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A Lesson For San Diego : Dallas Symphony Once Plagued By Sour Notes

February 28, 1987|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — The cities of San Diego and Dallas have much in common. Dallas is the seventh-largest city in the nation, San Diego the eighth. Both are boom centers of the Sun Belt. Both have experienced stunning growth in the past dozen years.

Both have had woeful problems with symphony orchestras.

At the moment, the San Diego Symphony is at a nadir; the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has never been better. Even so, in the words of an administrator for the Dallas contingent, San Diego '87 is a "cruel replay" of Dallas '74.

After almost collapsing 13 years ago--indeed, after being excoriated in the New York Times--the Dallas Symphony Orchestra has never been in better financial health, nor at a loftier artistic peak. It has a recording contract with a major label (Pro Arte), an internationally known conductor in Eduardo Mata and is building a $75-million concert hall. It has a $14-million endowment and toured Europe in 1985.

Those are huge strides from an episode which included a canceled season, a $1-million-plus debt and musicians suing for more than $500,000 in back pay while high-priced conductors never once missed a check.

What did Dallas do to turn things around? What lessons does its experience hold for San Diego?

"One person has to make it his crusade," said Henry S. Miller Jr., a Dallas real estate magnate largely credited with saving the city's symphony. "No one person can do it all, but it takes some one to take command. And really, it wasn't all that hard.

"I hardly had anyone turn me down, either for a job of serving on the committee or helping to raise money or whatever. We got a lot of positive response. You just have to be organized."

San Diegans hopeful of mirroring the Dallas success should take note that the turnaround took shape gradually, over a decade. An observer close to the scene said the Dallas symphony's first phase was gaining control of its finances; second, its ability to market itself and gain a constituency, and third, seizing on both to improve artistically.

Dallas' problems were remarkably similar to San Diego's. A disorganized board. No ability to raise money. Major conductors in Max Rudolf and Georg Solti, now maestro of the Chicago Symphony, had left angrily. Credit at banks was nonexistent, reputation in the community at an ebb. Until Miller stepped in, no one had taken charge.

"If you fail to plan, you're planning to fail," said Leonard David Stone, the Canadian-born executive director of the Dallas Symphony. "There's no evidence that the powers in San Diego have planned. They cannot have planned with the revolving door of management that they've had.

"It's been an industry-wide joke: 'Who's managing San Diego this month?' "

Herbert J. Solomon, president of the board of directors of the San Diego Symphony, said he agreed with Stone's criticisms.

"Yes, I agree if you fail to plan, you plan to fail," Solomon said. "That's been the story here. Planning is very important. It's true San Diego has had too many managers. However, I'm pleased to say our current executive director (Wesley O. Brustad) is a man of considerable experience. He started in September, and I hired him."

Solomon said he is hopeful of the San Diego Symphony resuming play "by the start of the next winter season--October of this year." Still, he concedes massive problems. He was asked if he could be Miller's counterpart in San Diego.

He sighed and said, "The major problem is a lack of confidence by the public in the symphony. We have a deterioration of credibility. How do we turn things around? One of the ways is through a vehicle, such as a community task force, appointed by the mayor. An independent group would analyze the situation. I support this kind of group."

Stone said "three to four mileposts" have to be realized before a symphony can have effective management.

"You have to have return on investment--you have to meet certain financial criteria. I don't believe they've had that, particularly with players," Stone said.

"You have to have delivery of product. Under (Conductor and Music Director David) Atherton's leadership, they were said to have been a quality group. But you've also got to have your share of the market. I doubt that they've had that."

Stone called Atherton, who recently resigned, a conductor "of splendid training, of impeccable British discipline." He had heard of Atherton "lacking the confidence of his players," saying, "That is something you simply can't have. Here we want the players to feel that I, the maestro and the board have done everything we possibly can for them. We want morale to be zooming. The feeling is great here, but we've had to work at it.

"People throughout the industry feel San Diego should have a major symphony. It has an ideal climate, a large population with plenty of wealthy people, an economy that isn't depressed--that alone makes it almost unique . . . The idea ought to be augmenting a beautiful life style with great music.

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