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August 24, 1999



The Bachs In
The Redwoods

Redwoods Music Festival


High Moments, Letdowns
From Asian Youth Orchestra

Asian Youth Orchestra


A Loving Chorus
A Transport

San Francisco Lyric Chorus

Robert P. Commanday, Editor

Trouble In River City

Symphonically, Sacramento has become one of the stranger cities. Twice the Sacramento Symphony Association went into bankruptcy, Chapter 11 in 1992 and Chapter 7 in 1996. Now, after an interregnum of three years involving two other orchestral enterprises, a new Sacramento Symphony, not linked to the original in any way, has announced a season. The problem with that is that the Sacramento Philharmonic, which was the second orchestral start-up, has kept going with reasonable success. It's still rolling along, very much in business, and feelings are running high. This is not just a turf or box-office war. It's very personal.

At the center of the tempest, and seemingly unfazed by it, is the conductor Zvonimir Hacko (pronounced Hahtchko), who is directing the rebirth of this Sacramento Symphony. He was also the central figure and music director who initiated the two previous startups and a third that was aborted before its first performance. Disaffected members and ex-members of the boards of these efforts today level most serious charges against Hacko. These accusations, largely but not entirely of a financial nature, include tagging him with responsibility for saddling the Philharmonic with $75,000 of its indebtedness. Meanwhile Hacko, with a "what me worry?" insouciance, has found a new angel for his new symphony, in the person of a wealthy pistachio farmer in the neighboring community of Roseville, David Fiddyment, chairman of the new symphony's board that is now a-building.

The outrage is formidable among former standard-bearers, and not only those from the Philharmonic. (The Philharmonic has engaged the Oakland East Bay Symphony's Michael Morgan to conduct four of its five programs this season, following his high success with that orchestra in two programs last year.) The Sacramento Symphony League's president Karen Stevens says the League will have no part of anything Hacko's connected with. (The League retained its original name but operates as an independent activity that supports music education and outreach projects. It has run one benefit gala for the Philharmonic). Don Kendrick., music director of the Sacramento Chorale Society (successor of the Sacramento Symphony Chorus) takes the same position.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee has been standing on the sidelines, except for two old stories on this subject appearing apart, both many months ago. On August 9, the Bee ran a big piece that welcomed the re-born Sacramento Symphony, described its new season, origin and prospects, but brushed over Hacko's previous relationship to the Sacramento Chamber Orchestra and Philharmonic in just two lines. Not mentioned were the musicians who were never paid for the Chamber Orchestra's last concert, the guest soloist not paid her $8000 fee because Hacko felt her performance was substandard, the board turnovers and the charges leveled from that direction, the feelings of the musicians, and more.

With a situation resembling something between melodrama and farce, the public is not informed. That is the consequence of a city's becoming a one-newspaper town. Were the Sacramento Union still in business and competing, one of the two papers would have produced the more complete story. San Franciscans, about to lose one of their two papers, should take note.

You Gotta Know The Territory

Hacko's ability to keep creating new musical organizations, one in the wake of another, always landing on his feet, has been remarkable . It seems to be based on three factors, a number of people close to the situation agree. One is his salesmanship, very smooth and persuasive, as he talks in terms of his vision and invokes the great composers' names. Several Sacramentans independently dub him "Music Man," referring to the title role in Meredith Wilson's musical. Second, well-meaning music-lovers in town have wanted so badly to see their city's symphonic life restored that they were only too readily persuaded to jump in and back these plans, and so eagerly and incautiously that they didn't do their homework. Until much later, no one, including the newspaper, thought to inquire, "Who is this guy, where did he come from and what did he do there?" (St. Joseph, Michigan, and Richland, Washington)

Most important has been Hacko's approach in the organizing. After attracting seed money (see factor 1 ), Hacko would develop a board to serve under his leadership and, in the words of former board members and close observers, to have the sole function of raising money. He and the executive director of his choosing, with neither under contract, managed the financial affairs. The Sacramento Chamber Orchestra, between its incorporation in December 1995 and its dissolution in the summer of 1997, went through a couple of complete board turnovers, several presidents and considerable turmoil, partly but not entirely having to do with the financial practices of Hacko and his executive director, Deborah Case. This was climaxed by the failure to pay the musicians for the May 1997 concert, charges of financial irregularities that led to resignations by Hacko and Case, and finally their unauthorized removal of an estimated $42,000 in equipment and records from the office. (This was reported to the police but apparently there was no arrest and prosecution. A second investigation is still under way).

Hacko next formed the Sacramento Philharmonic (in an office down the hall, using the Chamber Orchestra's equipment). One of those he recruited to the new board was Sandra Smoley, a leader with 26 years of community service -- as county supervisor, Secretary of Consumer Services and the state's Secretary of Health and Welfare. Smoley currently serves as president of the Sacramento Philharmonic. The Musicians Union insisted that the money be up front, and it was put into escrow. Executive director Case was asked to resign after the first season. When the board learned that Hacko had taken out a personal loan of $35,000 from a friend in the Philharmonic's name, the money spent on the shortfall of a concert, he was fired (he says he resigned). The Philharmonic, preparing now to launch a new season, is still coping with that debt plus $40,000 in back payroll taxes owed the I RS that it also hadn't known about.

Hacko's next venture, the third, was a Mozart Academy (of singers and orchestra) but this got only as far as the planning of a four-concert season and the hiring of the musicians by a personnel manager. That manager informed San Francisco Classical Voice that it took a year and the filing of a lawsuit before Hacko settled and paid him.

A spokesman for the Sacramento Musicians Union, Local 12 told SFCV that there is no "Unfair" ban listed. (The now defunct Chamber Orchestra is responsible for the monies not paid its musicians, not Hacko). If the new Sacramento Symphony presents a list of union musicians hired on at least a "casual" (single service) contract, the union is bound to negotiate with it.

Overall Vision And Direction

When asked last Sunday about the music director-board relationship that has been a problematical crux of the matter, Hacko stated that the music director was responsible for the "overall vision and direction," and that the board had the "authority to set policy, raise money and do arts advocacy." Repeatedly, he deflected criticisms and charges against him by attributing them to people who were "not in the field," distinguishing between board members and professionals in music, "These are comments from people who have not the slightest understanding of the field," he said. "The executive director runs the business. What is unusual in Sacramento is that we have people who do not understand these issues and blame the wrong entities.

"The basic problem is that the old problem of the managing board model still persists," Hacko continued. "None of this makes sense in the industry...We need governing boards not managing boards. The reason I parted with the Sacramento Philharmonic was the drastic shift toward the managing board standard. It has incurred huge debts. The organization was in excellent shape when the executive director was in place. The board has tried to put the financial responsibility on me. When I was leading the program, whatever the financial responsibilities, they were perfectly balanced with the money coming in. The whole organization became derailed when my leadership wasn't there and the executive director was ousted."

The story as told by responsible business persons from the Chamber Orchestra and Philharmonic boards, is rather at odds with this, and hence the parting, the bad feelings, and the irritation that a new organization is starting up in the mold of the old. The vice president of ICM Artists, manager of the violinist who was never paid her $8000 fee, flatly stated that he had never before (or since) experienced an artist being stiffed in his 32 years in the business, the industry. On being told of the formation of the new Sacramento Symphony, he said that he would circulate among his colleagues the advice that they get their artists' fees up front. (A prominent violinist in the Chamber Orchestra told SFCV that the noted soloist (a former Paganini Competition winner) performed the Vivaldi "Seasons" very well, perhaps not in the baroque or early music style, but gave a good performance.)

Four musicians who have played under Hacko, separately gave highly critical estimates of his skills, ranging from outright assertions that he was "incapable of reading an orchestral score," "not hearing what's going on" ---illustrated with an anecdote of Hacko's stopping the orchestra seven measures before the pianist's entrance and then blaming this very famous soloist--- to the "he's o.k, just o.k., doesn't realize his limitations," "lots of skills, but the musical ideas are pretty shallow and easily exhausted." Hacko was trained in Zagreb, in his native land of Croatia, in England, and received a doctorate in choral conducting from Indiana University in 1998.

Who's Left To Play

Whatever Hacko's musical abilities, it is clear that the musicians don't like him. Two said they will never play with him again, and one said that it would be difficult to recruit an orchestra for him, but allowed that there are musicians hungry for work. In any case, the spokesman for Local 12 reported that of the 78 musicians in the old Sacramento Symphony, the one that had a distinguished history under Fritz Behrens, Harry Newstone and Carter Nice, only 28 are still in town. There's no core in town any more, simply free-lance musicians, and many good ones no doubt, but no core with an ensemble experience together.

After this history of the past seven years , the possible or even likely fall-off in audience confidence and contributor interest is a major problem. The bankruptcies that stopped two projected seasons caused subscription ticket holders to lose the money they had invested. To assure the audience that this will not happen with its operation, The Sacramento Philharmonic now puts all advance and subscription sale receipts into escrow.

What happens next is anybody's guess, the new but as yet unmanned Sacramento Symphony's ambitious season announcement notwithstanding. Hacko claims that he has the rights to the name Sacramento Symphony and that it is incorporated. The latest word from the Secretary of State's office is that he applied for the name on July 16, 1999 and has until September 13 to file his articles of incorporation. At that point the Secretary of State still has the option to grant or refuse the application. The word received here is that a significant protest will be mounted.

Is this a symphony story or an opera? There's trouble in River City and that starts with "T" and that rhymes with...


Mary F. Commanday, Assoc. Editor


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