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Money Woes Not a Coda for O.C. Symphony

Music: Orchestra is trying to conduct a reprise of its community role with financial aid from businesses, supporters.


GARDEN GROVE — It was a symphony orchestra that had no musicians, no concert hall, no conductor and was missing almost everything that makes an orchestra an orchestra.

Overwhelmed by debt and unpaid taxes, the Orange County Symphony had fallen so low that for the past three years rumors of its death have been constant.

But the symphony lives.

It is operating in the black and this summer had a series of three concerts in Coto de Caza. Also, the symphony will give its regular Children's Concert in Garden Grove in November.

To put the Orange County Symphony back on track, a cadre of music lovers dealt with a budget nightmare, an angry IRS, a fed-up musicians' union, personality conflicts on its board and a romantic tangle that a symphony board member likened to "Peyton Place."

"What's amazing about what's going on now is how far they had fallen and how far they've come back," said conductor David Warble. Warble, former conductor of the Disneyland orchestra and now touring with Broadway performer Betty Buckley of "Cats" fame, has often volunteered his services to the Orange County Symphony. He will conduct the Children's Concert in November.

"It would have been much more easy to just roll over and play dead," Warble said, "but they just refused to die."

For a community orchestra to become mired in financial problems is common. But, by any measure, the Orange County Symphony's collapse was truly dramatic.

When the symphony was founded in 1984, it was greeted by enthusiastic audiences. Then called the Garden Grove Symphony, most of its concerts were held at Garden Grove High School, and performances were well attended.

The name was changed to give the symphony broader appeal, the orchestra grew and so did the audiences. The symphony hired well-known soloists and celebrities, such as Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," to work with its mix of professional and community musicians, and the board went deeper and deeper into debt.

"It got worse and worse and worse, said Martha Alves, president of the symphony board. "I think there was this pie-in-the-sky attitude about making beautiful music, but, in the meantime, the ship was sinking."

It finally capsized in late 1993, when the symphony did not pay its musicians for a concert, and the musicians' union, Local 7 in Santa Ana, refused to contract for other engagements.

Then the state Franchise Tax Board and the IRS noticed the symphony had not payed $20,000 in employment taxes and fines and prepared to seize its assets. Then, there was the matter of the $50,000 its supporters had loaned the symphony.

To keep the symphony's assets from tax collectors, the board president at that time and the former conductor stashed the orchestra's property--a grand piano, three timpani drums, 100 chairs and a director's stand--into storage, Alves said.

"It caused a great deal of confusion because the board knew nothing about it, but I sincerely believe that everything they did was in an effort to protect the symphony," Alves said.

Then, the conductor and the board president quit the organization. They later married, taking with them the symphony's grand piano in lieu of the conductor's back pay, Alves said.

That's when Alves got the job. She put strict financial controls on the symphony, adopting a strategy of putting on concerts that cost the organization nothing.

With a donation from Target of about $15,000, she offered to pay the musician's back wages if they'd play a concert for free. They agreed.

"The new board was doing whatever they could to keep that organization going," said Frank Amoss, president of the musicians' union. "People knew they were sincere, and, really, it was in the best interest of the musicians to hopefully keep the symphony alive."

But beyond pecuniary interests, playing in community orchestras can offer professional musicians satisfaction they can't find elsewhere, he said.

"We have many members who make over six figures a year making movie music, and, although it pays well, the chance to play some Mozart is worth whatever the cost--even at $85 a night," Amoss said.

Besides Target, Time Warner Inc. and a host of other businesses, large and small, either made donations or advertised in symphony brochures. Some forgave the symphony its debts, including the supporters, most of whom helped found the orchestra, who were owed the $50,000.

The Garden Grove City Council gave the group free office space.

"We could not have done it without a host of volunteers and the generosity of this community," Alves said.

A year later, at the end of 1994, Anaheim accountant Sylvia Lane volunteered to oversee the orchestra's finances.

A former Army lieutenant, Lane created a budget for the group and reined in attempts to spend a penny more than it possessed.

"Before the new board came in, they were operating without a budget and not knowing the actual costs of everything," Lane said. "But they're really a great group of very dedicated people, and now they're back on track."

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