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Remembering PSO’s Early Days

Am I the only one slightly nauseated by the self-congratulatory gush surrounding Pacific Symphony manager Louis Spisto’s departure to greener pastures, or are there others who remember the true history of the orchestra? Since The Times seems to have forgotten the score, here are some facts which should remain on the record.

Far from arriving to save a foundering orchestra 10 years ago, Mr. Spisto inherited an organization in the midst of dynamic growth. By the time he got there, the PSO, already among California’s top five orchestras, was playing the same series of classical, family and pops concerts in the Orange County Performing Arts Center and Irvine Meadows that it does today.

Its audience exceeded 12,000 subscribers and the Symphony Assn. had ended its final pre-Spisto financial year with a budget surplus of around $250,000. Its concerts in Fallbrook, chamber music at South Coast Repertory, baroque series in Fullerton and other county communities, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion concerts with Roger Wagner’s Los Angeles Master Chorale, and other events from San Diego to Lancaster made the PSO far more musically active than it is today.

In its first decade, the PSO had premiered around 40 works by local as well as internationally acclaimed composers. The orchestra had performed with Pavarotti, Domingo, Menuhin, Ricci, Arrau, Rampal, Gutierrez and a long list of leading soloists--and was providing opportunities to Thomas Hampson, Leila Josefowitz, Cecile Licad and many young artists on the brink of stardom.

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It had produced six commercial recordings and its CDs had received a Grammy nomination, Billboard Bestseller listings and several awards. The PSO was featured performing symphonies of Roy Harris on the BBC Television documentary “An American Voice,” rebroadcast last week on New York’s Classical Arts Network, and its rendition of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” was recently included among the top three recordings of that popular work by London’s Classical CD magazine. The PSO’s recordings, several now listed in the Stevenson Guide Hall of Fame, remain available to anyone curious about the quality of the orchestra in its first decade.

In the wake of Spisto’s arrival, pops conductor Doc Severinsen and annual guest conductor Roger Wagner quit, a rigged board vote sent conductor Keith Clark packing, Pro Arte Records dropped its agreement to feature the PSO on six new CDs, plans for a community music school in Santa Ana were dropped and all regional touring ceased. Repertoire suddenly changed from Schoenberg’s “Gurrelieder” and thorny Harris symphonies to “Carmina Burana,” drive-time classics and (gulp) Wayne Newton.

Admittedly, the orchestra now enjoys a flashier social and financial profile.

But long before Newport high society discovered it, the Pacific Symphony had been nurtured by a dedicated group of music-loving volunteers, loyal musicians and subscribers, and underpaid administrators. Despite its humble origin, the orchestra had presented hundreds of concerts throughout Southern California, played to a high standard by many of the Southland’s finest musicians, and while it is appropriate to celebrate those who now are doing well, it demeans all who played a part in the PSO’s first decade to ignore or belittle the lasting contributions of those who once did good.

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MARK McGURTY

Sea Girt, N.J.

Pacific Symphony

composer-in-residence,

artistic administrator (1984-88)


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