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Pasadena orchestras' new boss sees a silver lining

January 8, 2009 |  3:34 pm

Paul Jan Zdunek Years of lax management, and not just the current economic meltdown, got the Pasadena Symphony and Pasadena Pops into their $3-million shortfall, says their new chief executive, Paul Jan Zdunek, who has past expertise in turning around the smaller Modesto Symphony and State Theatre of Modesto.

At a news conference announced for Thursday evening, Zdunek, a former conductor turned arts management pro, planned to point out past problems and lay out a recovery plan for the Orchestras of Pasadena, as the previously separate Symphony and Pops have been known since joining forces in 2007 in a single organization that also includes the Pasadena Youth Symphony.

"The organization wasn't doing some basic things" to attract ticket buyers and land the donations that all nonprofit arts organizations need, Zdunek said in an interview Thursday morning, three weeks into his job.

The "silver lining," he added, is that with those management basics now in place, there's hope for an organization that fiscally had fallen into "just a sort of complacency, and then the economy drove it over the edge." Before Zdunek arrived from Modesto, the orchestras' board already had slashed the full-time staff to 11, a cut of nearly half, and canceled a classical concert and three pops programs.

Music director Jorge Mester leads Pasadena Symphony Cutting more concerts "is not an option," Zdunek said. Failing to deliver the remaining promised shows "would be the death of this organization" as it tries to show that a turnaround has begun. It needs to deliver musically to build its audience, he said, and managerially for prospective donors who don't want to back an organization seen as spendthrift or adrift.

Donors "are just waiting for this fiscal discipline to kick in," Zdunek said. "It's happening now, and I think they're waiting to see if it's going to stick. We just have to prove ourselves."

Since putting out an SOS in November, he said, the orchestras have raised $400,000 in donations -- three-quarters of it from two gifts.

Annual budget shortfalls ranging from $300,000 to $800,000 had weakened the Symphony and Pops' finances for several years leading up to the national crunch that hit in September, said Zdunek, who grew up in Baltimore. With the economy tanking, the emergency donations that typically bailed out the Pops stopped materializing, and the Symphony no longer could raid its shrunken endowment, which has dropped from $6 million to $4.5 million over the last year. The endowment now consists entirely of "restricted" funds that can be used only for purposes specified by donors.

The three remaining classical concerts have been revised and programmed with music that can be played by smaller, and therefore less costly, ensembles. Despite the savings, the orchestras still must raise $2.5 million to $3 million to meet projected expenses through the summer.

Of that, Zdunek said, $800,000 is IOUs already run up for all kinds of expenses, including $16,000 in ticket refunds owed for the four canceled concerts. Although prepared to pay ticket holders, the orchestras are asking them if they'll consider forgoing their refunds as a form of donation to the rescue plan.

The coming classical concerts at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium have been programmed to reflect the orchestras' struggles and aspirations: Triumph over adversity is the theme Saturday -- an all-Beethoven concert featuring the Symphony No. 9 and its "Ode to Joy." All the musicians are donating their rehearsal time and performances, which Zdunek said will mean a savings of more than $90,000.

"Rebirth" will be the theme in March, with Copland's "Appalachian Spring," Vivaldi's "Spring" from "The Four Seasons" and Schumann's "Spring Symphony." And in April, the idea will be to look optimistically to the future with Dvorak's Symphony No. 9, "From the New World."

Looking back, Zdunek said the fiscal mistakes included a lack of the necessary hatchet-wielding to create a streamlined, efficient organization when the Pasadena Symphony subsumed the Pasadena Pops. The result was duplication, unclear lines of responsibility and an unneeded office space costing $9,000 a month. Also, some of the 44 board members weren't making good on the $5,000 minimum annual donation expected of them. Now, he said, the entire board is paid up and enlisted in the fundraising campaign.

"We need it yesterday," he said of potential donations. "We'll take anything."

-- Mike Boehm

Photos, from top: Paul Jan Zdunek; music director Jorge Mester leads the Pasadena Symphony. Credits: Adrian Mendoza (Zdunek), Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times (Mester)

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