When it comes to money, the Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival follows a simple principle: If you don't have it, don't spend it.
"That's why we've survived 18 years and a number of other endeavors have crashed and burned," founding music director Alan Parker says. "It's typical in the arts community to think what you're doing is great, that someone is going to see how wonderful it is and come and make up a deficit. That doesn't work.
"We've never had a deficit," he said.
This year's festival opens Thursday at 8 p.m. at the McGaugh School auditorium with the Ysaye String Quartet playing quartets by Haydn and Dvorak. The players include violinists Lawrence Sonderling and Jean Hugo, violist Graig Gibson and cellist Parker.
According to Parker, about a dozen people organize to keep the series going. They take care of publicity, programs and duties such as ushering and making sure that soft drinks are available during the intermissions.
But most important, they raise money.
This year, the eight-program series, which runs on consecutive Thursdays, will operate on about $8,000. "We're pretty sure that we will get at least that much," Parker says. "But we're hoping to get it up to $10,000."
None of the money comes from box office; all of the programs are free.
"Through trial and error," Parker says, "we found out that the overhead involved even with a volunteer box office was just so expensive that it really wasn't worth doing. I wouldn't even consider changing it at this point, it works so well for us.
"Of course, the real reason the festival is still happening is that there is support for it, and even a demand for it."
The series draws about 300 regulars who pay for the festival through contributions. Parker says no one is dropped from the mailing list until they've failed to respond with "even a small amount" for two years.
Although other groups have come to him for advice, Parker is not so sure that the Seal Beach model can be exported. "Every community, every situation is a little bit different," he says. "You have to experiment until you find what works for you."
Musically, Parker has a good feel for what works in Seal Beach. "I have had an occasion to tell a certain pianist that, no, he could not do an all-Liszt program," he says. "That would be fine for a subscription series in Vienna, New York or London. But I don't think you could find enough Liszt enthusiasts to sit through that in Seal Beach.
"I also have had to discourage people from playing two or three 20th-Century works and a Mozart sonata just to appease the masses."
No. Better stick to the principles that have consistently drawn the contributors.
"There should be a mix of styles and a mix of key signatures, because it's very tiring to the ear to have a concert that is all D major or D minor," Parker says. "I also suggest a very early work, at least from the high Baroque; a classical work; a Romantic or a national work, and a 20th-Century piece."
Tonight's program, with Haydn's "Sunrise" Quartet and Dvorak's Quartet No. 9, falls between the extremes of that range.
The Haydn quartet got its name, Parker says, because it opens with a long, unfolding B-flat-major arpeggio. "Someone decided that was like the rising of the sun because it was so bright and so glorious," he says. "So you have to play that movement in a way that captures this feeling of uplift."
Parker says he discovered a different musical picture in the third movement, however: "It was intended to imitate a hurdy-gurdy. So we'll be playing it without vibrato, with bows near to the bridge to get this whiny, nasal sound, with drone fifths and off-center rhythms, as if someone is cranking a huge hurdy-gurdy.
"Haydn is known for making little jokes and references to something outside the concert hall," he says. "There is almost something going on in his music beyond what's on the page.
"It's quite possible for some quartet to play this section with a nice, wide vibrato and very expressively, and wonder what was the matter with Haydn because it sounds dull and boring and monotonous!"
In contrast, the Dvorak quartet, composed between the "Stabat Mater" and the first set of the evergreen "Slavonic Dances," carries different emotional weight.
"It was written shortly after the death of two of Dvorak's children, an infant and a 3-year-old," Parker says. "So the piece is in D minor, rather than D major. But it's very beautiful and very Bohemian. We're quite taken by it."
* \o7 The Ysaye String Quartet opens the 18th annual Seal Beach Chamber Music Festival with a program of works by Haydn and Dvorak on Thursday at 8 p.m. at the McGaugh School auditorium, 1698 Bolsa Ave., Seal Beach. Free. (310) 431-0950.\f7