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Playing to Universal Concerns : American Symphony Orchestra League members meet to discuss ways to promote excellence and make money.

July 13, 1994|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most music lovers, the concert experience is the be-all and end-all of their interest. But for the professionals involved, the program is merely the culmination of a long process. Beyond the rehearsals, there are practical problems of running an organization and keeping it alive.

Once a year, members of the American Symphony Orchestra League--representing about 850 orchestras--meet to discuss their problems and concerns. This year about 2,000 people, including representatives from Orange County Philharmonic Society, the Pacific Symphony and the UC Irvine Symphony, attended the four-day ASOL conference in June in Dallas. These were some of the issues that surfaced. *

The smoke from the lightning bolt that struck last year's American Symphony Orchestra League conference hung over this year's convention in Dallas. Specifically, the smoke from the league's hotly debated 1993 report titled "Americanizing the American Orchestra."

The 200-page report called for an affirmative-action program of seemingly radical proportions. Among the ideas presented to the league's thousands of members nationwide:

* Be strongly responsive to community needs and desires.

* Court younger audiences with more diverse repertory, including pop and jazz.

* Find ways to include more minorities--at all levels.

* Be more egalitarian from top to bottom in running the orchestra.

* Reconsider whether musicianship alone should be the factor in hiring players . . .

Edward Rothstein, chief music critic of the New York Times, immediately pounced on the report, denouncing it as "a disgrace" that "may very well Americanize the orchestra into extinction."

Nobody wanted to say the theme of this year's conference was "backtracking"; the key word that emerged this year was "excellence," a word straight out of the corporate and management world.

The conference was called "Celebrate Excellence." People talked about how "excellent" the Western classical music tradition is, after all. How "excellently" it is being played by so many American orchestras. Apologies were not offered.

"The word 'quality' was used a great deal," Pacific Symphony executive director Louis G. Spisto said in an interview upon his return from Dallas. "There are real artistic standards that do measure quality. You have to be committed to quality and standards. Talking about serving the community shouldn't be talking about moving away from quality."

Said ASOL spokeswoman Sandra Hyslop in a recent phone interview from her office in Washington, D.C.: "The report was published as a work in progress. It was not meant to be prescriptive, although people cast it that way. Rather, these were some of the ideas that came up. It was meant to be thought-provoking and discussion-provoking. . . .

"The league certainly knows--and all the orchestras know--that to serve our communities is first and foremost to be proud of the tradition of Western so-called 'classical' music," she added. "Certainly the league wants to preserve that and do it as well as we can."

But working out the details of how to serve two different masters--artistic excellence and the needs of increasingly diverse audiences--remains a challenge orchestras must face.

Spisto characterized the 1994 conference as "more 'business as usual,' but, in effect, it was a better conference.

"The discussions and meetings focused on issues--management issues, issues of building boards and strengthening ties to the community in new ways. We had a number of sessions that dealt with interactive technology that could be helpful to orchestras. There was a lot of focus on education."

Dena Montiel, marketing director for the Orange County Philharmonic Society, came away feeling that Orange County music groups are on the right track. "I realized there were a lot of things we're doing right, and a lot of other organizations are doing right," Montiel said.

Still, she returned with "a few ideas to make us more customer-oriented and how we can better serve our patrons," Montiel said. "Little things that could possibly make additions to that personal touch and make a difference."

She said found concern over issues that have long dogged classical-music presenters.

"What to do with an eroding audience, an older audience," she said. "We're losing a lot of people. How to tap into new markets and reach new audiences."

For UCI Symphony conductor Zelman Bokser, the conference allowed him to organize and chair a newly created division encompassing college, university and conservatory orchestras.

"This means we'll have some representation . . . in terms of staff and some thinking about how ASOL might interact with those orchestras in fulfilling their various missions," Bokser said in a phone interview from New York, where he is working on Wagner's music dramas as part of a summer NEH Fellowship.

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