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Flutist Calling the Tune for Master Symphony

April 11, 1985|RALPH CIPRIANO | Times Staff Writer

NORWALK — When the Master Symphony orchestra gave a concert in the past, all that John Barcellona worried about was hitting the right notes on his gold flute.

But since the orchestra's principal flutist became the orchestra's general manager as well, Barcellona now has other concerns, such as booking the auditorium and selling tickets.

"In my own little microcosm here, I feel like the President of the United States," said Barcellona from behind the cluttered desk of the symphony's office in the basement of Norwalk City Hall.

"I've never done anything like this before," the 38-year-old musician said.

"It has totally opened up my horizons. . .. I find this end of it is just as creative and just as artistic as the music end of it."

Barcellona is attempting to save an orchestra that in recent years appeared on the verge of collapse.

Founded in 1978 by Philip Westin, chairman of the music department at Cerritos College, the professional 85-member orchestra performed classical concerts throughout the Southeast area until 1983, when the college, facing reduced revenues in the post-Proposition 13 era, cut off funds for the orchestra's concerts that once amounted to $600,000 a year.

Westin resigned as music director in March, 1984, and Barcellona was selected last spring by the orchestra's board of directors to take over as general manager.

Later in the year, the orphan Master Symphony found a home at Norwalk City Hall, when the city donated an office and $20,000 to finance an abbreviated 1984-85 concert season.

Gershwin Concert

For the 1985-86 season, the city has donated $73,000 to the orchestra, including $28,000 for a Gershwin "spectacular" planned for June 15. But indications are that the council's patience may be growing short, and Barcellona acknowledges that unless the orchestra can sell out the Gershwin concert at Excelsior High School, the critically acclaimed musicians of the nonprofit Master Symphony may be sent packing again.

"There's a lot of marbles riding on the June 15 concert," he said, adding that if the orchestra sells all 2,000 seats for the concert, it will ask the city to help pay for three more concerts in 1986.

But Barcellona, who answers questions with a booming, "Absolutely," can look beyond the financial uncertainties of the present and foresee a self-supporting orchestra that he hopes will become the "Boston Pops of the West."

Barcellona's reason for enthusiasm is the orchestra's recent hiring of Peter Nero as music director to replace Westin. Nero, who has appeared with the Master Symphony as a guest conductor, is a renowned pianist who, as conductor of the Philly Pops Orchestra in Philadelphia, has won acclaim for his eclectic concerts.

"All we have to do is get Peter and his magic in front of audiences in Southern California . . . and I think the rest is going to take care of itself," Barcellona said. "We know the product we've got is sensational."

Despite Barcellona's optimism, Norwalk City Council members have voiced concerns about whether they can continue to fund the orchestra.

"I think it's good for the community to bring in some culture," said Mayor Cecil Green. "I believe it (the orchestra) will become self-supporting but if it doesn't I'd have to take a second look at it."

Nonprofit Status Questioned

Mayor Pro Tem Marcial (Rod) Rodriguez questions the orchestra's nonprofit status.

"If they (the orchestra's professional musicians) are getting union scale, how charitable are they?" he said. He added that the council's decision to subsidize the orchestra "leaves us open to every other organization in the city" seeking donations.

With talk like that, Barcellona clearly is under pressure to make the orchestra financially viable. He may be the right person for the job. Besides his artistic abilities, Barcellona has a strong practical side that shows in his work for the Muramatsu Flute Co., the makers of his flute. As a salesman for the company last year, Barcellona was the firm's top revenue producer in the nation.

Born in Los Angeles, Barcellona was raised on Long Island, where he first fell in love with the flute.

"In fourth grade when I was about 9 years old, they came around with the band recruiting people to play instruments, and they stood up with the different instruments and the flute was all shiny in the light," he said. He recalls telling the band director he wanted to sign up to play the flute and said the director encouraged him by saying, "Go ahead; nobody plays the flute."

In high school, he said peer pressure forced him to seek more acceptable outlets for his love of music, such as playing Ventures and Beatles tunes on a bass guitar. In college, he expanded his musical abilities by playing in soul and bluegrass bands.

Enlisted in Army

After college, his practical side surfaced again when Barcellona signed a three-year contract before enlisting in the Army that guaranteed he would spend the entire three years--it was then the height of the Vietnam War--playing the flute in the West Point Band.

The product of Barcellona's varied musical background is a classically trained musician (Barcellona has music degrees from the University of Hartford in Connecticut and Cal State Long Beach) who plays chamber music with the Westwood Wind Quintet, teaches music at Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton but listens to Top 40 radio station KIIS-FM on his way to work.

(Barcellona says he thinks the rock group Queen shows musical genius, while he also is quite fond of Billy Ocean's pop hit "Loverboy.")

Barcellona also is a skilled studio musician who has played on the theme song to television's "St. Elsewhere" and several Walt Disney recordings.

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