Building crescendo

Times Staff Writer

AT a time when a number of U.S. orchestras have foundered or gone under, the Pacific Symphony has balanced its budget for 17 years, commissioned large-scale works, recorded twice for a major label, initiated six American music festivals and -- in March -- made its first European tour.

On Friday, though, the orchestra -- California’s third-largest, with a budget of $16.8 million -- will reach its greatest milestone so far: It will take occupancy of its own home. The occasion will be its first performance in the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 10, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Symphony’s endowment: An article in today’s Calendar section about the history of the Pacific Symphony says its endowment is $2 million. The endowment is $23 million.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 17, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Pacific Symphony: An article last Sunday about the history of the Pacific Symphony incorrectly said that its endowment is now at $2 million. The endowment is $23 million. Also, the Fall Arts Preview for classical music said that the New York Philharmonic would be the first U.S. orchestra to perform at the new Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The Pacific Symphony will be the first.

Not bad for a band that began 28 years ago with a $2,000 university grant and a quixotic plan for a two-concert season sketched out on a conductor’s kitchen table.


The move will actually be the Pacific’s second into an Orange County landmark. The first took place in 1986, when the $70-million Orange County Performing Arts Center opened. At that time, however, OCPAC consisted only of the larger Segerstrom Hall, and officials there declined to give any local group resident status.

But the Pacific will march into this new venue as a full artistic partner. No second-class status now. The hall was built for it. And the musicians are jazzed.

“I can’t imagine very many young orchestras moving into not only one but two halls in 27 years,” says flutist Cynthia Ellis, who has been with the orchestra since 1979. “To me, that’s incredible.”

Mindy Ball, the orchestra’s harpist for 26 years, says, “The new hall puts the Pacific Symphony on equal footing with the great orchestras of the world. We are definitely in the big leagues now.”

The big leagues were a faint dream at best when Keith Clark, a charismatic Cal State Fullerton associate music professor in his early 30s, founded the Fullerton Chamber Orchestra as a university affiliate in spring 1978.

Clark had a missionary zeal, a knack for publicity and the instinct that Hollywood studio musicians -- however much they made in their day jobs -- might long to play the serious music they had studied in music schools and conservatories.

He couldn’t pay them much, but he could provide them with sufficient flexibility to maintain their studio work. He devised a model that the Pacific Symphony still uses: It’s a per-service organization whose musicians are paid for each concert and rehearsal, both known as “services.”

In fact, within little more than a year, in December 1979, the chamber orchestra expanded from between 30 and 40 members to roughly twice that size, and Clark renamed it the Pacific Symphony.

The resulting ensemble drew small audiences, but the base kept growing as it played in Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton and the Good Time Theatre at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park.

In 1983, however, when it moved its concerts to Santa Ana High School, it suffered its first crisis. Subscriptions plunged -- from 3,000 in 1981 to 600 in 1983. Audiences were nervous about going to the largely Latino neighborhood at night and were put off by the lack of amenities at the school.

Meanwhile, Clark had begun gaining a reputation as an abrasive, autocratic administrator. In five years, he ran through three executive directors. One lasted six weeks. Another resigned after three months. The third left after 13 months.

When OCPAC opened, conflict between Clark and the board erupted. Opponents complained that he was unprepared musically, offending supporters and stifling the orchestra’s growth.

The issue came to a head after a 31-year-old marketing wiz, Louis G. Spisto, was lured from the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1987 to become the orchestra’s executive director. Unlike his predecessors, Spisto was hired as an administrative equal to Clark, not a subordinate, and he reported to the board.

Predictably, friction arose between the two men. The board split into factions, the orchestra took sides, the battle got ugly as it went public, and ultimately Clark lost, resigning at the end of the 1988-89 season after releasing a letter blasting Spisto and the board.

Subsequently, a two-year search for a new music director ended when Carl St.Clair, then 37, took over in 1990. A protege of Leonard Bernstein, an assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony and winner of the $75,000 Seaver / National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award, the energetic, Texas-born St.Clair has been the face of the orchestra since.

“Having been here for 16 seasons,” he says, with sincere enthusiasm, “I’m actually one of the few who can understand a broad spectrum of the history of the orchestra -- how far we’ve come, what has changed in our lives and how we’re going to develop further. We have an ideal circumstance in Orange County. We have a community and an orchestra that are basically at the same level. We’ve grown as the audiences have grown. When orchestras grow beyond the community, they get into trouble.”

The Spisto-St.Clair team didn’t get into trouble. Despite the dot-com economic downturn in the early ‘90s, they raised the orchestra’s budget by roughly 70% (to $7.5 million in 1997), created its first endowment (now at $2 million), launched a composer-in-residence project and commissioned a high-profile work by Elliot Goldenthal, “Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio,” which premiered in 1995 and was recorded by Sony.

In 1998, Spisto left to become executive director of the Detroit Symphony. But John Forsyte, the urbane 32-year-old executive director of the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Symphony, came aboard a few months later. By the end of the decade, the budget had risen to $8.2 million, and St.Clair had conducted nine premieres.

Not everything was roses for him. He and his wife, Susan, suffered a tragedy in 1999 when their 18-month-old son, Cole Carson, drowned after slipping into a neighbor’s pool when his mother fell unconscious from a diabetic seizure. But the Orange County music community rallied behind the couple, greeting St.Clair with a storm of applause when he stood on the podium to lead his first concert after the drowning. The St.Clairs had a second child, Siena Cloe, in 2000.

In many respects, the Forsyte-St.Clair era has been a dynamic one, highlighted by steady budget growth, increased musical offerings (including the six American composers festivals), the elevation of performance standards and the recording of two CDs for Sony. And now, though the orchestra will continue its emphasis on large-scale romantic works, there may be occasions for more world premieres.



NOW, though, the duo is facing several new challenges. The immediate one is figuring out how to use the new hall, which offers a bewildering number of sound possibilities through the maneuvering of canopies above the stage and massive doors on the sides of the auditorium.

“The variability is quite extraordinary,” says St.Clair. “In a very short time, we need to find the best setting that we can -- and then live with that. Later we’ll revisit it.”

Another challenge will be paying the orchestra for a third day of performances for each of the season’s 12 programs, up from 10 last season, and keeping seats filled, although officials predict the concerts will sell out.

“Our costs are going up, and we understand that,” says board Chairman John R. Stahr. “We’re gearing up for the challenge, and we’re going to make it, as we have over the last decade.”

In addition, the musicians’ current contract is set to expire at the end of the 2006-07 season. At the contract’s end, rank-and-file members will be making $176.10 per service, according to Frank Amoss, president of the union local. (Principal players and St.Clair make more -- in certain cases, considerably more. St.Clair’s salary in 2003, the most recent year for which tax documents are available to the public, was $312,070.)

With what Forsyte estimates as about 220 services scheduled for this season -- including stints accompanying Opera Pacific and various dance events -- it would be possible for a musician to earn close to $39,000. But many do not play every service, and there is a divide in the orchestra about the desirability or even the possibility of going full time.

Management isn’t sure either.

“A lot of the musicians are not interested in the 52-week sit-down band, as we call it,” says Forsyte, now the orchestra’s president. “They enjoy the versatility of their lives.

“We’re looking at opportunities for them to make a living wage from the Pacific Symphony, but not necessarily in the rigidity of the so-called full-time, eight-services-a-week, 52-week kinds of orchestras -- because I’m not convinced they necessarily achieve greater artistic quality by virtue of their full-time contract.

“The Pacific doesn’t necessarily have to emulate the rest of the nation’s notion of what larger orchestras do,” he observes. “What I think is more important to us is the continuity of personnel, and you can achieve that in a variety of ways.”

Continuity at the top is also an issue, although not an urgent one. Forsyte’s contract will expire at the end of next season, though it’s likely to be renewed.

St.Clair’s contract runs through 2009. Although last year he took on additional duties as music director of the German National Theater in Weimar and chief conductor of the Weimar State Orchestra, he has no immediate plans to leave.

“It’s obvious I can’t stay here forever,” he says. “But I’ve worked very hard to develop the orchestra, to take them on their first tour, to bring them into the new concert hall. We are getting close to that goal line. But I’ve had several goals, and there are a few more left that I hope I can accomplish.”

What is his main goal now?

“We want the Pacific Symphony to be an artistic banner for Orange County with sustainability -- not something that’s here for 28 years and all of a sudden it begins to have devastating problems. We want to become a necessity in our community. We’re not yet a necessity. We’re a growing entity. We want to become a part of the vital fabric of life here that is respected and nurtured and cared for. I think that just takes a little time.”