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San Jose Orchestra Muted by Rising Debts

June 05, 2002|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Jose Symphony officials announced Tuesday that the 123-year-old orchestra--the oldest in the West--will stand silent until it can clear up debts and reorganize, leaving this Silicon Valley headquarters as the largest U.S. city without its own symphony.

The 89-member orchestra will give a farewell concert Saturday before heading to U.S. Bankruptcy Court in an effort to clear up mounting debts that this year exceeded $3 million, or more than a third of its $7.8-million annual budget, officials say.

Since its season was unofficially canceled in October because of financial problems, the symphony has performed only a series of benefit concerts planned long before. Officials hope to have a smaller, revamped version of the arts group performing in six to 18 months.

The shutdown means that one of California's wealthiest regions will for the interim lose its oldest cultural institution. Begun in 1879, the orchestra outdates the more famous San Francisco Symphony, founded in 1911.

For many musicians, some of whom have played for the San Jose orchestra more than four decades, news of the closure hit a sour note. They said the symphony in recent years had struggled to overcome several financial miscues and reach a youthful city, where more than half the residents are younger than 35.

Faced with a dwindling audience and operating in the shadow of the world-famous and better financed San Francisco Symphony, orchestra organizers in San Jose borrowed money on credit, worsening the group's financial health, officials acknowledge.

''It's devastating,'' said Kristen Linfante, a violist and chairwoman of the negotiating committee for the orchestra's musicians. ''It's been frustrating for us, because this symphony has been mismanaged for years. It has used poor judgment in so many things, from budgeting to marketing. It's really been dysfunctional.''

San Jose Symphony conductor and music director Leonid Grin did not return a telephone call seeking comment Tuesday.

Les White, interim chief operating officer for the orchestra, agreed with Linfante: ''What this tells us is that we needed to manage the money situation a little tighter.''

The symphony's failure comes as an encore to orchestra troubles in other cities throughout California and the nation. In recent years, the San Diego and Sacramento symphonies have suffered significant financial problems. In San Diego, officials reorganized and are rebuilding. The Sacramento symphony folded, although a smaller group has since emerged.

But San Jose officials are left pondering their lack of support from a financial base that many symphonies would die for: the millionaires of the Silicon Valley.

''The Silicon Valley never supported us,'' said White, a former San Jose city manager. ''That's one of the things we're going to have to look at. This is a young, mobile group of people that we're going to have to learn to appeal to.''

According to a report released Tuesday by a symphony transitional committee, the orchestra struggled to find its niche in the nation's 11th-largest city, which it called a relatively new metropolitan area that ''does not have long-standing traditions in the arts or in private funding for the arts.''

Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, said it does not take for granted the community support that provides for a $47-million annual budget, one of the largest among the nation's major orchestras. By contrast, Chicago and Los Angeles have budgets of $59 million and $52 million, respectively.

He said he didn't envy San Jose's efforts to reach supporters in the Silicon Valley, where workers spend so much time writing software programs, they don't have time for ones featuring Beethoven.

''So many people there come from other places, including San Francisco,'' he said. ''They work a huge number of hours. Many just aren't connected to the community. And if they are, they're postponing their leisure time to some other period in their lives. Right now, they're just working.''

The San Jose Symphony's advisory panel report cited other problems as well: Despite the area's high level of income, San Jose ranked 39th in per-capita giving among the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas. ''In addition,'' the report concluded, ''Silicon Valley companies are feeling vulnerable to today's difficult economic situation, so timing is an issue.''

Unlike San Francisco, San Jose is not a tourist destination and does not have a vibrant downtown area with restaurants and other attractions to draw arts patrons.

And in an area in which a quarter of the residents are younger than 14, families with small children are ''less likely to participate frequently in the arts than are adults of 45 and older,'' the report said.

But community leaders said they had not given up hope.

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