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KEITH CLARK : Ousted Conductor of Pacific Symphony Talks About His Rise, Fall and Future

June 19, 1988|ALLAN JALON

'It will be hard to think of myself and my life without the Pacific Symphony, but I have some wonderful opportunities to make music ahead of me.'

He has been called "a dead fish," but Pacific Symphony conductor Keith Clark says he will keep his career in the swim despite the symphony board's vote last February to force him to resign from the orchestra that he started 10 years ago.

"It will be hard to think of myself and my life without the Pacific Symphony, but I have some wonderful opportunities to make music ahead of me," said Clark, speaking publicly for the first time since he resigned. He said he is exploring prospects in Vienna and did not deny rumors that he may start a new orchestra in Orange County.

He described his rise and fall as he sees it, offering a counterpoint to the theme offered by symphony officials--that he was a domineering type who offended supporters, disappointed critics and stifled the orchestra's growth.

Los Angeles Times Sunday June 19, 1988 Orange County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 7 Column 1 Metro Desk 3 inches; 106 words Type of Material: Correction
To see what Pacific Symphony supporters think about Keith Clark's dismissal, The Times surveyed 54 season ticket holders selected at random from an estimated 5,000 orchestra subscribers. The survey was conduced by Times employees over the past two weeks.
Are you glad Clark is leaving the orchestra? No: 34 Yes: 4 Don't Konw: 16
"Do you think the matter of Clark's dismissal was handled well?" No: 29 Yes: 1 Don't Konw: 24
Will Clark's dimissal affect your support of the orchestra? No: 35 Yes: 6 Don't Konw: 13
The above graph appears incorrectly in today's Calendar, Page 51-B, accompanying a story on Pacific Symphony music director Keith Clark. The numbers on the chart represent raw numbers of respondents to a Times survey, not percentages of those surveyed.

Clark says his efforts have been underestimated. Also, he said the arc of his local career reflects issues inherent in the county's sudden cultural ambitiousness, including whether it can stress the importing of "world-class" talent at the same time it nurtures the local commitment of resident groups.

So far the tumult surrounding Clark has left little room for cool-headed talk about the ensemble's future. Clark provokes a clash of emotional extremes: one board member flew to New Jersey just to hear Clark conduct the Verdi Requiem, while Louis Spisto, the ensemble's executive director, made the razor-edged dig that Clark is "a bad conductor . . . a dead fish in the water."

The vote to drop Clark's contract could not have been closer. The 12-11 tally--to end his contract at the end of 1988 instead of letting it run through 1989--aroused as much furor as his orchestral tenure. Since the vote, symphony-goers have written to newspapers, board members have argued and musicians remain divided, with 35 signing a petition assailing as "inappropriate and humiliating" the campaign to oust the 44-year-old conductor.

A Times survey of Pacific Symphony season ticket subscribers indicates that most of the orchestra's supporters believe that Clark's dismissal has been handled poorly by the board. (See accompanying story.)

Clark, who has the softening good looks of a former choir boy, is struggling to retain his composure amid the uproar. He apparently hasn't lost his sense of humor. He wore a fish-shaped tie to a post-concert gathering with fellow musicians recently. He punned to a reporter that he won't "carp about Spisto's ('dead fish') remark."

Still, it quickly becomes clear that hurt, not humor, dominates his response. "I have never seen such outward efforts not only to get rid of a person but to sully the person's name," he said, his usually resonant voice lowering. He takes issue with monolithic characterizations of his musical ability that he said will hurt his career by omitting any reference to strong or mixed reviews.

In fact, though, his positive reviews--most from Times music writer Daniel Cariaga--are overshadowed by other reviewers' disappointment and, at times, even dismay with his performances.

Clark seems stunned by the "acrimony" he says is reflected in the vehement tone of Spisto's remark and what he insists is the dogged determination of some board members to get rid of him. But he also acknowledges that it might have seeds in his friction with co-workers as he acted out his "obsession" to establish an orchestra in Orange County.

"I became a zealot or something," he said in an interview at his Spanish-style Fullerton home, where a grand piano holds a prominent place beneath a photograph showing the gnarled face of Viennese composer Anton Bruckner. "I thought that here was the one opportunity in my life to do something meaningful."

His furious focus on seeing the symphony succeed, he admits, had its dark side: "I've learned a lot about myself through all that has happened. I know I've hurt some people. . . . "

Depending on who is doing the talking, Clark is portrayed either as a true cultural pioneer in the suburban wilderness or a petty tyrant.

Former orchestra manager Geoffrey R. Brooks--one of four executive directors the orchestra had before Spisto--told how Clark pushed him to get the cellist Leonard Rose to perform for a bargain fee (he wouldn't). And another ex-manager, Topper Smith, told how Clark blamed him for failing to get superstar tenor Placido Domingo to a post-concert benefit reception despite great odds.

Ruefully, the conductor recounted how he "probably humiliated" the chairman of the symphony board--Michael Gilano--by lambasting him in open session over a personnel dispute. He also admits to being disorganized about administrative details.

Yet Smith, Brooks and many others who worked with Clark also speak of him in quasi-heroic terms.

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