Area orchestra hits sour note

Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden announced last week it will host the Pasadena Pops summer concert series in 2012, marking the end of a 14-year partnership with the California Philharmonic.

The CalPhil will be allowed to finish out its 2011 summer concert series at the Arboretum. Meanwhile, the Pops will complete its own summer series on the lawn adjacent to the Rose Bowl, where it has performed since leaving its longtime La Cañada home at Descanso Gardens in 2009.

Though the CalPhil will be without a summer venue next year, officials said there has been no discussion of Descanso Gardens as a possible future home. Descanso Chief Operating Officer Juliann Rooke said that while the garden is open to hearing any proposals, it is pleased with the summer programming schedule created to fill the void left when Pops departed over issues surrounding increasing rental fees and garden use.

“When Pops left, we really grappled with what we were going to do,” Rooke said. “We decided we were going to start our own programming. It’s been very, very popular.”

Little more than one week after the announcement, the CalPhil is preparing for the upcoming summer season at the Arboretum and Walt Disney Concert Hall even as it explores possible legal options for responding to the recent decision.

Andre Vener, CEO and son of CalPhil founding Musical Director Victor Vener, said that the group loves the Arboretum as a venue and has been happy with its agreement to pay a summer rental fee in addition to a portion of ticket sales that pass an agreed-upon threshold.
Philharmonic officials suspected that their partnership with the Arboretum might be in danger in 2010, when they sought to renew a five-summer contract and were told that a new contract could only apply for one year, Vener said. Still, Vener maintains the Philharmonic never received formal notification it was being replaced by the Pops and was disappointed to learn it had lost out due to financial reasons but was given no room to negotiate.

“They said they made a decision based on financial reasons, but we weren’t allowed to talk finances,” Vener added.

Arboretum CEO Richard Schulhof said Wednesday that the Board of Trustees’ decision followed a comprehensive analysis of both groups, including financial and management practices.

“I have the utmost respect for Victor Vener and the symphony organization he created. This decision isn’t a reflection on the performances of the California Philharmonic,” Schulhof said. “It was a business decision.”

In his former role as executive director for Descanso Gardens from 1996 to 2001, Schulhof said he attended many summer Pops concerts in La Cañada but would not comment on whether Descanso would be a good fit for the CalPhil.

La Cañada Mayor Dave Spence, who sat on the Pasadena Symphony Association’s Board of Directors from 2004 to 2010, initially negotiated bringing summer concerts to Descanso. He said the meadow was a beautiful venue but suggested increasing costs and restrictions associated with setting up a concert stage in a live garden ultimately drove Pops (which is affiliated with the Pasadena Symphony) away and might discourage music groups from settling there in the future.

“Descanso Gardens was asking for a significantly larger number of dollars to operate out of there. I don’t know if the California Philharmonic would want to step up to those numbers. They’d probably have the same issues with the board,” Spence said, adding that Pops saved $400,000 when it left Descanso for the Rose Bowl area.

Rooke admitted Descanso raised its fees in 2008 and 2009 in an attempt to recoup revenue lost from turning away several wedding bookings on days Pops had reserved the lawn area, a figure estimated as high as $20,000 per weekend. Descanso withdrew the second increase when it learned Pops ticket sales were declining in the wake of the recession, and Rooke said Pops never discussed renegotiating the contract before its sudden departure.

“We had no idea they were going to leave, but we knew they were having financial troubles — everybody did,” Rooke said.

Schulhof said the Arboretum has every confidence in the stability of Pops, though the group has cycled through several conductors in recent years. “We’re talking about a start date of 2012,” he said. “I would anticipate this issue would be resolved (by then).”

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