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Symphony Eyes Options In Cancellation Crisis

November 11, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — Short of a miracle, the San Diego Symphony was expected to cancel its winter season today. The cancellation, if it comes, is expected to test the determination of the opposing sides in the deadlocked labor talks.

The musicians hope their absence will convince the orchestra's board of directors that the symphony cannot exist without adequately paid musicians. The board will be severely tested to make good on its pledge that the symphony will be a fiscally responsible organization.

Symphony fund raising, a demanding task in the best of times, will be even more difficult when there is no music emanating from Symphony Hall, arts administrators have said. Symphony board President Herbert Solomon hopes to salvage at least a mini-season if an agreement can be reached by Jan. 1. Such a truncated season would begin in March.

Business leaders and arts patrons say a key to the symphony's future financial success depends on improving its level of credibility in the community.

"Their biggest question is to prove to people they can manage money successfully," said UC San Diego fund-raiser Ray Ramseyer. Ramseyer, who has raised $26 million in a campaign tied to UCSD's 25th anniversary, said there is money enough in San Diego.

"My own feeling is there are enough resources in this community. It can afford whatever it thinks it needs. The dollars are there. But people are more apt to give to strengths than to weaknesses."

Will a season cancellation affect those who have pledged money over several years to the $6.5-million Symphony Hall capital campaign? "We're getting collections. There have been no cancellations," Solomon said.

Among major donors, Home Federal pledged a total of $100,000 over four years for the hall. "We're committed to the capital campaign," said Home Fed spokesman Dick Haack. Because of that pledge, "we're not involved in the season," but Home Fed did underwrite a week of summer pops concerts at $7,500, Haack said.

Great American First Savings Bank just made the second of three payments on its $100,000 pledge for Symphony Hall. The season cancellation will not affect its remaining commitment, Great American spokesman Ken Ulrich said.

Ironically, despite the canceled season, many believe the symphony may have the strongest board and staff leadership in its history.

Attorney William Nelson said, "I think Herb (Solomon) and new symphony Executive Director Wesley Brustad are going a long way to mitigate the credibility doubts. I've known Herb a long time, and I really believe in him. But it's very hard to erase negative thoughts."

Nelson is the volunteer president of the San Diego Opera and serves on a board of advisers to the symphony.

But the ability of the new symphony leadership will be sorely tested by the long-standing dispute with labor that this year has come to a head.

For years, the San Diego musicians have supported the board through crisis after crisis, often playing without pay to enable the symphony to launch bail-out campaigns.

In the current climate of ill will, in which the musicians have publicly criticized board policy and management decisions, fund raising will remain difficult. "Until the musicians and management make common cause, it's going to be damn tough," Nelson said.

A new plan by Brustad to eliminate the symphony's debt requires raising $5.5 million in the next five years, in addition to the money needed to run the symphony. That's an average of $1 million a year more than the symphony has raised, according to symphony figures. Can the symphony raise the additional money--especially when there is no season?

"A jump of $1 million is pretty awesome, and especially awesome if you don't have credibility," said an arts fund-raiser who asked not to be named. "If their houses were full, and they were selling out all their concerts or 60 or 70% (of the house at each concert), then they would have a better chance."

One former San Diego Symphony development director thinks Brustad's plan is feasible. "It's easy to get into a negative mode at this time. Once they've overcome the negatives of negotiations, then they can join forces and move ahead," said Ken Overstreet, chief symphony fund-raiser from November, 1985, through the crisis campaign in the spring.

Overstreet said he was astounded to find that the symphony had "only 3,500 or 4,000" contributors. "That was their biggest problem. You would think a 75-year-old organization would have more contributors." The crisis campaign brought in more than 10,000 new names, which Overstreet thinks can be expanded to 45,000 names. "I feel strongly that if those names can be treated properly, plus ongoing growth," they can raise an additional $1 million a year.

Brustad, who has whittled back last year's budget by $1.5 million, gets high marks from former symphony President Phillip Klauber, who also criticizes some symphony decisions.

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