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Upbeat on Sour Notes : Beach Cities Symphony Acts to Tune Out Threats to Survival

April 05, 1987|KAREN ROEBUCK | Times Staff Writer

Nearly 30 musicians sat tuning their instruments last week as they waited for their new conductor to step up to the podium, his baton poised, ready to begin weekly rehearsal.

Instead, a member of the group's board of directors approached the podium in a music room at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. Nowell Wisch was armed, not with a baton but with an advertising rate sheet.

He didn't ask the musicians to play from their soul or remind the string section to play Brahms at the lower end of their bows--those instructions came later from Charles Blackman, the recently hired conductor. Wisch just asked the musicians to think of the business people they meet each week and to try to sell advertising in the concert programs.

Expenses Going Up

The 37-year-old Beach Cities Symphony Assn. is going through a transition brought on by financial problems. Although fund raising and membership are at record highs, expenses have gone up faster than revenues, according to David Bradburn, president of the symphony's board of directors.

The association's annual budget is $30,000 and the association has grown to 400 members--most of whom are from the South Bay or Long Beach--who pay $15 to $1,000 each to join each year, he said. The association usually puts on four concerts a year, which are free to the public.

But the board, citing financial woes, canceled a concert scheduled for last Friday, prompting the symphony's music director, Herman Clebanoff, to quit after more than six years with the 65-piece orchestra.

Bradburn said the board realized that it could not produce all the scheduled concerts without running into deficit, so it decided in February to cancel the third concert despite notification from Clebanoff several months ago that he would quit if any of the concerts were canceled.

Clebanoff, 69, said in telephone interview that he feared that the cancellation would harm fund raising, slow the growth of audiences and association membership and destroy the momentum of the continually improving orchestra.

"I didn't do it as a threat," he said. "I did it because I didn't want to cancel the momentum and demoralize the orchestra."

Bradburn praised Clebanoff for greatly improving the orchestra musically during his tenure, but said that the conductor actually contributed to the association's financial troubles because of his demand for excellence. "Dictator" was a word used more than once by people associated with the orchestra to describe the former conductor.

Added Professionals

Clebanoff increased the number of paid professionals within the orchestra and was perhaps too hard on the volunteer, non-professional musicians, Bradburn said. Clebanoff admitted few non-professionals to the orchestra after he took over as part-time music director in 1980, Bradburn added, keeping their number at slightly more than a third of the symphony.

Clebanoff--who earns his living playing violin and conducting for recording, television and movie studios--said he was not too demanding on any of the musicians. "I'm demanding on the music because I feel a responsibility to the composers," he said.

In addition to the non-professionals, another third of the orchestra is made up of professional members, and the remainder are students, usually in college, Jefferson said. Some people associated with the group, however, said the professional membership has gotten as high as one half or two thirds.

Bradburn said that the professional musicians have been the principal operating expense of the orchestra.

Orchestra manager Jeanne Jefferson disagreed, however. Jefferson, who formerly was a professional flutist with the orchestra and now hires the musicians and handles other concert and reception arrangements, said the insurance, printing and technical costs have risen greatly and are the main reasons the association is having financial troubles.

Clebanoff defended his hiring of more professionals--who are paid $55.50 for one dress rehearsal and $68.70 for a concert--saying, "I did what I feel was necessary to build an orchestra in a realistic way."

While he called the non-professional musicians "the very lifeblood of the orchestra," he said they benefit greatly from the student and professional members and learn a lot working with them.

It is a "fragile makeup of the orchestra that has to be nursed along," Clebanoff said, adding that it is a necessary three-tiered structure.

The music, he said, and not the finances, should be "the bottom line."

Clebanoff, an Encino resident who said he has been conducting for more than 45 years and playing the violin since he was 5 years old, said it is not unusual for a community orchestra to operate at a deficit.

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