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Rising Stars: Symphony Silicon Valley hopes to buck the trend that has beset American orchestras.

Symphony Savers

It's fashionable to predict that regional symphonies are down for the count. But music directors from around the Bay Area 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 ("As Funds Disappear, So Do Orchestras," by Stephen Kinzer; "How to Kill Orchestras," by Bernard Holland; and "Orchestral Survival: It's Not Simply the Economy, Stupid," by James Oestreich) described a species not just endangered but one facing imminent extinction.

Need proof? Just survey the wreckage a couple of years ago of the San Jose Symphony, the latest California casualty on a trail littered with the gruesome residue of once vibrant orchestras in Oakland, Sacramento and San Diego. 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.

The new Symphony Silicon Valley staged a free preseason concert at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay with the ominous title Sunset Symphony. After all, the sun has set on an alarming number of symphony orchestras throughout the United States, not least our own San Jose Symphony two years ago. To be sure, Symphony Silicon Valley has asserted itself most impressively, both this season and last, under a variety of guest conductors, all suggesting a rosy artistic future. But realistically, the question continues to nag.

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, squeezing their musicians, suffering strikes, renegotiating contracts, begging for bailouts. This means primarily the regional orchestras (including those which rose from ashes in the aforementioned cities) as well as some of the second-tier majors, like the Colorado Springs Symphony, Florida Philharmonic, San Antonio Symphony and Tulsa Philharmonic.

"Even the mighty Chicago Symphony has faltered financially of late," notes Oestreich. For the time being, the Santa Cruz, Monterey and new Symphony Silicon Valley orchestras appear to be on secure financial footing.

But are they really? It depends on whom you ask and when. The issue is further confused by the extreme range of resources, from the fully professional $52 million budget of the San Francisco Symphony all the way down to the $60,000 annual nut of Eric Kujawsky's all-volunteer Redwood Symphony.

Most music lovers will look to programming as life insurance (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 observes a big shift in funding, with foundations and granting agencies pulling back and, consequentially, greater demand for support from the local community. He 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 volunteer Peninsula Symphony, 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. Following his 2002-03 season, he observes, "The concerts have gotten critical and audience approval, attendance is substantially up and fundraising is difficult." Klein predicts, "We may break even or run a small, but manageable deficit for this season."

Kujawsky tells a similar story, having taken an additional hit when in-kind support from Cañada College dried up season before last. Popular with professional musicians who work pro bono because of his adventuresome programming, Kujawsky adds cautiously, "We finished last season in the black."

At the opposite end of the programming philosophy advocated by Granger is Marin Alsop, whose Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music has won widespread support playing exclusively new or rarely heard 20th-century works. Alsop notes that the major concern during the 1938 concert season in America was aging audiences and the fear that there would be no replacements when they died off, effectively dooming classical music itself.

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 simple reality that people tend to develop an appreciation for classical music later in life, so older listeners will always comprise our core audience."

Alsop sees herself as an ambassador for classical music, whether old or 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." She has enjoyed growing success with her efforts on, as well as off, the podium, including round-table discussions with
living composers.

Joe Truskot, executive director of the Monterey Symphony for 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 [after this season] 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 not been dependent on corporate giving, but the loss of foundation support has forced changes of previously announced programs in favor of those 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.

Businessman and music lover Dick Gourley stepped in to apply his management skills pro bono to save the San Jose Symphony. His strategy was in the process of being implemented when the tumultuous events of 9/11 and its aftermath unraveled the plan. 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 it treated its 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."

That person may be Andrew Bales, president of Symphony Silicon Valley. The new symphony is now in its first independent season, having been weaned from its interim host, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, 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 now in place 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 echoes Alsop: "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.

Management deception and corruption may prove to be the common denominator of failure among American symphony orchestras. In his commentary of Oct. 21, Robert Commanday, senior editor of San Francisco Classical Voice (SFCV.org), attacked the reckless and failed attempt by the New York Philharmonic to take control of Carnegie Hall and abandon its longtime home at Lincoln Center.

He summarized his critique this way: "Wherever there's an orchestra (or opera company) in trouble, the moving finger points unerringly at an arrogant or incompetent president, again and again. Careless journalists usually blame 'a decline in interest in classical music,' and it's not that; it's the nut that holds the wheel." While Commanday was targeting the majors, variations of his message have come back to bite orchestras at every level, all too often with fatal results.

Symphony Silicon Valley, with conductor Theo Alcantara, performs 'Valentino and Violins,' featuring Dominick Argento's Valentino Dances, Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 12 in D Major and Dvorák's Symphony no. 8. Saturday (Nov. 22) at 8pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., $28-$68. (408.286.2600)

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From the November 20-26, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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