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ARTS WATCH

Symphony Talks Hurt By Bad Vibes

September 24, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — At last week's annual meeting of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra Assn., one middle-aged board member sadly shook her head. "I never thought I would live to see this day," she said, walking past picketing musicians.

A few days later principal harpist Sheila Sterling stood with her sign outside Symphony Hall, handing out leaflets critical of the association's management. She, too, was astonished at the turn of events: "They never told us at Juilliard that we would be doing this."

The contract talks between musicians and the Symphony Assn. have stalled over the matter of pay. For the first time in 10 years, the association appears to be taking the mantel of fiscal responsibility seriously. The association says it can only pay musicians with money it has, not with what it suspects it might be able to raise. Unfortunately, the timing could not be worse.

The musicians, having been stiffed repeatedly by management, aren't buying it. It's just another negotiating ploy, they say of management's assertion that the players must agree to cut the number of contracted weeks from 45 to 38, which represents a 15% pay cut.

But behind the wage talks lies a personality conflict that makes Goose Gossage and Ballard Smith look like kissing cousins. It's not between individuals, but between management and the players. Musicians privately say that the long-held arrogant attitude of staff members toward them, although not easily portrayed on a picket sign, is more of an obstacle to an agreement than are the money matters. In the jockeying for position by both sides, it is not always easy to tell what's real from what's rhetoric.

Symphony President Herbert Solomon says the association intends to mend its ways in its relations with the musicians, but he is adamant about creating fiscal responsibility. Unless the staff and his professional negotiator can convey the style and substance of his statement to the musicians, don't look for an agreement.

COMBO AT CROSSROADS: The annual audit is in for COMBO and suggests that the San Diego City Council examine its continued support for the private arts fund-raising organization. Since 1984 COMBO has raised less money each year, with government providing a larger share of COMBO's budget. In the fiscal year just ended, the city pumped more into COMBO than COMBO raised on its own.

Take away city and county funding from COMBO's $1.5-million annual budget, and we see that COMBO raised a net of $308,841, which it distributed among 27 organizations.

COMBO was formed in 1964 to support a limited number of arts activities in San Diego. Recently, the City Council has given much less attention to COMBO than to the newly formed Public Arts Advisory Board. The advisory board, which has received close public supervision from the City Council, has put forward a master plan for city support of the arts. It will also help administer a budget of about $240,000 a year for public art. If the advisory board were reorganized as a commission, it could take over administration of all city grants to the arts.

The question, then, is: Should the city, which has shown its commitment to support the arts, make its own grants under its own arts program? The city already is funding directly non-COMBO members such as the Balboa Park museums, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre and some COMBO members--the San Diego Symphony and the Old Globe Theatre.

But COMBO also serves other functions as an arts clearinghouse. It operates an arts hot line that provides news of current events. COMBO is administering for the city a three-year National Endowment for the Arts grant that funds many non-COMBO members, including individual artists.

Although government funding supposedly is not used for overhead, COMBO's administrative and annual fund expenses--$336,108 last year--amount to 52% of its non-government overhead. This amounts to more than $12,000 for each COMBO member organization.

It's time the council looked into whether funding COMBO isn't keeping alive an idea that should be put aside or at least drastically updated.

GLOBE GLAM: "The Petition," a drama about a retired general and his wife, who wants to ban nuclear bombs, will fill the final slot in the Old Globe's winter season, Jan. 24 to March 8 at the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. The play by Brian Clark, who wrote "Whose Life is it, Anyway?" was produced on Broadway in the spring.

More currently, out during the final two weeks of "Julius Caesar" because of prior commitments are John Vickery (Marcus Brutus), Mark Alaimo (Caius Cassius) and Earle Hyman (Julius Caesar). Filling the key roles are Vaughn Armstrong (Brutus), Dierk Torsek (Cassius) and David Toney (Caesar).

PLAYHOUSE FINALE: The La Jolla Playhouse brings down the curtain on its fourth season this weekend with the final performance of the Greek tragedy "Ajax" Saturday night. The romping, stomping Peter Sellars staging sure ain't "Dallas."

"Ajax," which arguably is the most intellectually and theatrically exciting production to hit the boards this year, has had San Diegans running for the exits. Most early departers exit during the scene in which General Ajax is flailing away in a glass tank full of blood. Cast members at last week's post-performance discussion were not dismayed. They rather liked having playgoers take their theater so seriously.

Howie Seago (Ajax) said and signed (he is deaf) that at the play's performances in Washington, patrons, rather than leave, stuck it out, scrunched uncomfortably in their seats. "They do get up and leave in La Jolla," Seago said. "Here it has a stronger impact on the audience."

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