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Healthy--but Only on the Surface : Despite Some Great Performances in Music and Dance, Many Groups Felt Financial Squeeze

December 25, 1991|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1991, we heard a balalaika orchestra and a mandolin quartet and watched marionettes enact three Mozart operas.

We saw the Martha Graham Dance Company for the first time at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and, also at the Center, the Royal Ballet appearing for the first time in California in 12 years, dancing a "Swan Lake" closely modeled on the original Moscow production.

Opera Pacific introduced us to two new talents in a staging of Pietro Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana"--the Argentine soprano Celine Imbert and the American soprano Camellia Johnson.

Ballet Pacifica hosted a summer workshop that showcased four young American choreographers and later danced the first West Coast performance of a ballet based on Thornton Wilder's "Our Town." The St. Joseph Ballet awarded talented teen-age writers, composers and scenic designers by letting them see their ideas come alive on stage in a ballet choreographed in May by company founder Beth Burns.

On the surface, things looked very healthy.

Officially, it even was a celebration year, as the musical world commemorated the bicentennial anniversary of Mozart's death. Orange County music and dance audiences certainly saw a wide variety of local and visiting groups offering many commemoration concerts.

But a darker side of the picture emerged this year as well. Some groups will remember 1991 for financial strains and tensions and public acrimony.

The turmoil began even before the end of January, when a number of musicians announced that they had resigned from the Mozart Camerata, alleging delayed salary payments and inept leadership from founding conductor Ami Porat, amid other charges.

Porat filed suit against the musicians--violinist Endre Granat and Alexander Horvath and other unnamed parties--accusing them of "slander, interference with contract, interference with economic relationship and conspiracy." But the suit was dismissed less than a week ago when--for the second time--Porat and his attorney failed to appear for a hearing. Meanwhile, the Camerata's appeal of a small-claims court award to three former members, who had sued for breach of contract, is pending.

Many local organizations faced a financial squeeze that led to canceled concerts. South Coast Symphony canceled three programs at Orange Coast College, the Irvine Camerata canceled a concert at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, the Orange County Chamber Orchestra canceled half its season (three of six concerts) at the Barclay and the unhappy Mozart Camerata followed suit by canceling four of its five concerts there (though a full series of five Camerata concerts continues at another venue).

And it wasn't just the little guys. The Orange County Philharmonic Society, citing poor ticket sales, canceled a special weekend series of six Tchaikovsky symphonies at the Center.

Even in distant, upscale New York City, groups were not immune to the recession. American Ballet Theatre, citing financial problems, canceled the premiere of a new "Nutcracker" that had been scheduled for the Center in December. (Center staffers were able to fill the gap by booking the San Francisco Ballet's production of the favorite Christmas ballet.)

The Garden Grove Symphony, which changed its name to the Orange County Symphony of Garden Grove in February, announced less than a month later that it had accumulated a deficit of $121,000 and needed a quick cash transfusion to hold its next concert. The organization got the money, and was able to whittle the deficit down to about $50,000 by the end of the year.

But the Pacific Symphony reported a $231,000 deficit at the end of the 1990-91 season--pushing its accumulated deficit to more than $800,000. The Philharmonic Society announced an estimated deficit of about $300,000 at the end of its 1990-91 season. The two organizations began holding private talks about merging to deal with these deficits and the difficulties they were having in fund raising. But, reportedly, negotiations have cooled off a bit.

For all that, there were some encouraging, revitalizing signs of collaboration as well. The Philharmonic Society and the Laguna Chamber Music Society cooperated in presenting an outstanding chamber music series at the Irvine Barclay. Opera Pacific, the Los Angeles Music Center Opera and the Center jointly presented Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West" at the Center in June.

The Pacific Symphony, Pacific Chorale, Master Chorale of Orange County, Opera Pacific and Philharmonic Society helped celebrate the Center's fifth anniversary with a concert in September. The Center picked up the costs and distributed surplus funds to the groups, according to a formula based on their use of the facility. But, after expenses were deducted for elaborate Center birthday parties aimed at the social set that lasted all week, some groups netted less than $2,500.

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