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Pasadena music group sends SOS

Orchestras lay off two executives and cancel concerts in an attempt to close a budget gap.

November 05, 2008|Mike Boehm | Boehm is a Times staff writer.

Caught in a budget crisis, the Orchestras of Pasadena have laid off their two top executives, canceled two more concerts by the Pasadena Pops and issued an emergency fundraising appeal to save three remaining classical concerts and an 11-show outdoor summer pops series.

"We're wounded, but planning on fighting the fight," said Jean Horton, a board member and financial consultant who stepped in Monday as interim executive director. "Every member of the board is going to be dialing the phone. We're in high gear on this."

Whether the remaining music will be played by the Pasadena Symphony and the Pasadena Pops depends on how the fundraising push fares in the face of a wounded stock market and a foundering economy.

Saving all 14 concerts would require $3.5 million to $4 million in donations by September, Horton said, under a pay-as-you-go plan. The fate of a still-scheduled Jan. 10 program of Wagner and Tchaikovsky depends on how much comes in by early December.

Advance sales and attendance last month at the symphony's mariachi-flavored season opener met projections, Horton said, but even in good times, the orchestras, like virtually all nonprofit arts groups, rely heavily on donations to close the gap between expenses and box-office earnings.

Last month, the Orchestras of Pasadena -- created in 2007 by a merger of the previously independent Pasadena Symphony and Pasadena Pops -- canceled the symphony's Nov. 15 Brahms-Bartok concert and a Dec. 6 pops performance. The two remaining pops holiday concerts at Pasadena Civic Auditorium have been canceled as well: a Feb. 14 St. Valentine's Day show and a March 21 St. Patrick's Day celebration that was to have featured the Irish group Cherish the Ladies as guests.

The recent retrenchment also included letting go the organization's co-executive directors: Tom O'Connor, who Horton said had been employed by the symphony for about six years, and Dick Zellner, hired this year to head fundraising. O'Connor earned $100,000 in 2005-06, the last year for which the symphony's tax return was available via GuideStar.org.

Horton said there were "no current plans" to try to renegotiate contracts with the two highest-salaried employees: Jorge Mester, who earned $218,000 in 2005-06 as the symphony's music director, and Rachael Worby, the pops conductor, who earned $120,000 in 2005-06. Meanwhile, Horton said, rank-and-file musicians "have expressed a desire to help out" by perhaps forgoing some of their contractual pay or playing a fundraising concert without pay.

Horton said the orchestras' woes stemmed entirely from the economic downturn rather than from costs from the merger of the Pasadena Symphony and Pasadena Pops, which took effect with last summer's pops season. As separate groups, they had combined 2005-06 expenses of $4.8 million and a combined deficit of $156,000.

This season's budget was going to be $5.3 million -- with more than half coming from donations -- before the subprime mortgage crisis forced layoffs and cancellations. About $400,000 in projected endowment revenue vanished as the orchestras' portfolio shrank from $8.5 million to less than $5 million, Horton said.

Now comes the SOS, which arrives, he acknowledged, when charities' competition for wealthy donors' diminished net worths figures to be fierce. "Large and small [orchestras] are sweating right now," he said. "I can't imagine anybody not being worried about their contribution base."

The Pasadena orchestras' message, he said, is an appeal to "community-based" goodwill. "We've been around 81 years and are part of the fabric of the community. We're one of the principal providers of music education in the school system, and we need help in sustaining all that."

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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