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PERFORMING ARTS

Summer Knights

Can the San Gabriel Valley area support two orchestras vying for their time and money? The California Philharmonic and the Pasadena Pops sure hope so.

August 16, 1998|Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

One orchestra plays at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, where patrons can take in an art show, browse through the food court and share the lawn with peacocks before listening to music under the stars. The other performs in Descanso Gardens, where people dine in an oak-ringed meadow while popular tunes waft through the air. Both paint themselves as less expensive, more convenient alternatives to the venerable Hollywood Bowl.

Behind their idyllic settings, however, a soap opera is playing out, as the two orchestras vie for the hearts and subscription dollars of the summer concert audience.

Adding to the intrigue, both bands--the Arcadia-based California Philharmonic Orchestra and the Pasadena Pops--were founded by Victor Vener, a Pasadena-born conductor who created the Cal Phil after being dismissed from the Pops. Though each company insists there's enough room for two summer ensembles in the San Gabriel Valley, they admit to keeping tabs on each other.

"There was a slight drop-off in our core audience after Victor left," acknowledged Lucas Richman, 34, an engaging man with shoulder-length hair who was named Pops principal conductor in Vener's wake. "And there's still lots of confusion. Some people think the California Philharmonic is the new name for the Pasadena Pops. They're unaware of the differences between us."

For the two conductors, the differences lie in the programming. In 1998, the California Philharmonic's seven-concert "Festival on the Green" is presenting four evenings of light classical music, with all-American, movie and Broadway selections making up the other three. The Pops has just one night out of five reserved for "Classical Best Bets."

"My dream is make great music accessible rather than entertaining large numbers of people with the lowest common denominator," says Vener, 53, a former French horn player who has performed with the Vienna Volksoper and the Nuremberg Symphony, among others. "We're more like Charlie Rose than David Letterman--a classical orchestra that lets its hair down."

Richman makes no apologies for his orchestra's season. "There's a fine line between educating and entertaining," he says. "Our orchestra, in the process of redefining itself, is trying to do both. This is the first time I've been the artistic head of an organization. I feel like a pioneer, staking out new turf."

In 1987, Vener and a group of community leaders calling themselves the Foothill Friends of Music created Pasadena Pops and another more serious ensemble, the Chamber Orchestra of Pasadena. Though support for the chamber ensemble dissipated, the Pops took off, going from two concerts during the spring of 1988 to six concerts the following year. In 1994, the summer season was moved from the Rose Bowl grounds to Descanso Gardens in La Can~ada Flintridge. Vener became synonymous with the orchestra, but halfway through his tenure, creative frictions set in.

"Victor has a silver tongue--he's an excellent communicator," said John Streb, president of the Pops board for the last six years. "But we wanted to develop repeat business which, from concert to concert, meant varying his act. The programming, too, was unsatisfactory. We didn't want the heavier pieces Victor wanted to play."

Vener, who was presenting two-thirds classical and one-third pops, resented the artistic intrusion. "I told them that if they didn't like the sauce to get rid of the chef, rather than adding more salt," he says.

In October 1996, the board called his bluff. The conductor was informed that his contract wasn't being renewed. "I felt frustrated and unappreciated," Vener recalls. "Clearly, they felt that my talent wasn't as significant to the operation as I and some of my supporters did."

Vener's salvation proved to be the California Phil, which he'd formed to play concerts on the Westside that winter. The conductor poured himself into the operation, making it a family affair. Son-in-law Armen Anassian became assistant conductor. Daughter Sabine played the violin. Son Andre was appointed general manager. The opening season consisted of five concerts, the first of which took place in June 1997.

"Our marketing thrust was selling Victor--'Either you know Victor Vener or you should know him,' " says 25-year-old Andre. "That was a gamble, I guess."

But a gamble that paid off, according to the Vener team. The first season exceeded expectations, as 18,000 people, rather than the 8,000 to 10,000 projected, walked through the Arboretum gates. This year, Sunset magazine--a $50,000 donor--became the primary "presenter," and stores such as Macy's and Nordstrom sponsored individual concerts. The group recently scheduled Thursday-evening "Talks With the Maestro" prior to each concert and a free music camp for children at two Saturday morning rehearsals. A $60,000 band shell, purchased half-price from the then-bankrupt San Diego Symphony, has been painstakingly restored.

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