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Symphony Strikes an Upbeat Mood as New Season Nears : Fiscal, Artistic Conservatism Hold Sway in Wake of Last Year's Bitter Labor Strife

November 08, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

A year ago, the San Diego Symphony musicians were picketing Symphony Hall, protesting the season's cancellation and their lockout by a management team that refused to let them work, except on its terms.

The players stubbornly refused to give in. There followed a season of bitterness and disillusionment.

Mistrust was so embedded that the two sides spoke barely a word to each other, carrying on negotiations in sessions where even civility was worn to the thinnest veneer.

All that, apparently, is now history, the bitterness dissipated in the flush of opening night expectation. The San Diego Symphony, which played nary a note last year, is alive again.

Returned to Reception

Last week, the players returned to a reception held in their honor by the symphony auxiliary in the hall's formally appointed President's Room. Executive Director Wesley O. Brustad welcomed the musicians back. After an hour of talking--and joking--the players were ushered backstage to view recent improvements made for them: a new lounge; warmup rooms; where before there had been just one, five dressing rooms, all freshly painted and carpeted; new restrooms and showers, and 97 new lockers.

The musicians gratefully applauded the efforts of facilities operations manager Lynda Sterns, who had directed the $25,000 in improvements, and did the interior decorating herself. Sterns, visibly moved, came close to tears.

It is a different mood at Symphony Hall, where the season officially begins Friday. The vibrations are good, yet everyone admits the work is just beginning.

Among symphony officials, the attitude is one of fiscal and artistic conservatism. Their approach to the future is positive but guarded, hopeful but reserved--cautiously optimistic.

Go-Go Attitude Gone

Gone is the go-go attitude of the last dozen years, during which the orchestra expanded wildly from regional to major status. The expansion resulted in a $5.5-million debt and a bitter labor dispute that degenerated into last season's debacle. Amid the strife, the San Diego Symphony Assn. disbanded the orchestra, and its highly paid and highly regarded music director, David Atherton, resigned.

"There are so many problems facing us, but they're not insurmountable," Brustad said in an interview last week. Hired a year ago to turn around the symphony's debt-ridden operations, Brustad thinks the orchestra can finally put its problems behind it.

Nevertheless, plenty of hurdles remain, including eliminating the capital debt, regaining public credibility, building a larger audience, improving labor relations, ending a constant turnover of top management figures and re-establishing the musical quality that is almost sure to be lost because of key vacancies in the orchestra.

Technically, the orchestra's first performance is a free concert at noon Thursday) at the Bank of America Plaza downtown. But Friday evening's concert will be the first at Symphony Hall since the inaugural season in the hall concluded in May, 1986.

Threat of Bankruptcy

Three months into that season, which began in November, 1985, management threatened to file for bankruptcy if the community did not bail out the beleaguered orchestra, which had been carrying an almost $2-million deficit. In 10 days, the community responded, matching symphony board members' contributions for a total of $2.48 million.

But the symphony still ended the season with an $800,000 deficit because of faulty income projections.

What should have been the second season in the new hall was torpedoed last year when the musicians and management could not agree on a new contract. The symphony leadership refused to propose a pact that would result in more deficit spending. The low-paid musicians refused to give up the hard-won salary increases achieved in the previous agreement.

Even Mayor Maureen O'Connor got involved in the dispute by offering the services of former UC San Diego Chancellor William McGill as mediator.

Agreement Finally Reached

An agreement was finally reached in late May, once $1.25 million was raised to cover the symphony's deficit, including $700,000 in season ticket vouchers from the canceled season. Close to $1 million was donated by members of the board of directors.

The No. 1 problem now facing the symphony, Brustad believes, is how to restore the community's interest and credibility, which hit rock bottom during the labor bickering.

"That takes time," he said. "I think we've made marvelous gains in both ticket buyers and donors, certainly far beyond what we had projected at this point."

On the eve of the new season, Brustad noted that the symphony has:

Raised $2.02 million over the last 12 months, wiping out the orchestra's operating deficit and providing start-up funds for the current season.

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