SAN DIEGO — Getting the San Diego Symphony in shape to play again might not be as challenging as raising the Titanic, but symphony management has been scrambling over the last month to fill 15 vacant positions.
The empty chairs ranged throughout the orchestra, from the all-important post of concertmaster to nearly all of the first-chair strings and half of the viola section.
For the orchestra's Symphony Hall season opener on Friday, its first concert there since June, 1986, Executive Director Wesley O. Brustad has promised a full roster of 81 musicians. But the position that many people consider the most important, that of music director, remains vacant.
Lawrence Leighton-Smith, opening night guest conductor, will be the first of 17 guest conductors who will grace the symphony's podium this season. And according to Brustad, it may be two years before a new music director is named. (Former music director David Atherton resigned in January during the early months of the labor dispute that scuttled the 1986-87 season.)
Brustad had hoped to name a new concertmaster last month, but the candidate withdrew at the last moment without explanation.
Former concertmaster Andres Cardenes resigned in April during the canceled season, and other vacancies arose when two San Diego Symphony principals won auditions with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. These defections compounded the situation created by Atherton, who had removed several key first-chair musicians and never replaced them with regular contract players.
After a series of informal auditions in mid-October, Diaz del Campo and the orchestra committees turned to some of the orchestra's veteran players to fill many of the vacancies. Violinists Karen Dirks and Igor Gruppman were appointed acting co-concertmasters. Dirks is the San Diego Opera Orchestra's concertmaster, and Gruppman fills a similar position for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. Members of the brass sections who have moved up include John Lorge as acting principal horn and Alan Siebert as acting principal trumpet.
According to Gregory Berton, symphony bass player and member of the Orchestra Committee, "An informal audition doesn't promise work to the auditioning musician. It's just a way for us to see the available talent. In January, 1988, we will hold formal auditions that offer tenure-track positions, and we will advertise nationally for these auditions."
Even without advertising, news of San Diego's informal auditions did spread by word of mouth. Two Los Angeles area players have been signed for the coming season: Brazilian-born Waldemar de Almeida will be acting principal cello, and violinist Alan Grunfeld will play third chair in the first violin section.
Some appointments have an ironic twist. After Atherton demoted first trombone George Johnston two years ago, second trombone Richard Gordon was bumped out of the orchestra. This season Gordon returns as acting principal trombone.
The cooperation between the symphony musicians and management in restaffing the orchestra has been called a welcome change from the acrimony of past years.
"I think there has been a change in attitude," said Berton. "They are finally understanding that you can't have a first-class orchestra unless the musicians feel appreciated."
Berton added that the new management team, rather than the board of directors, appeared to be running the orchestra's daily affairs. "For the first time since I've been here, I feel that management is running the show," he said.
A more tangible demonstration of management's new attitude toward the musicians was the recent refurbishing of the backstage area where the musicians warm up before concerts.
"We knew that we were low people on the totem pole. The first year we played in Symphony Hall, everything was made to look great from the stage proscenium forward," principal bassoon Dennis Michel said. "Backstage was poorly lighted, dirty and filled with unused equipment. Now they've made the area more livable and up to industry standards."
Although the musicians may savor a more harmonious relationship with management, they are not oblivious to the difficulties of regaining credibility with the community.
"We are far from being out of financial difficulties," said principal clarinet David Peck. "And many people in the community have a wait-and-see attitude about the orchestra."
Peck, who was recently elected chairman of the Orchestra Committee, said he believes the orchestra can regain the artistic level it had under Atherton with a sound financial base, but that the process may take 5 to 10 years. After the convulsions of the last two years, "nobody's in any hurry--we'll take our time this time around," Peck said.
"We've been on such a roller coaster for so long, we're not going into anything with naive, wide-eyed optimism," Michel said.