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FALL ARTS PREVIEW / THE NEW HALL

Building crescendo

With An Ambitious Director, A Tour Under Its Belt And Now A Home Of Its Own, The Pacific Symphony Is O.c.'s Rising Star.

September 10, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

AT a time when a number of U.S. orchestras have foundered or gone under, the Pacific Symphony has balanced its budget for 17 years, commissioned large-scale works, recorded twice for a major label, initiated six American music festivals and -- in March -- made its first European tour.

On Friday, though, the orchestra -- California's third-largest, with a budget of $16.8 million -- will reach its greatest milestone so far: It will take occupancy of its own home. The occasion will be its first performance in the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Symphony's endowment: An article in today's Calendar section about the history of the Pacific Symphony says its endowment is $2 million. The endowment is $23 million.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 17, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Pacific Symphony: An article last Sunday about the history of the Pacific Symphony incorrectly said that its endowment is now at $2 million. The endowment is $23 million. Also, the Fall Arts Preview for classical music said that the New York Philharmonic would be the first U.S. orchestra to perform at the new Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. The Pacific Symphony will be the first.

Not bad for a band that began 28 years ago with a $2,000 university grant and a quixotic plan for a two-concert season sketched out on a conductor's kitchen table.

The move will actually be the Pacific's second into an Orange County landmark. The first took place in 1986, when the $70-million Orange County Performing Arts Center opened. At that time, however, OCPAC consisted only of the larger Segerstrom Hall, and officials there declined to give any local group resident status.

But the Pacific will march into this new venue as a full artistic partner. No second-class status now. The hall was built for it. And the musicians are jazzed.

"I can't imagine very many young orchestras moving into not only one but two halls in 27 years," says flutist Cynthia Ellis, who has been with the orchestra since 1979. "To me, that's incredible."

Mindy Ball, the orchestra's harpist for 26 years, says, "The new hall puts the Pacific Symphony on equal footing with the great orchestras of the world. We are definitely in the big leagues now."

The big leagues were a faint dream at best when Keith Clark, a charismatic Cal State Fullerton associate music professor in his early 30s, founded the Fullerton Chamber Orchestra as a university affiliate in spring 1978.

Clark had a missionary zeal, a knack for publicity and the instinct that Hollywood studio musicians -- however much they made in their day jobs -- might long to play the serious music they had studied in music schools and conservatories.

He couldn't pay them much, but he could provide them with sufficient flexibility to maintain their studio work. He devised a model that the Pacific Symphony still uses: It's a per-service organization whose musicians are paid for each concert and rehearsal, both known as "services."

In fact, within little more than a year, in December 1979, the chamber orchestra expanded from between 30 and 40 members to roughly twice that size, and Clark renamed it the Pacific Symphony.

The resulting ensemble drew small audiences, but the base kept growing as it played in Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton and the Good Time Theatre at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park.

In 1983, however, when it moved its concerts to Santa Ana High School, it suffered its first crisis. Subscriptions plunged -- from 3,000 in 1981 to 600 in 1983. Audiences were nervous about going to the largely Latino neighborhood at night and were put off by the lack of amenities at the school.

Meanwhile, Clark had begun gaining a reputation as an abrasive, autocratic administrator. In five years, he ran through three executive directors. One lasted six weeks. Another resigned after three months. The third left after 13 months.

When OCPAC opened, conflict between Clark and the board erupted. Opponents complained that he was unprepared musically, offending supporters and stifling the orchestra's growth.

The issue came to a head after a 31-year-old marketing wiz, Louis G. Spisto, was lured from the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1987 to become the orchestra's executive director. Unlike his predecessors, Spisto was hired as an administrative equal to Clark, not a subordinate, and he reported to the board.

Predictably, friction arose between the two men. The board split into factions, the orchestra took sides, the battle got ugly as it went public, and ultimately Clark lost, resigning at the end of the 1988-89 season after releasing a letter blasting Spisto and the board.

Subsequently, a two-year search for a new music director ended when Carl St.Clair, then 37, took over in 1990. A protege of Leonard Bernstein, an assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony and winner of the $75,000 Seaver / National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award, the energetic, Texas-born St.Clair has been the face of the orchestra since.

"Having been here for 16 seasons," he says, with sincere enthusiasm, "I'm actually one of the few who can understand a broad spectrum of the history of the orchestra -- how far we've come, what has changed in our lives and how we're going to develop further. We have an ideal circumstance in Orange County. We have a community and an orchestra that are basically at the same level. We've grown as the audiences have grown. When orchestras grow beyond the community, they get into trouble."

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