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Rebounding Symphony Reaches Critical Passage in Fund-Raising Season; Auditions Planned

December 18, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — After last week's holiday series of sing-along concerts, the San Diego Symphony has entered its crucial end-of-the-year fund-raising campaign.

While the orchestra takes a four-week hiatus, the front office will work overtime to beat the clock and add to the income it has received this season.

The plan is to convince potential donors of the tax and community-service benefits of making a contribution to the orchestra before Dec. 31.

"I can't emphasize too much how important this time is," said symphony Executive Director Wesley O. Brustad. "It's the most critical two weeks in the entire 12 months."

Given the orchestra's decidedly checkered history, especially last year's canceled season, the signs for this season are mostly encouraging.

There have been problems, however.

Critical response to the decimated orchestra--substitute players have filled a number of vacancies--has been predictably mixed.

The orchestra is working without a permanent music director, and the members must play under a new visiting director each week, a situation they say does not make for taut, cohesive music.

"These are trying circumstances," said David Peck, principal clarinet and orchestra negotiating committee chairman. "We're dealing with a lot of unknowns. People who are here may or may not be here next year."

Arrangements are being made for national auditions in January to fill at least 15 vacancies. The auditions are "a crucial thing for us right now," Peck said. "We're concerned that we have very good people."

On the business side of the house, fund raising and ticket sales have surpassed projections, symphony officials say. A key reason behind the symphony's indebtedness has been the tendency to overestimate its ability to raise money through donations, officials have said.

This year the symphony has a contributions goal of $2 million, which it has divided into several categories.

Despite a community that has adopted a tough, wait-and-see posture, the symphony's board of directors has already generated $812,500--more than 90%--of its $900,000 sustaining-fund goal.

"That's not too bad for 2 1/2 months into the (fiscal) year," said John Bauser, the orchestra's development director.

The sustaining fund comprises the bulk of a $1.25-million goal that includes money from foundations and direct-mail solicitations. Symphony officials say they have raised 68% of the $1.25 million.

"The last third will be the most difficult," Bauser acknowledged in an interview Wednesday. Direct-mail solicitations and letters to foundations are just beginning to go out, having taken a back seat to the sustaining campaign.

"There is a great deal of skepticism, anger and frustration out there," Bauser said. "It's a hard sell. They're mistrustful. People want to know what have you done this year."

"Given the vagaries of our past," he said, he sees such resistance as normal.

Clearly, the majority of fund raising has been taken on by board members. More than $600,000 brought in so far has come from the 40 directors or their businesses in the form of underwritten concerts.

The other big area of symphony revenue is ticket sales, which amounts to 50.2% of the orchestra's $5.7-million budget. Attendance at subscription concerts has exceeded goals, Brustad said.

This year the symphony based its annual sales projections on selling 60% rather than 100% of the hall's seats for the subscription concerts. To date, subscription sales are 5% to 10% ahead of projections, Brustad said.

He expressed concern that, because of the symphony's recent labor and financial crises, news reports of any orchestra problem, no matter how small, would be premature and might endanger year-end fund-raising efforts.

There have been problems, most relatively minor. With so much attention and importance placed on the subscription series, the first of a set of outreach concerts, newly introduced this year, received short shrift. The first "cocktail concert," aimed at recruiting younger downtown professionals, was canceled. The first midday "coffee concert," designed for those who don't go out at night, was held the following day, even though only 150 tickets were sold.

"We were prepared for low numbers," symphony spokesman Les Smith said of the canceled concert. "We had about 65 tickets out. We were surprised that they were that low. We didn't feel comfortable trying to do a performance with an empty house.

"They (the new concerts) did suffer because they had to live in the shadow of the main subscription series. Most of the advertising budget is committed to the subscription series. We did not have the advertising money to put behind these series."

However, both Brustad and Smith noted, ticket projections were based on selling 60% of the subscription series, not the new outreach concerts.

"They make up less than 5% of our budget," Brustad said. "Right now they're not that important, although they might develop into something incredible."

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