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Pacific Symphony Comes Of Age : Maestro Makes His Own Kind Of Orchestra

October 25, 1987|CHRIS PASLES | Times Staff Writer

The Pacific Symphony started with "nothing," says founder-conductor Keith Clark: "A grant of $2,000 and plans on my kitchen table." Some of its earliest performances were in the Good Time Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm.

Now, nine years later, its budget is more than $3 million. It plays at the ornate $70.7-million Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, where its second season continues this week.

"We've made pretty significant progress," Clark points out.

Still, he acknowledges that "it will be a long time before the orchestra is everything one hopes for." And though he says that every year has been "a watershed year," the last few have brought their share of controversy.

For one thing, Clark has been accused of being too busy with administrative details to spend enough time on artistic preparation. And especially since the orchestra has moved to the Center, Clark has been accused of softening his repertory to draw bigger crowds.

In a wide-ranging interview at his home last week, he pleads not guilty on both counts:

"We were not called into being by a multimillionaire. So hand in hand with building up the orchestra, we were faced with building up a whole support system, developing a general feeling in Orange County of the importance of an orchestra."

But he disagrees that building the system has come at the expense of his music: "Other people have said that--I don't. The fact that I have spent time in active support of music, rather than in music itself, gives me more insight into the whole. It has provided me with the opportunity to develop an overview of how an orchestra really works . . . (and) how the orchestra can interact with the community. I think it would be better if every conductor had the opportunity to learn these things."

Actually, Pacific Symphony has had four people in top administrative positions since 1983, three of whom reportedly left because Clark insisted upon involving himself so heavily in administrative details. Current executive director Louis G. Spisto, who assumed duties in June, says: "There have been some problems, but that's often the nature of new relationships. Only time will tell if it's to be a long-term one.

"I'm hopeful that Keith and I can work together. We both want what's best for the orchestra."

Asked whether he has in fact tried to boost the box office with more bread-and-butter repertory, Clark said "ticket sales have not entered into the argument. I remain unconvinced of a relationship between repertory and the size of ticket sales. Yes, if we had (experimental composer Iannis) Xenakis on every program, that probably would affect ticket sales--eventually.

"But in our first years, our role was different. We did not have many concerts. The Philharmonic Society was actively presenting more standard literature. We were able to provide an alternative. I had a lot of music that interested me. We didn't seem to have to play Strauss waltzes on every concert to sell tickets. I think I took advantage of all that. . . .

"Now things are different. It's grown beyond simply being, in a way, an extension of my own particular interests in repertory. There is a need for us to do (Dvorak's) 'New World' Symphony, primarily for the orchestra itself. If you're going to take our orchestra seriously, you have to establish an ensemble style of playing Mozart or Beethoven symphonies. And standard literature builds orchestral technique."

In any case, Clark believes that the orchestra actually may now be returning to an "older idea of what Pacific Symphony is all about."

"We play a variety of roles in the community," Clark says. "We offer standard and offbeat literature, a kids' series and make available the pool of musicians to support efforts of other groups, like the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Pacific Chorale or Saddleback College.

"That is very important work--something we can do that the New York or the Los Angeles philharmonics can't do. To me, this is more valuable than the rest of services, more important than raising $3.5 million and getting up to play in Carnegie Hall."

Still, fund-raising is never far from his mind. Clark believes that lack of sufficient money has exacerbated many of the group's difficulties in the past.

"We would have been happy to have had better personnel, better instruments, better editions of music," he says, citing a score for Stravinsky's "Firebird" that he bought for $50. "There are 150 mistakes in the parts--literally mistakes like B-flats for B-naturals. . . .

"Now, we're in a better position to purchase music. But big corporate contributions haven't started yet, and we have been living modestly.

"But if we had waited for the time to be right," he added, "we would still be waiting."

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