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Leading to Something Bigger : Ventura County Symphony Sounds Out Its Options on Future Course


The Ventura County Symphony will open its 29th season on a high note this weekend, with good ticket sales, a healthy budget and what is probably the best set of musicians it has ever assembled.

But backstage, the musicians are singing another tune. Says one symphony member:

"It probably all comes down to a matter of identity. I think we are having a midlife crisis."

Maybe, musicians and others say, the symphony is ready to break its anchor at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium and expand. Perhaps it is time for the county orchestra to become truly countywide.

"We're already filling the house, but I would like to see enough interest so we could double or triple the number of concerts, or play in different parts of the county," said Frank Salazar, symphony conductor. "I think we could support it now." The orchestra has scheduled six concerts during the 1990-91 season.

Others, however, question whether that kind of thinking will bring the Ventura County Symphony the same financial woes experienced by larger symphonies across the country. Numerous orchestras in recent years, including the Oakland Symphony, New Orleans Symphony, Oklahoma City Symphony, Denver Symphony and the Nashville Symphony, have been forced to file for bankruptcy, cancel entire seasons or shorten their performing schedules.

If the Ventura County Symphony decides to expand, higher costs are inevitable. Higher salaries and benefits would have to be paid and there would be increased administrative costs. This, with changing demographics and an economic downturn, could spell trouble.

"Orchestras with our budget size are usually more secure," said Lynda Collum, Ventura County Symphony operations manager. "It's when they go to being a full-time orchestra that a lot of them get into trouble."

Salazar said a decision to expand the orchestra's season ultimately will be made on the basis of ticket sales and donations. But other conductors, having found themselves in similar situations, say that expansion requires an aggressive approach to fund raising.

"It's all very lofty to believe that music sells itself, but it doesn't," Leonard Slatkin, conductor of the St. Louis Symphony, said earlier this year. "You have to do something if you want an orchestra to grow."

With an annual budget of $620,000--nearly triple the combined budgets of the Conejo Symphony Orchestra, the Camarillo Symphony Orchestra and the Simi Valley Community Orchestra--the Ventura County Symphony is clearly the county's leading music organization. Thanks to both a shrinking job market in Los Angeles and a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, the symphony has steadily attracted top players from around Southern California.

Orchestras in this country have been classified by the American Symphony Orchestra League according to their budget, which in turn usually determines length of season and caliber of players and soloists they can attract.

Major orchestras, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony have budgets over $3.6 million.

Regional orchestras such as the San Jose Symphony and the Long Beach Symphony have budgets between $1 million and $3.6 million.

Metropolitan orchestras such as the Glendale Symphony and the Fresno Philharmonic have budgets between $280,000 and $1 million.

Urban orchestras such as the Conejo Symphony Orchestra and the Garden Grove Symphony have budgets between $135,000 and $280,000.

Community orchestras such as the Camarillo Symphony Orchestra and the Antelope Valley Symphony are those with budgets under $135,000.

Three years ago the Ventura County Symphony moved into the metropolitan category. And today, as it edges closer to the $1-million mark, no one is asking whether the symphony has the ability to become a more prestigious regional orchestra.

Instead, the question seems to be: "Does Ventura County have the wherewithal--or even the desire--to maintain a regional orchestra?"

With three orchestras playing on the same county stage and the Santa Barbara Symphony only a short distance away, some are skeptical.

"There are too many orchestras," said USC orchestra conductor Daniel Lewis, who conducted the Pasadena Symphony for 11 years. "People used to be able to donate to one orchestra, and now it's one of five or 10. When you all are begging for the same dollars, it's difficult to support them."

Lewis and others say ticket sales generally account for only 40% of an orchestra's operating budget. The rest comes from government grants, endowment earnings and corporate and private gifts.

Although most major orchestras can depend on significant "snob dollars"--sizeable donations from wealthy patrons for prestige purposes--the Ventura County Symphony can't.

"We are the county's orchestra, not a specific city's, and yet we play at the Oxnard Civic Auditorium, said Symphony board President Miriam Wille. "It's an acoustically wonderful hall, but a lot of people probably think that nothing of any cultural value could possibly exist in Oxnard."

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