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Band in Harmony Over Free Gig


The Senior Symphony never quit after its last public performance 10 years ago.

Its members showed up each week without fail at the Hollywood musicians union hall to rehearse Brahms and Bach for a next concert that never seemed to come.

So when the orchestra was offered its first booking since 1992 at this week's practice, why did the rehearsal threaten to end on a flat note?

It turns out that the concert invitation that would end the drought for musicians whose average age is past 70 was for a nonpaying gig. And this was a union crowd.

"We joined the union to get paid. We don't work for free--we're professionals," said Phil Gray, a 65-year-old trombone player from West Hills, as others nodded and murmured in agreement.

Suddenly, the "William Tell Overture" score that was spread out over rehearsal room music stands wasn't the only thing stirring emotions at the Professional Musicians Local 47 on Vine Street.

The 50-piece orchestra is made up of former Big Band-era performers, retired studio and recording session players and veterans from philharmonic groups across the country. It was formed in 1970.

"So many fine musicians get older and have no place to play," said orchestra founder Max Herman, a Sherman Oaks trumpet player who turns 88 on Monday. "Some of these people were the top in the business. It was a thrill to play with them."

Until 1992 the orchestra had a performance venue, the Ambassador College Auditorium in Pasadena. Herman said an annual concert was staged there until the college closed.

Since then, the players have practiced. And waited patiently to be asked to again perform in public.

"It makes your blood run faster when you play for an audience," said Carla Sobel, 88, a cellist from Los Angeles. "We used to fill the Ambassador. There wasn't an empty seat. It was great."

The orchestra's concert master, violinist Norman Rosenblatt, 86, of Marina del Rey, agreed. "It's very important to have an audience."

This week's invitation came from the new Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment center, which is planning a series of free summer concerts. And it came out of the blue.

Hollywood Chamber of Commerce consultant Laurie Golden heard about the orchestra while compiling a list of inexpensive summer outings. She suggested that Hollywood & Highland invite the Senior Symphony. Center executive LeeAnne Stables quickly agreed to work out the details.

The invitation delighted union President Hal Espinosa--until he learned it would be an unpaid performance. Union musicians usually earn a minimum of $155 for a 2 1/2-hour concert. Performance fees for the old Ambassador concerts had been financed by a Los Angeles city grant and a union trust fund.

"But they're so loyal, coming in here every week to rehearse," said Espinosa, a trumpet player from Santa Clarita. "We could have the executive board waive their salary. They could perform as a community service. It will be up to them."

It fell to union Secretary Serena Kay Williams, a bassist who lives in Hollywood, to find out if the old-timers were willing to work for free. She recalled that orchestra trumpet player Victor Zolo never missed a practice before his recent death at age 101.

"There are others in there in failing health. I'd like for them to have a concert while they're still around to enjoy it," she whispered as she opened the thick doors to the rehearsal room.

Stepping onto the conductor's podium, Williams polled the players. "How important is having a live audience?" she asked. "How important is a paid concert?"

There was a brief debate among the wind and string sections. Trombonist Gray and others argued for union principle. French horn players Warren Stearns, 69, of Frazier Park and Alan Robinson, 72, of Studio City leaned toward a live crowd.

"I donate my time. I don't expect to get paid," said orchestra co-conductor Newt Guilbeau, 74, a viola player from Studio City.

Soon there was a consensus. And violinist Richard Wagner, 78, of Hollywood, struck the final chord.

"Let's just do it for fun," he said.

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