Chamber of Horrors

Discordant times for a local orchestra.

In a satirical Mozart piece called A Musical Joke, different factions of the orchestra play in opposing keys, soloists bumble in at the wrong time, a poverty of melodic ideas nearly suffocates each movement, and the whole thing collapses noisily at the end.

Over the past two years, that's how things have been looking for the Catalina Chamber Orchestra, the city's second-best classical-music ensemble after the fully professional and amply funded Tucson Symphony.

Except that this was no joke.

But in June, just before that calamitous final bar, one faction of the orchestra wrested control from the other and is now trying to set the group back on its original course. At this point, the orchestra is far from healed, but it won't be playing its own Requiem anytime soon.

Despite all the recent infighting and the continuous sense of emergency, the story of the Catalina Chamber Orchestra's near death and presumable transfiguration lacks real villains. All the key figures during the past 12 months were clearly fighting to keep the orchestra alive, but they wound up fighting each other over how to salvage the budget and even how to define the group's nature and goals.

TEN YEARS AGO, Enrique Lasansky had too much time and talent on his hands. Fresh from the University of Arizona's doctoral program in conducting, he was applying all over the country for college teaching jobs, with only limited hope of landing one of the few available positions.

Needing to keep up his conducting chops and knowing that he'd look more attractive to potential employers if he were running his own orchestra, he founded the Catalina Chamber Orchestra--named for Tucson's backyard mountain range, not for the local high school (where, ironically, Lasansky has just gotten a job).

A chamber orchestra is less than half as big as a full symphony orchestra, but seven or eight times larger than a string quartet. It's the right size for works by such 18th-century composers as Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart and Haydn, but poorly equipped for the more lavish scores of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Composers since World War I, many of whom sometimes adopted a more stripped-down aesthetic, have written more diligently for the ensemble. So the chamber orchestra has a wide variety of music at its disposal, but the gaping hole in the middle of its repertory--precisely the most popular era in classical music--limits its appeal to people who want more than a rich soundtrack to their naps in the concert hall.

The only chamber orchestra in Tucson in the early '90s was an offshoot of the Tucson Symphony, with a limited series playing to a limited audience (which has since grown significantly). To fill the wide gaps between the TSO Chamber Orchestra concerts, Lasansky created a small orchestra of well-trained adults. Most of his players were either music teachers or people who did music on the side; the playing was consequently a couple of notches below the TSO's, but better than the average community orchestra's, and it improved every year.

"The mission statement said we were semi-professional with an eye to becoming pro, a pan-regional group with an emphasis on premiering new works," said violist Phil Stevens, who joined the orchestra in 1995.

"When I heard about it, this sounded like a home for me, as opposed to auditioning for the TSO to play the warhorses for bluehairs. We all felt that the group was moving up fast, doing one or two premieres each season, and we got an Aaron Copland grant in 1999, recognizing our work with American composers."

In the 1998-99 season, the group reached its peak attendance. But that was the year that Lasansky, unable to make ends meet in Tucson, took a school-teaching position in San Antonio and moved away, returning to Tucson only for a few days of rehearsal before each concert.

Until then Lasansky had been handling most of the public relations and grant writing himself, but when he became an absentee music director the orchestra found it necessary to hire its first executive director, Chuck Lund, at a salary of about $36,000. This in an organization whose annual budget had topped out at $80,000, and more often hovered around $60,000.

"That's when things started to unravel," said Stevens. "Almost from the start, Chuck acted like he was going to shut us down and turn off the lights. He let the fundraising slide, he quit doing mass mailings to subscribers, and he started running expensive ads in the dailies.

"This was the season (1999-2000) that the board voted to give everyone at least a token fee for performances, after we got some criticism from funding organizations for having most people play for free. Chuck also ruffled some feathers in deciding who'd be paid what.

"By late spring of 2000, we were in horrible shape," Stevens continued. "Attendance and subscriptions were way down, we were jumping from venue to venue, Chuck had blown off the grants, and the board was pretty ineffective in raising funds."

With the bills piling up like notes in a dissonant chord and the orchestra on the brink of collapse, Lund resigned.

THE MUSICIANS banded together to help with fundraising, one even collecting $1,000 by going door to door. The group managed to pull itself together for another season, and replaced Lund with Stephanie Dreisbach, a singer with management experience who had often soloed with the orchestra.

"She seemed like a solid candidate, and we expected good things to immediately start happening," said Stevens, who joined the board of directors as orchestra liaison at the beginning of the 2000-01 season.

Dreisbach recruited to the board several people, including businessmen and former professional musicians, she believed could be adept fund-raisers and improve the organization's credibility with donors and funding agencies.

"We're in the process of not rebuilding the organization but just building the organization, because it was never on completely solid footing," Dreisbach said in early June. "I felt like Nancy Drew, trying to figure out what had gone on here before."

But Dreisbach soon started to hit some sour notes in the opinion of some Catalina old-timers like Stevens, who objected to her tendency to downplay grant writing.

"The organization has subsisted primarily on government grants in the past, and that's not a good, solid way to run the show," Dreisbach said. "The rule of thumb is that the revenue you get from government and corporate grants should not exceed 30 percent; the rest should come from board donations, individual donations, ticket sales and contract programming for the orchestra, which we plan to do a lot of in the coming season. The thing with especially the governmental grants and a lot of the other granting organizations is that they're matching grants; they're from helping agencies that want to see that money is coming in from other places, too."

Dreisbach also felt that the token payment to musicians--about $100 per concert cycle--was insulting. "There are really good players in this orchestra, and you have to make sure you have the funding in place to pay people, and then you need to pay them well--you need to pay them what they're worth."

Her emphasis on scaling back on grant writing and honoraria until she and the board could get a solid, community-based budget in place alarmed many people associated with the orchestra, who feared Dreisbach might turn the semi-pro Catalina Chamber Orchestra into an amateur band that would just saw through conventional programming.


"With Enrique in Texas, the lines of communication became a little bit constrained," Stevens observed. "There seemed to be some friction between Stephanie and Enrique, and after a while it started to look like plain old bickering. Numerous members of the board of directors who were brought in by Stephanie were sympathetic to her goals, and not coincidentally were antagonistic toward Enrique."

By March, according to Stevens, the feuding was spilling over to members of the board and orchestra, and some players were complaining that money earmarked for special projects was being siphoned off into the general fund, which could further endanger the orchestra's programming and educational goals.

"My goal is just to make the CCO an organization that is playing the highest quality of music, that offers programming that not only has wide appeal but is made accessible to everybody," Dreisbach said. Having heard no further specifics, some musicians regarded that kind of talk as a sign that they'd be giving up their commitment to living composers and playing warhorses for bluehairs.

The players decided to step in. "We thought we'd rein these two in and set some rules of engagement," Stevens said.

Things weren't looking good for Lasansky. In April, the board voted unanimously to retain him for another season as music director--and to engage up to three guest conductors, as well. At that same meeting, before the players were able to place their points on the table for discussion, Dreisbach presented her own restructuring proposal. This, according to Stevens, "would essentially form a new organization staffed with volunteers, rewrite the mission statement and sever all ties with Dr. Lasansky. She used her position on the floor to pressure the board to change its orientation 180 degrees and eject Enrique from the organization he founded 10 years ago."

Orchestra members typically regard conductors as either cruel martinets or buffoons, and are glad to see them go. You can even see the contrast in natures between the blond, agile Stevens and the dark, deliberate Lasansky. But in this case, the differences are only skin deep; most of the Catalina Chamber Orchestra's members regarded Lasansky with respect, and Lasansky regarded many of the players as friends.

"There was a lot of trust of him professionally and artistically," Stevens said. "They appreciate what he's done for the orchestra in terms of guiding its growth, sticking with the mission, and programming interesting and new works especially. A lot of players expressed the fact that they had watched Enrique grow as a conductor over the years, and they felt that the orchestra had not outgrown Enrique, and it would be good to keep him on and continue the trajectory."

At a long and contentious board meeting in June, the players made their case. The board eventually voted to retain Lasansky for the duration of his contract, which extends to the end of the coming season. Then, at the end of the meeting, the board president, by all accounts an honorable and hard-working person recruited by Dreisbach, tendered his resignation, followed quickly by Dreisbach herself, who had enthusiastically outlined her plans for the orchestra's future to the Tucson Weekly only four days earlier.

Four more of the 10 board members have resigned since then. "These were pretty much the members who were at least informally aligned with [Dreisbach's] plans to shift the orchestra's focus," Stevens says.

SO NOW THE ORCHESTRA IS half a board short, and broke. But the survivors are whistling the "Eroica" Symphony.

Stevens, somewhat against his will, has accepted the board presidency. "I've promised myself to separate the concerns of an orchestra member from the concerns of a board member," he said last week. "I'm having to split my left and right brain to keep that straight. But unusual times call for unusual means.

"My principal goal is to keep our eyes focused on our fiduciary responsibility, and make sure the place is run like a tight ship. One of the things I've been doing is recruiting new members for the board who have experience and want to do fund raising, and getting everybody to agree that this is our number one mission. We're also relying on several members of the orchestra who have stepped forward and are taking care of administrative work for the interim, because we don't have funds to pay an administrative person. We absolutely must have one, but instead of hiring the first person who walks through the door, I want to do a search, have a credible salary offer, and provide incentives for someone who can do the job well."

"So not replacing the executive director right away is our main way of saving money. I don't want to compromise the artistic vision of the orchestra, and of course Enrique is the prime mover there. I don't want to tie his hands. We don't want to limit what the orchestra can do by saying we can't afford to rent that music or hire that percussionist. If it means going door to door with a tin cup, we'll find a way."

That will have to be a huge tin cup; Stevens intends to get the budget up into the low six figures within a year, which he says is standard for an organization of this stature. He is working on a marketing plan to rebuild the group's audience and donor base, and is installing all performances at the modestly priced UA Modern Languages auditorium instead of drifting from one expensive venue to another, as the group has done over the past couple of years. He's also planning collaborative fundraising events with other local arts groups in similar financial straits; a wine tasting co-sponsored by the Dinnerware Arts Collective is already scheduled for September 15.

As for Lasansky, he and his family moved back to Tucson this month. He's now the orchestra and choir director at Catalina High School.

"We've got to start over again because there ain't no money, but at least the orchestra hasn't lost anything artistically over the last two years," Lasansky said a few days ago. "The programming this season will continue to be eclectic, a mix of well-known things and not so well-known things and music by living composers, particularly local composers like Jay Vosk."

Still, getting the money together is bound to be difficult in the current economy, and the Catalina Chamber Orchestra must carefully set itself apart not only from the comparatively gargantuan Tucson Symphony, but also from such amateur-oriented groups as the Civic and Southern Arizona Symphony orchestras. Further audience competition will come this season from a new 18th-century-oriented chamber orchestra that Alexander Tentser is organizing at Pima Community College.

Lasansky isn't worried. "I think this city is underdeveloped as far as classical music is concerned," he said. "People really want to hear a quality performance, so it's very important for us to play at the highest level possible, and it's very important for people to perceive that we're not just out there playing for fun, although we do have fun when we play."

But will it still be fun for Lasansky, knowing that a group of people who obviously cared about his orchestra were planning to replace him this season with a series of what Dreisbach called "world class" guest conductors?

Lasansky shrugged and smiled tiredly. "Well, they settled for me instead."