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Businessman Behind the Baton : A stockbroker by day, conductor Steven Kerstein is the secret to Burbank orchestra's success.

April 21, 1995|LEILA COBO-HANLON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Leila Cobo-Hanlon is a regular contributor to The Times

LOS ANGELES — By definition, the Burbank Chamber Orchestra should be a small community orchestra with a limited repertoire.

Judging by its size, sound and sheer number of listeners, it seems more like a skilled symphonic ensemble that provides top-rate concerts, albeit for free, to thousands of people in the Burbank area.

The high quality is possible thanks to the players, most of them professional, full-time musicians. But ironically, the secret to the Burbank Chamber Orchestra's success lies in one of its part-time musicians, conductor and founder Steven Kerstein.

Stockbroker by day, musician at heart, Kerstein has striven to have his orchestra play the best possible music at no cost in the five years he has helmed the organization.

Today the Burbank Chamber Orchestra plays four to five free concerts per season, each drawing capacity crowds (4,500 at the last concert in the Starlight Bowl) and all on a skimpy annual budget of $55,000.

"We have a lean and mean organization," says Kerstein, who conducts both the Burbank Chamber and the West L. A. Symphony orchestras pro bono. His fees, he says, are better spent on quality musicians to get a better orchestra and a bigger audience.

"The important thing," he says, "is to build the audience by having the orchestra build itself every concert."

That statement pretty much sums up Kerstein's management of his ensemble, which he runs with the savvy of a businessman and the ear of a professional musician--he's a clarinetist--who has played and conducted in the Los Angeles area for years.

His day job, in fact, while an asset to marketing his orchestras, has never interfered with his performance or his credibility as a musician.

"I typically don't tell musicians what I do in my day job," he says. "But when I do, they say nothing. One thing about musicians is, you have to perform. . . . In business they ask, 'Well, did you go to Harvard or Yale?' In music, it's 'What can you do? What kind of chops do you have?' "

The 37-year-old Kerstein, as it turns out, majored in finance at USC, but put himself through school by teaching clarinet, an instrument he had been playing since elementary school. And he took advantage of USC's excellent music department to take clarinet and conducting lessons on the side.

Upon graduating, Kerstein went to work for Merrill Lynch, where he is currently vice president of the Private Client Group. But he remained active in music, and when the Burbank Chamber post came up five years ago, he was offered the job.

It was a plum assignment for Kerstein. The Burbank Symphony Orchestra was on the verge of bankruptcy, and when the board decided it was time for a reorganization, the Burbank Chamber Orchestra was born.

Kerstein had lofty ideas for his orchestra. Under him, the group quickly outgrew its "chamber orchestra" denomination, and started using 60 to 70 players per concert. More importantly, since the organization depended entirely on donations, Kerstein proposed raising the quality of the orchestra to such a degree that businesses and individuals would take notice and support it.

The result is that the Burbank Chamber is composed mostly of professional musicians, unlike most community orchestras whose core of players is amateurs--members of the community who play for fun and not for a living.

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Listeners have taken notice.

Today, the Burbank Chamber boasts more than 500 sponsors, and with its growing financial backbone, Kerstein plans to expand the number of concerts and repertoire in the upcoming seasons.

"(Burbank) is free and their quality is excellent," says Donald Schellgren, senior vice president of Transamerica Occidental Life, a corporate sponsor of the orchestra. Schellgren supports Burbank despite the fact that he attends the L. A. Philharmonic regularly.

"I want to have a large audience without any restrictions," explains Kerstein. "It gives a chance to a lot of people who can't afford $20 to hear a concert. . . . I remember going years and years ago with my parents to the Hollywood Bowl, and they had $1 seats. We didn't have much money, but we still got exposed to classical music."

Providing free concerts is one of the essential functions of a community orchestra, says Bonnie Grice, one of the hosts on classical radio station KUSC-FM (91.5). "They're a vital part of keeping great music alive in all of its forms, and this is a vibrant, exciting community orchestra," she says.

Part of the excitement comes from what Kerstein considers "top-rate" soloists, many of them younger, undiscovered talent, others seasoned players who support the orchestra by playing for a fraction of their normal fees.

"When we play with an orchestra like Burbank, it is to show our confidence in the orchestra," says veteran violinist Alice Schoenfeld, who teaches at USC and has been a soloist with orchestras like the L. A. Philharmonic.

As a musician, Schoenfeld supports Kerstein's decision to staff his orchestra with professionals.

"They have to be as professional as possible because listening standards in Los Angeles are so high. . . . And Los Angeles is so big, there are avenues for anyone who wants to play."

In this, Kerstein has carved a rather neat niche for himself. And music and business, he points out, make a great duo.

"Music is a business," he says. "There's nothing worse than putting on a performance and having no one in the audience. And it's a business making sure that . . . the audience feels they've gone to something memorable."

But if it came down to choosing between the two fields, Kerstein has no doubt as to where his heartstrings would pull him.

"If an opening came to conduct an orchestra full time, well, then I'd say my time at Merrill Lynch would have been memorable."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Burbank Chamber Orchestra.

Location: Hall of Liberty, Hollywood Hills Forest Lawn, 6300 Forest Lawn Drive.

Hours: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Price: Free.

Call: (818) 848-8841.

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