its early days.

"They stuck with that orchestra for so long that they know what it's all about," he said. "They know it takes a lot of work and a lot of frustration."

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