Twenty years ago, before two local people got to thinking about it, the summer scene for serious music was pretty sparse in Orange County.
"Few things were happening here in June, especially between the [winter] season of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl," Corona del Mar Baroque Music Festival director Burton Karson recalled recently.
"We had to go to Los Angeles to see concerts, except for a very few school concerts and that sort of thing."
Karson and Irmeli Desenberg, then a part-time art lecturer at Cal State Fullerton, where Karson has been a professor of music since 1965, decided to do something "about the sad situation of the arts here."
"I proposed that we try a small festival," Karson said. "We immediately found support from a few people who agreed to serve on a board of directors. That was in 1980. And we produced our first festival in June of 1981."
The festival became annual. Its 18th incarnation will kick off Sunday afternoon with a program of baroque concertos at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Corona del Mar.
Baroque music was in the plan from the beginning, "not only because I specialize somewhat in baroque music . . . but also for the necessity of small [groups] because of the venues," Karson said. "Baroque music seemed ideal. It could be exciting and dramatic, but it could be done with small forces."
The first festival consisted of four events--one concert and one lecture in the Sherman Library and Gardens also in Corona del Mar, an organ and orchestra concert at St. Michael's, and a choral finale at the Community Church, Congregational United Church of Christ in Corona del Mar.
For the first program, Karson played harpsichord in a group called the Trio Camerata, which also included soprano Su Harmon and recorder player Andrew Charlton. Baroque guitarist Scott Zeidel was the guest artist. The program consisted of works by Handel and Scarlatti.
The next day, Desenberg gave a lecture on baroque art. On Friday, there was an organ and orchestra program at St. Michael's. The festival closed on a Sunday at the Congregational Church.
Subsequent festivals followed that model, although in the second year, the Congregational Church was dropped because of problems accommodating a chorus and orchestra.
Later, they dropped the lectures. "We needed real concerts," Karson said. "We were applying for a grant with the National Endowment for the Arts, which we did not receive, because the configuration of the festival was not to their liking."
The audience has always been accepting. "We immediately filled the venues, as we do now," he said. "There was great excitement. Community support has been strong."
In fact, the event is almost bursting at the seams. St. Michael's can seat about 300 people; the Sherman Library, a little more than 200. People have suggested moving it to a larger venue such as the 756-seat Irvine Barclay Theatre or even the 3,000-seat Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
"After careful deliberation, we decided not to do that," Karson said. "We weren't trying to grow into a large organization. We wanted to give people here something that was not produced anywhere else, and we wanted to stay here."
The festival started with "something like $8,000 or $10,000," Karson said. The budget now is about $50,000. A good portion of the money comes from an annual fund-raiser at a private home; about 70 people are subscribers.
"We stretch nickels," he said. "Even though it wasn't intended, I'm still not paid as artistic director and conductor. We spend all the money on musicians, renting a stage, printing programs and advertising."
They're proud that the festival has always paid its way. "We have never, even for a single day, been in the red. We have never had anyone complain that payments didn't come instantly in the full amount. And we've never spent money we didn't have. But I've worried a lot."
For the past two years, Karson worried he wouldn't be able to pay all the bills. "I didn't want to raise our prices. We want people to attend. But there are only so many seats, and our costs are rising. So we struggle very much."
The musicians all are professionals.
"People in the chorus have masters' and doctors' degrees," he said. "They're choir directors, conductors and professional singers. I always joke that if I drop the baton, half a dozen people in the chorus are quite capable--and probably are anxious--to pick it up and continue the concert. And they love doing it, which is a very great compliment to me."
A few changes have occurred. Four years ago, they began using period instruments for some programs. They added 19th century works and commissioned pieces.
"The variety we have presented has been amazing," Karson said. "The number of cantatas and concertos and sonatas--it's staggering. We rarely repeat.
"We have also done many works which I have discovered in European archives, which, as far as any library can tell me, haven't been done since their time. I've brought back copies of manuscripts that have not been heard since their time. Often we've worked from [photocopies of] the actual manuscripts.
"We have also done Baroque-inspired music from the 19th and the 20th century. We have not done classical music. No Mozart. Even in the Mozart year, we didn't do Mozart because it's not baroque."
For commissions, they've asked that works contain neobaroque elements in form; in instrumentation, including harpsichord; and in ornamentation that reflects the baroque period.
Their longevity Karson attributes to the support of individuals, local businesses and Newport Beach.
"The arts commission of the city of Newport Beach has consistently given us what I consider seed money, because it helps us to raise further funds," he said, adding that the audience, in turn, has "brought business to Corona del Mar restaurants and banks."
* The 18th annual Corona del Mar Baroque Music Festival opens Sunday with concertos by Bach, Handel and others at St. Michael and All Angels Church, 3233 Pacific View Drive, Corona del Mar. 4 p.m. $25. The festival continues Monday at 8 p.m. with an organ recital at the church ($10); chamber music concerts Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m. at the Sherman Library and Gardens, 2645 E. Coast Highway ($30 each); and concludes June 28 at 4 p.m. at the church with Handel's "Alexander's Feast" ($25). (949) 760-7887.