The Baroque Consortium Chamber Orchestra, a professional ensemble that seems to have caught the fancy of local audiences, has a couple of new feathers in its cap as it prepares to open its fifth season Sunday at the Norris Community Theatre in Rolling Hills Estates.
The group has become the resident orchestra at the Norris, where it has played for the past four years, and has received a grant from the California Arts Council. It is one of only five chamber orchestras in the state to receive such recognition this year from the council, a state agency that supports the arts.
Michael Putnam, director of the Norris, said the orchestra--which usually performs as an ensemble of 18 to 20 musicians--was given resident status this year because of its artistic quality, sound financial condition and ability to attract audiences to the 450-seat theater.
"We want to be sure that what we're hooking up with is in good health," he said. Last season, the orchestra had the highest paid attendance of all the classical music attractions at the theater.
As resident orchestra, it gets a break on rent through a significant reduction in the percentage of gross receipts paid to the Norris. In turn, it agreed to do four performances this season, all of which are expected to draw sizable audiences.
Orchestra partisans say the $1,500 grant--a small fraction of its $50,000 annual budget--is not nearly as important as the recognition it carries.
"The value is the artistic recognition," said Robert W. Miller, a retired TRW executive and amateur cellist who played with the orchestra in its early days and is now its president. "We've applied each year."
The grant was made after a performance tape was evaluated by a panel of eight, including symphony music directors, players and managers.
Their report praised the orchestra for "generally good playing," although it noted a "tendency to rush the tempo," and suggested that more players might improve the fullness of sound. The grant supplied money for more rehearsal time. Most of the musicians are string players, although more performers are hired when other instruments are needed.
One panel member, Martin Weil, who is managing director of Opera Pacific in Orange County, said the panel listened to tapes from 162 groups. "The fact that they got a grant is encouraging," he said. "An awful lot didn't." He said the panel felt that there is real potential for the organization.
Even before its recognition from the Norris Theatre and the state arts council, the Baroque Consortium was distinctive for having Frances Steiner, who began her musical life as a cello prodigy, as its music director. Women conductors are still unusual in the world of orchestral music, said Weill and other music authorities.
Steiner, who also is conductor of the university-based Carson-Dominquez Hills Symphony Orchestra, says that when she works as a visiting conductor she often breaks an all-male tradition.
For example, she was the first woman to conduct a professional orchestra at the Los Angeles Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when she led the Glendale Symphony, and the first woman to conduct two Latin American orchestras, the Maracaibo Symphony in Venezuela and the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic.
With Sunday's concert, the orchestra starts its fifth year at the Norris, and its new season says something about both its beginnings and where it has been heading in recent years. The program ranges from Bach's music of the baroque period--which ended about 1750--to Howard Hanson, a 20th-Century American. Mona Golabek will be piano soloist.
The ensemble began in the early 1970s as an amateur choral group accompanied by musicians that specialized in ornamental baroque music. The decision to phase out choral work and become a small orchestra with a largely 18th-Century repertoire was made after Steiner came along in the mid-1970s. Still later, the orchestra decided to turn professional, a move that Miller describes as "painful and expensive."
Expensive because it took more money to pay union-scale wages (now $400 a player for three rehearsals and a performance), and painful because some musicians were let go because they did not play well enough or did not want to join the union. When it turned professional, the orchestra employed 12 musicians.
To broaden its appeal, the orchestra also began to play music other than baroque, which has rendered the ensemble's name--a tad academic to begin with--obsolete. It will be changed and the audience on Sunday will be asked to suggest a new name.
"It's a truth-in-advertising issue," Steiner said.
Evidence of the breadth of its repertoire lies in programming for this season's four concerts, with the remainder scheduled for Jan. 18, Feb. 28 and April 16. There is Bach, Mozart and Haydn, and also the West Coast premiere of Claude Bolling's "Suite for Chamber Orchestra and Jazz Piano."