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Playing to the Home Crowds

Community orchestras are performing for packed houses and drawing some top talent. But money, as always, remains a problem.


Conductor Jerome Kessler remembers well arriving at his orchestra's first rehearsal. He drove up the hill toward the Community House, rabbits scurrying out of his path.

It was a typical summer evening in 1982 in the small, eclectic community of Topanga. Word had spread among the 2,800 residents about the new orchestra: Inside the Community House sat nearly two dozen people with violins--more than Kessler had ever imagined.

"We learned very quickly," Kessler said, "the difference between violinists and fiddlers."

It's not the kind of problem the Los Angeles Philharmonic is likely to face during its auditions. Nor do dogs wander in and out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during matinee performances. But for the 45 members of the Topanga Symphony, this is the norm.

Across Southern California, as in Topanga, local auditoriums, community centers and even school cafeterias are alive with the sounds of Beethoven. And it's in tune. For while few would confuse these community orchestras--each of which performs a handful of concerts a year--with the 108-member L.A. Philharmonic, they aren't entirely the pick-up groups of hobbyists one might expect. The players come together for various reasons, but have one thing in common: They're packing the house.


At the 1,236-seat Hall of Liberty in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, concerts of the Burbank Chamber Orchestra overflow. They have had to prop open the rear doors so people standing in the foyer can listen. In Topanga, they open the window to allow those sitting at outdoor tables to hear. And in Santa Clarita, the Symphony of the Canyons sold out each of its five concerts this season, the last one more than two months in advance.

Of course, selling out is relative. The Burbank and Topanga concerts are free. The Symphony of the Canyons--which charges $5 to $8 per ticket--plays in a cafeteria-cum-concert hall with seating for 312.

Why the need for symphonies, when the nearby L.A. Phil offers world-class musicians and three concerts a week? "I think every community wants it to be known that it has culture," said Robert Lawson, conductor of Symphony of the Canyons. "When you have a symphony orchestra--especially a professional orchestra--you can look to it as 'See, we have culture here!' "

For the Antelope Valley, overhauling its orchestra was part of growing with the region, now home to 300,000 people. When Lancaster built a 750-seat performing arts center in 1991, the Antelope Valley Symphony Orchestra shed its gymnasium venue and a lot of local amateur players.

"What worked back in the '70s and '80s wouldn't necessarily work now," said Donna Jean Enstad, president of the Antelope Valley Symphony Orchestra in Lancaster. "Things are more competitive as far as entertainment."

Symphony of the Canyons is one organization with aspirations of outgrowing its "community orchestra" label. Only 3 1/2 years ago, said conductor Robert Lawson, they were a fully volunteer group hatched out of a collaboration with College of the Canyons.

"We raised money on cookie sales so I could buy music," he said. Now the group can afford to pay some of its players--though not much--and is looking for a 1,000-seat auditorium in Santa Clarita.

Lawson, who was associate conductor of the now-defunct Ventura Symphony and founded the late Channel Islands Chamber Orchestra, believes Symphony of the Canyons can develop into a fully professional regional orchestra. He wants to maintain affiliation with the college, offering students a sort of musical internship. At the same time, he hopes to draw in musicians from Los Angeles' huge pool of freelance and studio players.


That's how it all started in San Diego, says Beth Folsom, who played violin there for 20 years before moving to Agua Dulce. When she started, the San Diego Symphony rehearsed in the evenings; she was lucky to make $1,000 a year. But talent attracts talent, and by the mid-1980s--for Folsom's money, anyway--San Diego had one of the best orchestras in America.

As concertmaster of Symphony of the Canyons, Folsom hopes she can be one of those talent magnets. Right now, she said, "It's a very good community orchestra. It's just not in the same league as Pasadena or Glendale. . . . That's why I'm staying: to get it into that league."

These days, however, musicians talk about orchestras such as Glendale's and San Diego's in tones reserved for sick relatives. San Diego is about $3.4 million in debt, and Glendale had to cancel a March concert when it didn't have the money to hire musicians.

High-profile troubles like these--combined with a panic over cuts to government arts funding and dissolving arts programs in public schools--cause concern for the state of classical music performances.

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