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Sour Notes : Orchestra Silenced, Survival in Doubt

September 28, 1986|SUE AVERY | Times Staff Writer

The abrupt decision to cancel the 1986-87 season of the highly acclaimed Pasadena Chamber Orchestra has led to charges by the group's conductor and some of his supporters that the board of directors overreacted to projected deficits.

The board canceled the season Sept. 10 after its founder and conductor, Robert Duerr--who had almost single-handedly raised the funds to keep the group going since its inception--announced plans to step down as music director next June to pursue other musical interests.

Upon hearing of his planned resignation, members voted to cancel the coming season, prompting Duerr to resign immediately and casting doubt on whether the orchestra will survive at all.

"Without Duerr the orchestra could not survive financially," said Peggy Phelps, acting president of the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra's board of directors.

"His charisma and fund-raising ability is the reason for its existence the last nine years," Phelps said.

"We (the board) couldn't see where the money for the season was coming from. The largest amount of money in the past came from a few people, and they have indicated a drawing back of major support" after Duerr's announcement that he would leave the orchestra, she said.

Board members indicated that they were afraid they would be unable to raise the approximately $225,000 needed to finance even the coming season, despite the fact that Duerr had planned to conduct until June.

At at this point, all that remains of the orchestra is its name, its tax-exempt status and the 28 board members, who will meet Wednesday to discuss its future.

Salvage Job

"We will discuss if the orchestra can be salvaged," said Richard Stever, a board member for five years.

Duerr said last week that he thought the group could survive if it were reorganized and its season scaled back until another music director could be found.

"I could have helped them rethink ideas on how to revamp the orchestra and search for a new music director," Duerr said.

"The issue of my name is important" to major donors, Duerr said, but he added that he feels the orchestra could survive with a new music director.

Duerr said he would have remained indefinitely as music director if he had been relieved of fund-raising responsibilities.

'Disowning My Own Child'

"This is a major step for me, disowning my own child," he said. "But I am trying to become the best musician, not the best fund-raiser."

The orchestra, founded nine years ago by Duerr at age 23, had become known as the only professional ensemble in Southern California to regularly present works by living composers as well as rarely heard Baroque pieces.

It had been scheduled to give six concerts at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena and at the Embassy Theater in Los Angeles this season, which was to run from Nov. 18 to May 19.

"I am saddened and discouraged at the board's action," Duerr said. "The decision was hasty and that hurts.

"It takes a product to get money. You can't get it up front ahead of time, and I had a sense of where it was coming from. I would never have let the orchestra get a high deficit."

Prize-Winning Organist

Duerr was a prize-winning organist who had just graduated from USC, where he also had studied conducting, when he founded the orchestra in 1977 to give himself more experience on the podium.

Initially his small ensemble was made up of friends and acquaintances who were young professionals and members of other orchestras. The group's first-year budget was $12,000.

Nine years later, the budget had grown to more than $300,000, the 35-member ensemble had won six awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), and Duerr had introduced more than 20 new works of contemporary composers.

"The orchestra has provided a lot of exposure for musicians, provided music for the people of Southern California, commissioned 26 composers for original work and given Duerr an incredible springboard for his career," Phelps said. "So it has done a lot of good for a lot of people."

Survival After Duerr

The chief issue in deciding the orchestra's future is whether the group can survive without Duerr.

Duerr conceded that most of the money given to the orchestra came from donors who knew him personally.

"I am not a professional fund-raiser," said Duerr, now 32, who recently accepted an appointment as associate conductor of the Los Angeles Music Center Opera Company and will guest-conduct several operas and symphony programs in Los Angeles and elsewhere during the next year.

"We could not survive financially without him because people were giving to Duerr, not the orchestra," said Shelley Alexander, who served as general manager of the group until its office closed Monday.

Total Dependency

"The orchestra had to grow out of total dependency on Bob doing the fund-raising, and it never did," said Fritzie Culick, a former board member who helped found the orchestra.

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