It's Not Just a Little Tokyo Orchestra

Daniel Cariaga is the Times' music writer

The Japan America Symphony started life in 1961 as the Japanese Philharmonic Orchestra of Los Angeles, a community ensemble mixing non-professionals with union players. For three decades, it was the domain of its founder, conductor Akira Kikukawa. When former L.A. Philharmonic violist-turned-conductor Heiichiro Ohyama took over leadership of the orchestra in 1991, he also added an element to its identity--renaming it the Japan America Symphony to match it to its home venue, the Japan America Center in Little Tokyo.

Now, the orchestra, which has long since become fully professional, has shed its skin one more time. It opens its '96-'97 season today with a performance of Handel's "Messiah" as the Asia America Symphony.

The new name, Ohyama says, reflects what is "different in this ensemble and the one founded 35 years ago."

At first, Ohyama explains, "the players were mostly from the Japanese community, as was the board of directors and the large support group surrounding the orchestra. Gradually, on the way to becoming a professional orchestra, all that has changed."

The Asian character of the personnel is the same, the music director points out, but the dominance of Japanese players has ended. And, "community support, as well as artistic pride, has shifted onto the entire Asian community throughout Southern California," not just those who live downtown.

Now, in part to reach the different Asian American communities in Southern California and in part because of financial downsizing, the orchestra will play this season in suburban venues: at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts (today and Feb. 26), in Marsee Auditorium at the South Bay Center for the Arts near Gardena (April 4) and at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center (May 18). The Asia America Symphony office also has moved out of downtown Los Angeles into Gardena, a hub community for the Asian American population. The changes are coincidental with a reduction in the orchestra's budget from approximately $316,000 to $300,000, Ohyama acknowledges.

"We are giving one less concert in this season than in the last, but we feel our programming is stronger," the music director says, citing the popularity of pianist-fusion artist David Benoit, who will be the featured soloist with the orchestra on April 4.

The peripatetic Ohyama--who at 49 continues to play viola, teaches full time at UC Santa Barbara, serves as artistic director of the summertime Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and conducts the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra and the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra in Ithaca, N.Y., in addition to his Asia America duties--admits that his orchestra's broadening identity brings with it some growing pains.

"In the process, we have suffered some reorganizing," he says, pointing to the recent resignation of executive director James Ruggirello, which, he adds, was unrelated to the organization's downsizing. In fact, according to Ohyama, the search for a successor to Ruggirello is well under way.

And Ohyama says he is extremely optimistic about the orchestra's future.

"We are seeing, across the country and in the groups I am connected with, financial reorganization along with artistic tightening up. We are growing to the next step, and at the same time holding on to both our community pride and our artistic pride."

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