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When Making a Move Hurts : Cumming's Departure Leaves Parents of O.C. Youth Musicians Puzzled

June 08, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Edward Cumming--assistant conductor of the Pacific Symphony, director of the Pacific Symphony Institute and conductor of the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra--will lead his last local concert Sunday before moving to his new post as assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony.

For Cumming, 38, that's a definite step up. So why has his departure produced so many disgruntled people? In part, because it was only after he was cut loose by the Pacific Symphony that the Pittsburgh job came his way.

"I've come to the conclusion that those who live in Orange County are genetically incapable of recognizing quality," said Robert Chapman of Laguna Niguel, whose daughter, Dara, plays trumpet in the youth orchestra. "Here's a man whose talent is obvious and demonstrated. . . .

"I look around at myself and my neighbors; we all live in a high level of mediocrity and low expectations. . . . I don't know what's going on in the Pacific Symphony. I only know that quality is hard to come by and even harder to recognize."

In strictly practical terms, others recognize that "it's a natural progression that Cumming would move from an orchestra like the Pacific Symphony to an orchestra a step much higher--the Pittsburgh is one of the finest orchestras in the nation," said Chris Russell, director of the music department at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Los Alamitos, where the youth orchestra is based.

"But it's only through a strange series of coincidences that the Pittsburgh position opened up," Russell added. "They invited him to apply, and he got the job. When his [Pacific Symphony] contract wasn't renewed, he didn't know where he would be in the fall."

*

At Grace Church in Cypress, Cumming will lead the young people's group in Borodin's Symphony No. 2 and in Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, the soloist being 15-year-old concertmaster Jennifer Lindsay, who recently won the orchestra's concerto competition. A 12-member chamber ensemble from within the orchestra will play movements from Schubert's Octet and Brahms' Sextet No. 2.

The Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra was founded in 1993 and consists of 70 musicians, ages 10 to 22, selected by audition. The High School of the Arts provides financial backing, paying the conductor's salary and costs of music scores and hall rentals. Orchestra members each make an average annual donation of $200 to help cover supplies and materials.

The Pacific Symphony's involvement is largely artistic; the organization provides the conductor, who in turn chooses repertory.

When news of Cumming's departure broke in April, the Pacific Symphony's executive director, Lou Spisto, said: "Ed has done a terrific job, [but] typically our assistant conductors do not hold contracts longer than three seasons." The Oakland native's two-year contract had already been extended to three.

The realities of career tracks aside, youth orchestra parents remain less than sanguine about the news.

"I realize that things change," said Jeffrey Mann of La Mirada, whose daughter, Maralynne, plays oboe. "But how can an organization grow or achieve high standards when you keep turning over people? If our daughter stays, in four years she'll have gone through three conductors--Cumming one year, and a new conductor every two years."

Gloria Lindsay of Fountain Valley, mother of the orchestra's concertmaster, recalled her initial exposure to Cumming, who holds a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and earned his master's and doctorate in musical arts at Yale.

"At the very first rehearsal, he had 76 kids," Lindsay said. "Do you know that he went down the aisle and called every one of them by name? He had evidently studied each photo and each kid. I never heard of anybody doing something like this. The kids felt so special."

She also remembers her reaction upon finding out he was leaving.

"I was surprised. I was stunned. I wasn't mad. . . . We were just heartbroken."

A search is underway for Cumming's replacement. Until then, many parents have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

Said Chapman: "My daughter has been in five different high-level orchestras. The difference between this one and the rest is just incredible. Cumming treated the kids like they were professionals. He treated them like equals.

"I am thrilled that my daughter got to work with him, that she had the chance to work with a first-class individual who not only knew his stuff but was a real person, not just a professional."

* Edward Cumming leads the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra in works by Borodin, Bruch, Schubert and Brahms on Sunday at Grace Church, 5100 Cerritos Ave., Cypress. $5. Students $3. 7:30 p.m. (310) 596-1435.

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