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Symphony's Local Talent Finds Itself Out of Tune

October 29, 1987|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

After playing his violin for the Ventura County Symphony Orchestra for three years, Camarillo electrical engineer Doug Widney realized last year that he was out of his league and resolved to rectify the situation. He quit.

"It's not that I was that bad," the 27-year-old second violinist good naturedly explained. "It's just that the symphony was getting so much better."

"Suddenly," he said, "I was playing with people who did nothing but play music all day while I was tinkering with a computer."

Other acknowledged amateurs in the symphony have found themselves in the same boat. A bulwark of local culture since it was founded 26 years ago on a $500 budget, the symphony is increasingly becoming a professional operation--an upsetting trend to many of the musicians who have been loyal to it since its leaner days.

Reward of Hostility

They complain that their loyalty has been rewarded with hostility from a management that wants to replace them with more polished musicians from outside the county.

Symphony administrators counter that they simply want to provide county residents with the most sophisticated classical music they can, and that where players come from does not matter as much as how well they play.

Signs of the orchestra's increased seriousness abound. Last July, the orchestra hired its first professional manager, Karine Beesley, an arts management specialist with two years' experience at the Ventura Arts Council. It also was recognized by the American Symphony Orchestra League as "a metropolitan orchestra"--a ranking reserved for groups that have raised more than $250,000. And, bit by bit, local musicians are being replaced by out-of-town talent.

In the past two years, the orchestra, which draws on a pool of about 200 musicians, has hired 17 players and only one of them, Camarillo flutist Ann Erwin, was local. By contrast, five of the 10 musicians hired during the 1985-86 season hailed from Ventura County.

When the symphony offers its second concert of the season this weekend, only 31 of the 78 musicians performing will be Ventura County residents. When the Ventura symphony wrapped up its first year under conductor Frank Salazar in June of 1963, 68 of the orchestra's 71 members were Ventura County residents, a program from that era shows.

For such acknowledged amateurs as Widney, the dwindling presence of Sunday musicians has been a small price to pay for an improved orchestra. Most have gracefully bowed out of the symphony, perhaps finding an outlet for musical interests in the orchestra's amateur wing, the Ventura County Civic Youth Orchestra, or the Ventura County Concert Band, another amateur group.

But, for local professional musicians, the transition has not been as easy. Some complain that they are being drummed out of the orchestra to make way for Southland musicians who have nothing on them but the "Los Angeles mystique." They charge that Salazar, who also is the symphony's music director, has given up on recruiting local talent, instead favoring musicians from Los Angeles universities and hiring them through rigged auditions.

This season, three of the symphony's remaining six charter members--timpanist LaVonne Theriault, and trumpet players Larry Weiss and Orbie Ingersoll--resigned after being abruptly demoted in favor of Los Angeles musicians.

Last month, they complained of harassment to the symphony's board of directors, and Weiss claimed he was "subjected to humiliation, criticism, insult and embarrassment at the hands of the music director."

'Tympani, You're Wrong'

"I feel really used," said Theriault, who along with the two other musicians had played for the symphony since 1962. She told of struggling with the particularly difficult entrance to a piece the whole symphony was finding difficult.

"Tympani, you're wrong," she remembers Salazar repeating. "When he made the corrections with the others, he would say, 'Second violins, you have to be careful here and listen for thus and so.' But, with me, he just kept saying, 'Tympani, you're wrong.'

"It sounds so petty," she acknowledges, "but these things go on and on and it breaks your spirit. Instead of being all joyful because it was Monday," when the symphony rehearses, "I would say, 'I wonder what he's going to say to me tonight.' "

Weiss, former principal trumpeter and an occasional substitute conductor, told of being asked to help judge auditions that pitted domestic against imported talent without then being asked by Salazar for his opinions.

"I had the feeling that I was being used to merely add validity to a situation in which a candidate had already been cast for appointment prior to the tryout, and the audition process was merely a pretense," he said.

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