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Trying to Keep Time in Lean Times : Music: The L.A. Chamber Orchestra has cut back the number of 1994-95 performances and worked out a plan with creditors and musicians to reduce its debts.

November 10, 1994|BARBARA ISENBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was hardly the 25th-anniversary celebration anyone expected for the prestigious Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Adversely affected by everything from the riots and earthquake to a tough economy, last season the orchestra canceled concerts and pleaded poverty to its creditors.

As the orchestra starts its scaled-back 26th season tonight at Wadsworth Theater (repeated Sunday at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena) with violinist Iona Brown conducting works by Handel, Bach, Mozart and Gorecki, the backstage orchestrating has also been impressive. "What we have done is effectively gone to our creditors and worked out a plan of reorganization much as a court would work out for us," says longtime board member, businessman Nicholas Ciriello.

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The orchestra had more than 100 creditors, Ciriello says. Some, including state taxing authorities, are being paid off over time, while still others are receiving 25 cents on the dollar. Some, too, have agreed to forgive the debt entirely, and by June 30, the orchestra had more than $350,000 of its debt forgiven, most of that by one major creditor, whose identity LACO declined to disclose.

LACO's operating budget this season is $2.4 million, down from about $3.2 million the past two seasons. Board members have donated large amounts of time and expertise as well as money, staff has been cut to five from 10, and voice mail replaced the receptionist.

At the end of October, LACO management and Musicians' Union Local 47 entered into a settlement agreement that set up a payment schedule for back wages due musicians. Concessions have also come from the orchestra's landlord and subscribers who declined refunds for canceled concerts.

Both former LACO artistic director Brown and principal conductor Christof Perick are conducting fewer weeks this season. Perick, whose title changed from music director to artistic adviser to reflect lesser responsibilities, will essentially donate time for program planning and auditions.

Management is now referring to the new, leaner organization as "right-sized." Accumulated deficits of nearly $1 million in January, 1994, were back to $652,000 by June 30, the end of their last fiscal year, says Bruce Thibodeau, LACO director of administration and finance. Accumulated deficits at Sept. 30 were around $362,000, the lowest since the 1990-91 season, says Thibodeau, who predicts accumulated deficits to decline to about $300,000 when this fiscal year ends on June 30.

LACO's decision to carry such a sizable deficit in the past instead of canceling programs was "a calculated risk that we'd be able to make up the deficit in the short term," says board president Jennifer Diener, "but the economy didn't cooperate."

"The (1992) riots forced us to cancel concerts and distracted donor money away from the arts. Then came the earthquake, which took away our primary Westside venue (UCLA's Royce Hall) and ate up a lot of people's ready cash. We weren't able to make it up, and we had to face reality in a very dramatic way."

That meant restructuring the remainder of last season and cutting back on the 1994-95 season. The orchestra is offering two subscription series this season, for instance, compared with four last season. There has been a resulting drop in subscribers from 2,500 to 1,650, but LACO executive director Erich Vollmer says the Ambassador Auditorium series is already 80% sold out.

Board members have also stepped up fund-raising. Chief among donations were two challenge grants, from anonymous donors, which totaled $100,000 annually for five years. Those challenge grants are already "nearly met," Vollmer says, and new donors have come aboard.

Meanwhile, LACO's new Mozart recording, "Homages," was released last month by Composers Recordings Inc., and the orchestra continues its occasional work with the Music Center Opera. The opera work, which is paid for on a fee basis, is what Vollmer calls an example of "the overriding effort this orchestra has to make to minimize the number of concerts we do that lose money." Along the same lines, LACO has no plans for concerts at the Japan America Theatre, a prior LACO venue that drew its smallest number of concert-goers. The orchestra will instead make three "run-out concerts" to Orange County.

"Run-outs," non-subscription concerts in the wider community, expand the orchestra's visibility and permit production costs to be absorbed by either foundations or presenters. "We get a fee, and we don't have to sell the tickets," says Diener. "The musicians show up and play, and (the presenters) pay us."

Diener says she expects the orchestra's deficit to be "completely eliminated" within 2 1/2 years and predicts "an acceptable surplus" after five years. "When we have money, we can consider expanding our season and activities. But not until we have the money. In hand."

Morale among musicians, meanwhile, is "exceedingly high," says clarinetist Gary Gray. Adds violinist Jennifer Woodward, chair of the orchestra committee and a 14-year LACO veteran: "We're hopeful and looking forward to our concerts. We hope that things can get back to normal."

* Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Iona Brown, conductor, violin (Wadsworth Theater, Veterans Administration grounds, Westwood, (213) 622-7001. "Royal Fireworks Music" (Handel); Orchestral Suite No. 3 (Bach); "Three Pieces in Olden Style" (Gorecki); Symphony No. 40 (Mozart). 8 p.m. $29-$36.

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