SAN DIEGO — At a time when San Diego Symphony musicians could use a healthy infusion of hope, an ideal tonic might be provided at Saturday's performance of Beethoven's Ninth ("Choral") Symphony at Civic Theatre. But it will take more than the work's lofty humanism to sustain the instrumentalists, who have not had a paycheck since mid-September.
"This Civic Theatre concert will make us or break us," said Jessica Lorge, who has organized concerts by the symphony players after the board canceled the 1986-87 season. Lorge, whose husband, John, is a member of the orchestra's horn section, started putting this program together with the aid of principal bassoon Dennis Michel after the players' successful November benefit concert at El Cajon's East County Performing Arts Center.
The Beethoven concert will feature 70 instrumentalists; vocal soloists Carol Thornburgh, Lisa McPhail, Gerald Whitney and Ronald Banks, and the 120-voice San Diego Master Chorale.
For this program, the symphony musicians have received the cooperation of two other major San Diego arts organizations. The Master Chorale will perform not only the choral part of the Beethoven, but chorale music director Frank Almond will conduct Haydn's "Te Deum" and Verdi's a capella setting of "Ave Maria" in the program's opening half.
And in order to use the Civic Theatre on Saturday evening, the San Diego Opera agreed to bend its schedule. "They've been really helpful," said Lorge. "The opera is letting us break down part of their set in order to give our concert." After the opera-sponsored Joan Sutherland concert at Civic Theatre on Friday, the opera company will be in rehearsal for its production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman," which opens the following week.
The last-minute withdrawal of Oregon Symphony conductor James DePriest, who had agreed to come to San Diego to conduct the Beethoven symphony, threatened to undo the musicians' efforts last week. According to Lorge, DePriest canceled because of a serious illness in his family. In a few days, however, Michel was able line up Indianapolis Symphony associate conductor William Curry to take DePriest's place.
Curry admitted that he had some qualms about accepting a conducting invitation from musicians who were engaged in a labor dispute with their symphony association. "I've had nothing but good relationships with orchestral musicians, especially since I've been a player as well as a conductor, " said Curry, who was reached by phone at his Indianapolis home. "I guess I have more of a player's mentality. Knowing something of the (San Diego) players' situation, my heart went out to them."
In his fourth year as the Indianapolis Symphony's associate conductor, the 32-year-old Curry has held similar posts with the Baltimore Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. While the master agreement between the players and the Indianapolis Symphony ended with the 1985-86 season, the parties there were able to negotiate a new three-year contract without cessation of scheduled performances. While the San Diego Symphony Assn. and its musicians are at an acrimonious impasse, their Indianapolis counterparts are enjoying a new contract with a 50-week season and an annual base salary of $30,250.
The first time Curry conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was on even shorter notice than he received from San Diego. "The first year after my graduation from Oberlin, I was asked to conduct the Ninth Symphony on just 10 hours' notice. I was the assistant conductor of the Richmond, Va., Chamber Orchestra, in which I also had to play viola. When the Richmond Symphony's scheduled conductor suffered a kidney stone attack, I was summoned at 8:30 in the morning and had to conduct the evening's performance without benefit of an orchestra rehearsal, although I was able to meet with the four vocal soloists a few hours before the performance." Curry said he was glad to know he would have four full rehearsals in San Diego.
Although Beethoven's Ninth is frequently performed with a larger ensemble than 70, Michel said they are not doubling the woodwind parts, as has become customary, but following Beethoven's original orchestration. "Most of the orchestra's regular contract players will be playing," said Michel, "except for those few who are out auditioning or have found work in Los Angeles. Many musicians in the community, especially string players who (Music Director David) Atherton decided not to rehire, have come forward and expressed their desire to play with us."
Michel described the players as feeling solidarity at this point, although he admitted that their morale had been on a roller coaster over the last few weeks. Horn player Ethan Dulsky, who conducted the orchestra players in a pair of concerts earlier this month in San Diego and La Jolla, described the players' morale as "surprisingly good under the circumstances. It really improves when we get together to perform music."