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Photograph by Robert Shomler

New Beginning: Andrew Bales, executive director of the ballet, speaks at the new symphony's opening night.


Andrew Bales talks about how the ballet found a way to keep the symphony alive

By Michael S. Gant

IN 1957, Brooklyn lost its beloved Dodgers, and the wound has never never really scabbed over. When San Jose, in October 2001, saw its venerable 123-year-old sympony fall under the weight of a brutual debt, it looked like the city was in danger of sliding into the cultural minor leagues.

After more than a year of slow death by committee, the old San Jose Symphony finally faced the inevitable and decided earlier this month to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Luckily for classical-music fans, the dissolution of the organization didn't mean the dispersement of the musicians. Taking a risky, if modestly defined, step, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, which already employs most of the old symphony's musicians for its dance programs, decided to keep them together for a series of four orchestral programs with guest conductors. The newly constituted Symphony San Jose Silicon Valley made its debut Nov. 23 (see review). Metro called Andrew Bales, head of the ballet and one of the prime movers behind the push to preserve the symphony, and asked him about the new group's prospects.

Metro: When did the idea for the new symphony run by the ballet first come up?

AB: The idea of us creating a symphonic component really emerged at about the same time the symphony decided to close a year ago. ... We pursued it in a very informal way for while, then abandoned the idea as the symphony sought other means to resurrect itself. ... As it became clearer and clearer that the former symphony was not going emerge in any near-term basis, we felt it important for us to hold onto the musicians we have in our community and give them employment and provide the services to the community, so we set out in a more active way, in late August, pressing hard on this--saying let's see if we can put the pieces together and get started.

What is the business model for the combined symphony and ballet?

Our initial business model is simply to break even on the incremental costs of initiating this symphony. So there are no [overhead] savings to be made initially. Longer term, we would like to be able to allocate out our overhead costs into the appropriate shares of the symphony, the ballet and the ballet school. ... The ballet's overall institutional form and the people on staff service all three, and therein lies the economy that makes this work. ... And I would say we could imagine $500,000 to $1 million in allocated symphonic overhead at maturity. That's a larger animal than we are today.

Last year, the ballet showed an operating loss of about $400,000. Have you figured out a solution to that problem?

This is the beginning step of it. This is part of making better use of the resources we have. [The ballet] performs only five programs a year. One of the dilemmas we continue to face is in that the ballet world, The Nutcracker is an extremely pivotal part of the economics, and because of theater scarcity we've had a difficult time getting an optimal run of The Nutcracker in San Jose. We're doing two weeks this year; we really need to be doing three weeks.

The symphony is by no means a single-source resolution. But the ballet was for years a co-venture with Cleveland and operated on a shared-expenses basis, and it was very financially effective doing that. And now what we're doing is re-creating that model, that institutional form--that is, [serving] more than one art form in one community with one governance structure. We think the economics of scale we achieve will generate both earned and contributed revenue and make this thing work.

What kind of growth do you anticipate for the symphony?

There are two issues. The ratio of subscribers to single-ticket buyers will tell us what the appetite for more programs is. If people want it enough to subscribe, that tells me that four is not enough, we need more. We're already setting up for five concerts next year. The total capacity of the theater will determine when we go from one performance per set to two or even more. In this first season, we set up a modest goal of four programs of one performance each. If we reach a saturation capacity even part way through the year, we might even add a second performance.

How long will the symphony use guest conductors?

Well, not forever, but at least for the first two years. Because we're coming back into a marketplace that had many more symphonic services than we're offering, we want the marketplace to tell us a little bit more--we want to build a trust base. And when we get a little into that second season, we'll look around and say, OK, we think this is going to be five programs a year forever, or it's going to be eight programs. Then we'll know what kind of program shape we'll have to offer a music director. And that will determine what kind of candidate will come forward to seek that position.

Who's doing the music programming?

We have a bit of a programming by committee this year. In large part, the initial issue was the selection of the conductor pool. Then the conductors were asked for their recommendations programwise. From the suggestions, we distilled what would make up an interesting and balanced season. And there is a whole series of people who participated in it: musicians have looked at it with me; I've looked at it; people from within our area and people from across the country have looked it. We anticipate actually formalizing that programming committee a little bit more in light of not having a music director, so that there is more of a structure to who's picking it out.

What are the principles behind the selections for the first season?

I would say that our driving image has been that we want to serve the classical symphonic audience. And we want to serve them with a level of diversity and interest that we think will appeal to the most hard-core classical-music audience first and foremost, because those who attended the most frequently, who cared the most about it, who have the most knowledge of its heritage are those least being served now.

So you start from a basis that says, you know, this Beethoven and Mozart and Brahms, they were pretty decent fellows, and it wouldn't hurt us to put a few of their [works] on the stage. From there, we asked the conductors to give us something a little different, a little spice to it. We did want to make sure that we had some brand-new music to fit in around those programmatic war horses as it were. We're opening the first program with Dvorák, but we're also doing a Corigliano [John Corigliano, a contemporary American composer]. Our next program has a virtually brand-new piece by Karen Tanaka, a Japanese composer. But it is on a program with Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. So you have a range in there.

Why was it important to keep the symphony players together?

An average tenure of the musicians in the former symphony was 19 years when it closed. That was a musician who committed on average 19 years to one institution. That institution didn't pay them that well comparatively in the valley as we know it. ... So at some level, the music mattered enough [that] they wanted to play together. They wanted to be artists in this community in this time, and the caliber of what they did matter. And that's an exciting thing. I want to see them do it again and again.

And we wanted to create this orchestra, we said there is an ensemble that has a long heritage of working together, and the longer we don't put it back onstage, the more we risk the caliber of the ensemble--the way those players play off each other--we risk losing that. And you don't get it back four concerts at a time, but as an organization that does both ballet and symphonic services, we get enough programs in place that there is an ensemble sound, and we do it fast enough that that ensemble sound build up over the many, many years that preceded us, is still there.

Symphony San Jose Silicon Valley performs its next concert March 1, 2003, with guest conductor Yasuo Shinozaki, at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. Single tickets run $25-$60; subscriptions $88-$240. Call 408.288.2800 for details.

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From the November 27-December 4, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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