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The New Blood: Eric Nowlin, a 22-year-old violist from Wisconsin by way of Juilliard, is a featured guest artist at the Santa Cruz Symphony's performance Nov. 8 at the Civic.

Boom and Gloom

It's fashionable to say regional symphonies are down for the count. But music directors from around the Bay Area and Central Coast say that's not the whole story.

By Scott MacClelland

Is your local Symphony Orchestra on the ropes? Is it going down for the count? Three articles in late-spring and early-summer editions of The New York Times described a species not just endangered but one facing imminent extinction. To corroborate such a bleak picture, one need only recall the decomposing remains of the San Jose Symphony, the latest casualty on a trail littered with the gruesome residue of once vibrant orchestras in Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego (to say nothing of those dead and dying symphonic institutions in other parts of the country). In almost every case, those failures appeared to come on with overwhelming and unsurvivable speed, to the shock and dismay of their subscribers and supporters.

Two weeks ago, the Santa Cruz Symphony opened its 46th season with a Watsonville concert of exceptional quality, a program of Britten, Liszt and Tchaikovsky whose standards of technical and artistic execution could only make this community proud. But, as audiences elsewhere have come to discover, this could be a last gasp, a battle decisively won only to be rewarded with annihilation. And what does this portend for the Monterey Symphony, currently weakened by the inevitable artistic blur that attends a transition from a retiring music director (Kate Tamarkin) to a parade of guest conductors among whom may be found the orchestra's next permanent conductor?

The New York Times doomsayers have plenty of recent and current evidence to justify their dire conclusions. Orchestras across the land are in trouble, deeply in debt, asking musicians to take pay cuts, suffering strikes, renegotiating contracts, begging for bailouts. This means regional orchestras (which include those which rose from ashes in the aforementioned cities) as well as some of the second-tier majors, like the Florida Philharmonic, Tulsa Philharmonic, Colorado Springs Symphony and San Antonio Symphony, among a growing number. Even the powerhouse Chicago Symphony is said to be having financial troubles.

For the time being, the Santa Cruz, Monterey and new Symphony Silicon Valley orchestras appear to be on solid financial footing. But are they really? It depends on who you ask.

Most music lovers will inevitably look to programming for answers (assuming technical standards are secure) and that includes musicians and conductors as well. We solicited input from several in that camp:

* The Santa Cruz Symphony's Larry Granger sees a big shift in funding. He says foundations and granting agencies are pulling back, which means more support must come from the local community. He also takes the traditional line: "That generally means that groups must become more conservative and somewhat more entertainment-oriented to stimulate broader ticket sales and new audience and supporters."

* Mitchell Sardou Klein, music director of the Peninsula Symphony (performing primarily in the west S.F. Bay Area) and Granger's predecessor in Santa Cruz, says, "The art form is not in trouble, even while some of the presenting organizations are." Klein's programming reflects his strongly held opinions and optimistic commitment to variety, substance and even resistance to the current trend among conductors for shorter programs. (Last season, for example, he added Arthur Bliss' rarely heard Colour Symphony and a work for didgeridoo and orchestra to Carl Orff's one-hour Carmina Burana.) Following the 2002-2003 Peninsula Symphony season, he observes, "The concerts have gotten critical and audience approval, attendance is substantially up and fund raising is difficult." He predicts, "We may break even or run a small, but manageable deficit for this season."

* Marin Alsop, whose Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music plays exclusively new or rarely heard 20th-century works, observes that the major concern during the 1938 season was the fact that audiences were getting older and the question arose as to whether there would be a future for symphony music as the audience died off. Since that exact issue continues to cause anxiety among today's music lovers, 65 years later, one wonders if it isn't a red herring. "It is a simply reality that people tend to develop an appreciation for classical music later in life, so older listeners will always comprise our core listeners." Alsop sees herself as an ambassador for classical music, old and new. "I do a ton of public speaking; present a series of talks at the local bookstore; am a consistent presence on our local public radio station, etc., etc." She has enjoyed lasting success with her efforts off as well as on the podium, including roundtable discussions with living composers. Her passion is palpable, "The success and rewards of the Cabrillo Festival are a perfect example of what happens when everyone becomes involved in the creative process. And I suppose I'm the ultimate optimist in a somewhat pessimistic industry."

* Joe Truskot, executive director of the Monterey Symphony for nearly 15 years, enjoys a healthy endowment, but has faced his own share of ups and downs. "The reopening of Sunset Theater and the selection of a new conductor will skew the statistics of the Monterey Symphony for most 'hard time' surveys. In light of this, the trend toward shorter concerts seems to be OK with our audiences." The Monterey Symphony has never been dependent on corporate giving, but the loss of foundation support has forced changes in programs in favor of works that use fewer musicians. Truskot, like his counterparts with other orchestras, is an optimistic music lover and a skilled administrator who once served as president of the Association of California Symphony Orchestras.

* Dick Gourley is a businessman and music lover who stepped in to apply his management skills to save the San Jose Symphony. His strategy was in the process of being implemented when it was abruptly unraveled by the tumultuous events of 9/11 and its aftermath. Gourley advocated a strong business model. "Good intentions don't pay the bills," he says. "Execution is what counts." The San Jose Symphony did a poor job over many years, not only in the area of budget management, but extending even to how they treated their subscribers. "We did a lousy job; it wasn't fair to our customers." He sees the ideal manager as a hybrid, "someone who understands art but is good with business."

* Andrew Bales may be just that person. He is CEO of the newly launched Symphony Silicon Valley, now in its first independent season, having been weaned from its interim, Ballet San Jose, with which it shares many of the same musicians. "To be successful, and to survive, we have to be market driven," says Bales pragmatically. He sees his organization as the top of a pyramid. "We can't provide for all of the income of our musicians, but we can support and stimulate other opportunities for them in the community." Bales is presiding over a hefty season of subscription concerts with plans to expand into other regional venues with additional, usually different fare. He is not impressed with the traditional fears and anxieties of the industry. On struggling to bring in young people, he blithely says, "People develop an interest in classical music later in life." When will his organization choose a music director? "Not for a couple of years at least," he says. "That's a complex relationship and we are still discovering who we are in our community. Until we have a better handle on that, we're not even thinking about a music director. We have a wonderful season of guest conductors and that's providing us with plenty of excitement."

The late Soviet Union, in its conceit, hatched many a five-year plan. Most American business leaders would probably characterize that thinking as ideology, not management. The New York Times critics look down on the world from lofty heights, not up from the trenches. While there may be little consensus among those quoted above, there is no shortage of vitality and dedication among the survivors.

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From the October 29-November 5, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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