For casual observers, the debut of the New West Symphony, at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Friday night and at Oxnard Civic Auditorium on Saturday night, will be just another gala occasion. But when music director Boris Brott strikes up this band for its first outings, it will be a major transition in a long, twisting saga.
Once upon a time, there were two orchestras keeping the symphonic faith in Ventura County. Both the Ventura County Symphony, founded by conductor Frank Salazar, and the Conejo Symphony, founded by conductor Elmer Ramsey, began their lives in the early '60s as semiprofessional groups.
They followed a graceful arc of evolution, increasing their professionalism and serving their respective communities--Conejo played at Cal Lutheran University on the east side of the county; Ventura performed at Oxnard Civic Auditorium primarily to audiences west of the Conejo grade--with cultural substance, musical pleasantries and, sometimes, true adventures.
But radical changes swept into the county in the last few years. When Salazar retired, the Ventura Symphony brought in an ambitious Canadian conductor named Boris Brott, who gave players three chances to measure up to his standard or lose their jobs. In response, many musicians left the orchestra; those who remained unionized. Meanwhile, on the east side of the grade, plans were realized to the build the shiny new Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, with the Conejo orchestra as its resident band. Suddenly, the culture stakes were higher than ever in Ventura County.
Unfortunately, at the same time, monetary support was tightening. Despite good ticket sales for both organizations, at the close of the '94-95 season, the Conejo Symphony had a $90,000 deficit and the Ventura Symphony was in the red to the tune of $100,000. It was becoming clear that there was room financially for only one orchestra in Ventura County. But which one? The decision to jettison both in favor of a new entity came from a group now known as the Gang of Eight.
Made up of four members from each symphony board, the group met privately to explore the idea of a merger, which had been floated in the past as a solution to the orchestras' money woes. The obstacle had been Conejo founder Ramsey; his retirement announcement early in 1995 paved the way for the decision in March.
Ramsey has said he was not forced out, but he has had angry words about the dissolution of the orchestra he built, calling the new symphony "contrived, without heart."
Brott "merged" into the music director's role in the new orchestra. "It's quite serious when you decide to terminate an orchestra with a 30-year history," Brott commented in a phone interview last week from Tel Aviv, where he led the season-opening concerts of the Israel Chamber Orchestra.
"That part of it did not thrill me," he said. "On the other hand, the potential to put the orchestra on a much sounder footing and therefore do the kind of program ventures that I wanted--it just seemed like a dream come true."
The dream began to sour quickly. It was clear from the beginning that a merger meant that not every musician could retain his or her job. In fact, Brott wanted all potential New West musicians to audition, and, for many veterans of the prior two orchestras, to audition again for their old positions. Brott still defends the decision: "It's the fairest way to do it."
But many musicians didn't agree. Prompted by the Ventura Symphony union members, the American Federation of Musicians placed the New West Symphony on the International Unfair List.
Union musicians are prohibited from auditioning for or performing with organizations on the list, under penalty of fines. In response, the New West Symphony filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which stepped in to mediate.
To ensure the show would go on, and to prevent taking the case to court, a deal was signed on Sept. 13. Forty of the new orchestra's seats have been filled by members of the previous orchestras, chosen by Brott, consulting with what he called "reliable sources." The remaining 40 chairs were filled from auditions which were opened first to other musicians from the prior orchestras, then to all comers.
Brott put an upbeat spin on the birthing process of the New West. "How many new orchestras do we have these days? Mostly, you hear about things collapsing and closing. [Here,] instead of seeing two institutions either hobble along or die, you have a phoenix-like situation.
"The fact is that we will be able to pay musicians at a going rate, a rate equal to other regional orchestras that we want to join in terms of quality--like the Pacific Symphony or the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra or the Pasadena Symphony."
And the reconfigured symphony has in fact gained economic support from sources that hadn't contributed to the earlier orchestras, American Express and Microsoft. On the downside, because there was no assurance the season would even begin as planned, the promotional machinery was silent; a program brochure wasn't completed until days before the kickoff concert.
Brott knows that his upcoming role is as much diplomat as conductor.
"Someone made the analogy that it's like a marriage. Perhaps marriage these days is not a good analogy for anything you want to have last," he said. "But both parents-in-law want to see the marriage succeed."