Competing Orchestras Strive for Harmony


In music, they call it “counterpoint"--the combination of distinct melodies into a single harmony.

It’s that sort of musical arrangement that the New West Symphony and the Conejo Valley Symphony Orchestra are hoping to compose, as each strives to develop an audience and programming in the east county.

New West wants to establish itself as a regional orchestra from its venues in Thousand Oaks and Oxnard, drawing patrons from as far away as Van Nuys. Conejo Valley, on the other hand, is making a more local appeal--billing itself as a professional orchestra for the community, run by the community.

Though the two groups are opening their 1998-99 seasons on the same night--Oct. 17--they say there is no rivalry, that each has a different mission and tends to appeal to a different audience. Given the contrast, they say, both symphonies can succeed.


Susan Feller, who was New West’s executive director three years ago before becoming director of the Ventura County Arts Council, equated having two orchestras in the county to having an area full of restaurants.

“When you have a lot of restaurants, people tend to go out to eat more frequently, and hopefully you can have that with orchestras,” Feller said.

Because it is expensive to run orchestras and because they often operate in the red, Feller said, “it would probably be better if we only had one, but I guess there’s always a desire to have your own.”

Indeed, that desire is what prompted the formation of the Conejo Valley orchestra three years ago. When New West formed through the contentious 1995 merger of the Ventura County and Conejo symphonies, some musicians and arts patrons felt there was still a need for a community-based group.


“This community doesn’t have two orchestras,” said Bill Benson, Conejo Valley Symphony’s marketing chairman. “It has one orchestra. The New West Symphony is a regional symphony.”

In contrast, Conejo Valley Symphony employs more local musicians and tends to attract an audience that lives primarily in eastern Ventura County. The symphony’s board is elected annually by its subscribers and donors, an arrangement Benson equated to a homeowners’ association.

Benson said that after two seasons, Conejo Valley has gained momentum through public interest and corporate and municipal donations.

“First two seasons, we’ve been relatively quiet,” he said. “We were just waiting to see whether we were going to develop.”

Now, with the orchestra about to open its third season at Ascension Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks, “people are aware of us more than they’ve ever been,” he said.

Benson, who plays string bass for Conejo Valley, said he doesn’t see New West as competition. “There’s Pepsi and there’s Coke,” he said. “New West, they do different things than we do.”

New West’s music director, Boris Brott, said: “Our concentration is on a higher degree of professionalism. The Conejo’s concentration would appear to be on a sense of community.

“We’re a regional professional orchestra on a very high level of musicianship, certainly equal to the other major regional symphony orchestras in the area,” he said, citing symphonies in Santa Barbara, Pasadena, Long Beach and Orange County.


Not to be outdone, Conejo Valley’s music director, Howard Sonstegard, pointed out that his orchestra draws its players from the same musicians’ union as New West and that “you will see a lot of the musicians playing New West, and [when] you come to our concert you’ll see a lot of the same faces.”

The two symphonies’ musical selections do differ. Conejo Valley tends to play recognizable classical standards for what Sonstegard calls its “more conservative” audience. New West’s programming features a more adventurous and diverse schedule that includes operas and pop selections.

“They have gone off and done some pieces that I think programming-wise are quite daring,” Sonstegard said, adding that the “educational responsibility” of his job encourages him to also include “pieces that are not on the top 100 lists” in Conejo Valley’s schedule.

New West, going into its fourth season, has seen more than 90% of last year’s subscribers buy season tickets for this year, according to executive director Betsy Chess. Two-thirds of the seats in its two home venues--the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and the Oxnard Performing Arts Center--have been sold.

Still, Brott and Chess said, interest in live orchestral music and other arts in the county must develop further over time. In addition to marketing itself in Ventura County, New West is trying to draw patrons from the Los Angeles area, particularly the San Fernando Valley. It is also hoping to add a pops and opera series outside of its main schedule.

Both symphonies field youth orchestras and are involved in music education at county schools and colleges.

Sonstegard said that the area’s classical music patrons are enthusiastic enough to support both orchestras. Many of Conejo Valley’s patrons, he said, attend New West’s performances as well.

“Even though studies have shown that usually classical music audiences are 2% of the population,” Sonstegard said, “the people that are in that group [in this area] are very active about going to concerts.”