Three years ago, when the Long Beach Symphony's directors failed to renew conductor Murry Sidlin's contract, there was talk of football in the Terrace Theatre.
"I see the music director as the quarterback," board President George M. Murchison said, "and we want to improve the team's record. I want to see a better passer in there."
Sidlin was livid. He said comparing music to sports is inappropriate and offensive.
His successor, JoAnn Falletta, recently introduced concertmaster Roger Wilkie during a lecture before the season's opener this way:
"It's sort of like I'm the coach and he's the quarterback."
Then the diminutive maestro, who is 36, added sweetly, "I don't know how Roger feels about being described that way."
The orchestra's management feels just fine about it. For if the board of directors wanted a conductor who is a team player, they seem to have found one in Falletta. And if better passing means selling more tickets, well, the youthful maestro is a veritable star.
Since Falletta took artistic control of the 90-member group last year, overall ticket sales have increased by 54%, said Mary Newkirk, the orchestra's general manager.
With an increase in the price of admission, she said, revenues are up 76%. And for the first time in its 56-year history, Newkirk said, the orchestra has begun a season, Falletta's second as conductor, with its classical music series sold out before the first concert.
"We've seen an enthusiasm that we simply have not known before," Newkirk said. "There's no question but that JoAnn has already made a mark on the orchestra; she is one of the stars of her generation."
Even the maestro's series of pre-concert lectures, which Sidlin performed in the 900-seat Center Theatre, had to be moved to the adjacent Terrace Theatre, which seats 3,000, Newkirk said.
"We found we were turning people away," she said. Average attendance is about 1,500 per lecture.
And the attention paid the conductor by the national media seems to have brought a new level of exposure to an orchestra that, just six years ago, was struggling back from the brink of financial oblivion. Last month, Falletta was on the cover of "Musical America," a major national journal of the classical music industry. And focusing on her as she led the orchestra during the recent season opener were several CBS cameramen, filming a profile by Charles Kuralt for "CBS Sunday Morning."
Why all the fuss over someone whose main claim to fame is the directorship of a regional orchestra that many consider overshadowed by the much-better-known Los Angeles Philharmonic?
Part of the answer, Falletta's admirers admit, is that she is young and female, both of which are relative anomalies in the close-knit world of conducting.
But beyond that, they say, is her musical style: one marked by verve, tenacity and a kind of vivacious energy that most audiences find hard to resist.
"She has young ideas," said Ray Bisso, a member of the orchestra's board of directors and chairman of its artistic advisory committee. "Yet she still has a good traditional grasp of things. It's a perfect balance."
Donna Perlmutter, a Times critic who reviewed the Sept. 22 concert, described Falletta as "a genuine podium master with considerable flair," who extracted from the orchestra a "plush, full-bodied, integrated sound" containing, at various times, "propulsion and heat" as well as "vigor, breadth, excitement and no surfeit of sentimentality."
Many audience members seemed to agree.
"She's terrific," Carole Atkin, a longtime concert-goer, said during the intermission. "She's improved the quality of the orchestra tremendously."
Amy Blender said: "She's lent an enthusiasm, a vitality and a vibrance that has captivated all of us and given an electric quality to the performances. JoAnn is really impassioned with the music; I've waited a long time for her."
Falletta modestly attributes her success at attracting audiences to being in the right place at the right time.
"We, as a symphony, are part of the renaissance of Long Beach," she said during an interview at the downtown Villa Riviera, where she recently bought a condominium unit. "It's the right kind of cultural environment; I was very fortunate to (come to) an orchestra poised for growth."
She has tried to aid that artistic and financial growth in several ways. She has broadened the orchestra's musical repertoire to include the works of such little-performed composers as Bela Bartok and Bohuslav Martinu. She has expanded the group's traditional youth and kinder-concert programs to reach a far greater number of children (and potential future concert-goers) in area schools. And she has supported the careers of today's struggling young composers by providing a forum in which their works can be performed.
Later this season, for instance, the orchestra will perform the first work in its history that it commissioned: a piece by Mark McGurty, a young California composer.