San Diego Symphony board blames its conductor for small crowds

No encore: maestro Peter Erös takes His last bow

Peter Eros: "Don’t concentrate on the same audience by playing three concerts instead of two each program.”
  • Peter Eros: "Don’t concentrate on the same audience by playing three concerts instead of two each program.”
  • Image by Jim Coit

The young Hungarian conductor was sure the great George Szell wouldn’t bother to come, but he invited Szell to one of his Amsterdam concerts anyway. The year was 1959, George Szell was conductor with the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the world’s best assemblages of classical musicians, and Szell was considered a virtuoso, one of the demigods that the peculiar business of classical music spawns and then feeds on.

Georgy, Otto, Peter, Andy. After the Nazis pulled out of Hungary, "the job of collecting and disposing of the bodies went to the children.‘‘

Georgy, Otto, Peter, Andy. After the Nazis pulled out of Hungary, "the job of collecting and disposing of the bodies went to the children.‘‘

The twenty-seven-year-old Hungarian, Peter Eros, was a mere assistant conductor with Amsterdam’s prestigious Concertgebouw, but like Szell, he was bom in Budapest, and perhaps that figured in the master’s decision to attend Eros’s concert. It was a matinee which was over at about four-thirty. Backstage, Szell approached Eros and said in German, “Very good, very good. Change your dress and come over to my hotel. I want to talk to you.”

Laurie Waddy made her fortune making redwood caskets at the end of World War II.

Laurie Waddy made her fortune making redwood caskets at the end of World War II.

Eros arrived at six o’clock at the Amstel Hotel, and he and Szell ate dinner together. Though Eros didn’t know it yet, he was about to become a “spiritual child” of Szell’s, his career guided and shaped by the great conductor until Szell’s death in 1970. During dinner that night in Amsterdam, the seasoned maestro stated to the neophyte, who spoke no English, “Well, you have to come over to America. ” Eros asked why and Szell declared, “Because that’s where the future is.”

Board president Bill Jenkins: “I don’t recall him expressing an opinion.”

Board president Bill Jenkins: “I don’t recall him expressing an opinion.”

Twenty years later, Eros sits before a mirror in his small dressing room backstage at the Civic Theatre in San Diego. It is seven-forty-five, opening night of his eighth season as resident conductor and music director of the San Diego Symphony, and it is Eros’s last opening night here. This year he will conduct about half the concerts, next year he will conduct two, and the following year there will be a new resident conductor sitting where Eros, dressed in white tie, is sitting now. He conducts business in a loud voice, making his words heard above the reedy squeals of Nathaniel Rosen’s cello, which leak through the closed door leading into a small adjacent room where Rosen, the evening’s soloist, is warming up.

Paul Stevens once held the reins of Campbell Industries.

Paul Stevens once held the reins of Campbell Industries.

Though the scores for tonight’s performance are lying on the vanity before him, Eros seems to go out of his way not to look at them. As assorted visitors pass in and out of the small, completely unadorned room, Eros insists to a writer that it’s all right to converse with him. Indeed, the maestro seems anxious to keep his mind off the concert, and talks on with little prodding. “I'm not sentimental about those things,’’ he says with regard to his feelings on his last opening night here. In a thick Hungarian accent he continues, “My sentimentality was last year when I decided to go away. Actually, right now I’m very proud. I made an orchestra out of nothing in seven years.”

Michael Maxwell: “Peter, have a very good time. Knock ’em dead, as they say.”

Michael Maxwell: “Peter, have a very good time. Knock ’em dead, as they say.”

Jim Hoffman, the orchestra’s personnel director and one of its percussionists, steps into the room and confirms that “The Star-Spangled Banner” is printed on the program, so the orchestra has to play it tonight. Eros was unaware of this until he arrived at about seven-thirty, and he glances at the writer and pulls his face into a look of disgust. The conductor isn’t sure how the anthem goes, so Hoffman starts to hum it for him, and after a few bars Eros chimes in and they hum and pump their hands in unison all the way through it, increasing the tempo as Eros remembers how it sounds. Hoffman leaves and Eros comments acerbically about how many different anthems he has had to play due to his guest conducting all over the world.

“We put this orchestra on the map,” Eros asserts, getting back to the subject at hand. In 1970 the orchestra gave half a dozen single concerts, he says, and this year there will be eighteen concerts, with three performances each. “There’s been unbelievable growth, artistically and in the number of musicians. [From about sixty-five to the current eighty-five musicians.] The key positions are all changed, in the woodwinds, the brass, the first chairs in the string sections.” Eros talks about the way he reconstructed the orchestra, giving every musician two years to measure up and then asking about a dozen to resign.

He’s interrupted when the production manager, Bruce Kelley, knocks and enters to gather the maestro’s scores and take them out to the podium, which stands before a not-quite-full house of nearly 3000 people. As Eros and Kelley gather the music, the conductor spills a styrofoam cup of cold coffee over it. Kelley quips, “Geez, can’t take you anywhere,” as they frantically wipe at it with paper towels.

Kelley departs and Eros is asked if he agreed with the symphony board’s method of dashing for major-orchestra status in the last three years. “In principle, yes; practically, no,” he replies. “I’m going to tell you exactly why I’m leaving, since you’re the first newspaper person to ask. Get this down word for word:

“I do agree with the philosophy that San Diego deserves and needs a major orchestra, but I don’t agree with the tempo of the growth process. I felt very strongly before this new management [which came to power about a year ago] .... I talked to the presidents of the board and I told them that after this enormous growth [in the early Seventies], they should consolidate for a few years to come. I feel this kind of growth was damaging; particularly, increasing the number of concerts in the Civic Theatre. My advice was that if they want to grow, grow outside the community, go on tour. Don’t concentrate on the same audience by playing three concerts instead of two each program.”

But Eros is also leaving because of the symphony board, or more accurately, the executive committee of the symphony board, which decided in September, 1978, that they didn’t want to have him anymore. Eros’s explanation is interrupted by the man who informed him of the board’s wish to let him go — symphony manager Michael Maxwell, who with his assistant, George Stalle, knock and enter the dressing room.

It’s clear that Eros wants to talk more about why he is leaving the symphony, but his attention is drawn reluctantly to the forced cordiality now required. Maxwell and Stalle are on an obligatory visit, and the three men seem to scratch for conversation with much effort. When the awkwardness becomes truly uncomfortable, the writer asks Eros about his batons, and the maestro reaches for a long tubular container and pulls one out as he explains that they come from Holland and Germany and are worth about $1.50 apiece. He blows into the end of the little round container to demonstrate how it produces a perfect A note. After a short stay. Maxwell stands and offers his hand to Eros. “Peter, have a very good time,” he says. “Knock ’em dead, as they say.” Stalle tenders his encouragement, and the two men exit.

Sharon Leemaster, general manager of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, for whom Eros also conducts, comes in and leaves a single rose in a glass vase with a note wishing good luck. The guest soloist next door has finished warming up, and the chaotic strains of the tuning orchestra out on the stage have faded into silence. Asked what he would be doing if he were alone now, Eros says he’d probably smoke another cigarette, drink some more coffee, “and read the Applause magazine for how many printing mistakes they made.” But now it is time. Bruce Kelley comes in to fetch the conductor, then leaves. Eros puts on his tuxedo jacket with tails, and buttons the little gold buttons on his white vest. He says he’ll see the writer at intermission, tidies himself in the full-length mirror on the wall, and bounds imperiously out the door.

In the cavernous half-light backstage, Eros’s footfalls echo off the wooden floor as he moves past empty instrument cases and around to the side of the stage where he is to make his entrance. He walks into a taut silence, the silence of an expectant crowd, and as he reaches the side of the stage, Bruce Kelley says to the stagehand at the lighting console, “Tell me when you’re full. ” The stagehand says he’s full. “Okay,” Kelley commands, “bump the house lights to half position, please. ” The light thins. Eros, Maxwell, and Stalle stand together, saying nothing. Eros fidgets; he takes in two deep breaths, raising his arms simultaneously, expanding to the limits of his five-and-a-half-foot frame, blows hard through pursed lips, and then he furiously rubs the fingers of his right hand against the palm of his left. “Anytime you’re ready, maestro,” says Kelley. Eros nods. Kelley leads the conductor briskly around a partition, calling softly, “Watch your step,” and then stops as Eros strides onto the stage, triggering applause. He proceeds to conduct his last national anthem in San Diego, pumping his hands, arms, his whole body in grand, sweeping gestures, just the way he worked it out minutes before. Now, at forty-seven, Peter Eros’s tenure with his own American orchestra was coming to a less than triumphant end.

His past had been elsewhere, rooted in Eastern Europe, where he was born in Budapest in 1932, into one of music's richest seedbeds. Countless great artists, such as conductors Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Reiner, and Georg Solti, had been born in Budapest. Many others had graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest. Gustav Mahler had conducted the Budapest Opera for years, followed by Otto Klemperer. Eros’s mother, Agnes Rozgonyi, was a child prodigy, a violinist who achieved much fame. His father, Egon Eros, an architect, played an outstanding viola and saxophone. Quartets and trios frequently gathered to play in their opulent home. Eros’s earliest memories have him seated on the piano bench, turning pages for such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, Ernst Von Dohnanyi, and Otto Herz. He started to play the piano when he was four years old, and he learned to read music before words. When he was ten, Eros played his first piano recital at the music academy. But by that time, though he couldn’t have formulated it into words, Eros was already destined to become a conductor.

From the day he attended his first orchestral concert, at the age of six, his future was determined. It was an all-Beethoven evening, and Eros still remembers that Sergio Failoni was the conductor, and violinist Carl Flesch was the featured soloist. “I was so fascinated by the orchestra’s sound, he says reverentially, cupping his hands and rocking them near his ears. “It made a tremendous impression on me. I couldn’t sleep for two days, I was so excited.” He raises his small hands again to his ears and his silver-blue eyes glaze over as he exclaims, “The sound! The sound!”

Eros’s parents didn’t take his musical aspirations seriously because all the men in his father’s family were architects, and it was almost a matter of course that young Peter would grow up to design houses and theaters as his father did. Eros’s musical talent annoyed his father and unsettled his mother. It wasn’t really desirable to have a musician in the family — unless he made it big. If he didn’t, people wondered why he wasn’t in a more normal profession. But Eros was given piano lessons anyway, and he excelled in music until March, 1944, when the Germans rolled in. “Then the war came and everything stopped,” Eros explains. Everything stopped as far as. . .? “Everything stopped as far as everything,” he repeats tersely.

Though his parents were Christian and Eros had been so baptized, his four grandparents were Jewish, and that was good enough for the Nazis. Eros’s father was led away by the Germans, never again to be seen. Eros, his sister, and his mother went in different directions, led by their instinct to survive, with twelve-year-old Peter finding refuge in an underground shelter with hundreds of frightened Jews. He didn’t see sunlight for a year. “We were starving. We were drinking snow. We were eating snow. We had a bed. Some were sleeping on the ground. We were full of louses. We got typhus. We were full of wounds. People died.” The Nazis didn’t discover the shelter, and a year later the Germans were vanquished by the Russians. The survivors emerged to find the city in ruins, with frozen bodies strewn about everywhere. The job of collecting and disposing of the bodies went to the children.‘‘ The bodies, thousands of bodies,” Eros intones. “Horses and people and dogs and cats. It was war, it was war.” The main problem was finding and burying the bodies before the summer came. “Nobody thought about normal life — studies and careers. We had to live again. That’s all.’’ They also had to dodge the Russians, who were plundering what was left and raping at random.

Eros and his mother and sister got their house back, the piano untouched, the furniture hacked into smithereens. The house was badly damaged, but repairable. They burned the remnants of furniture for heat. Though the family had been wealthy before the war, with large real estate holdings, after the war the property that wasn’t destroyed was confiscated by the Communists. “So we had nothing to live from, or of. (I’m not sure that of and from business. . . .) So my mother started to give violin lessons.” And young Eros landed a scholarship to the Franz Liszt Academy.

Backstage during the opening night intermission, Eros is ebullient. As the musicians mill around a large coffee maker just outside the conductor’s dressing room, Eros is telling the writer how well he feels the concert is going. “It was first-class, even if I do say it myself.” A horn player knocks and enters. Red-faced, stammering, he apologizes for missing a note during the performance. Eros is feeling too good to acknowledge that the musician did anything wrong. “It was great, wonderful. Don’t worry about it,” he says, hustling the musician out the door. “You know,” he says, turning to the writer, “most people out there [in the audience] have no idea if we played good or not. I only think it’s good if it doesn’t bore you. If it’s convincing, you won’t get tired of it. The purpose is to keep those people out there happy. It’s like I tell my musicians: for God’s sake, smile! This is show biz! People like to see us enjoy ourselves.”

The maestro says he doesn’t like to concentrate on the performance during the intermission, and he seems glad to have someone there to take his mind off the music. “If you ask me what I am happiest with, it would be that I awakened professionalism in this orchestra,” beams Eros, who sips at a cup of coffee, a towel draped around his neck, his brown hair artfully disarrayed. "Sometimes the musicians demand more from themselves than I demand of them.” The conductor talks on, pausing intermittently to puff on a cigarette, sip coffee, deal with visitors, listen to a question. He speaks of his orchestra exactly as a father speaks of his children. “I’m happy with my orchestra,” he muses. “I know where it came from.” But then his visage darkens, and he adds, referring to his detractors, “Those who knew where it came from forgot, and those who weren’t here don’t know.”

It’s sad but undeniable: Eros is a lame-duck conductor, putting in his last season, largely overlooked and forgotten in the symphony’s quest for status as a major orchestra. He’s disenfranchised, shut out from the day-to-day operation of the organization. He’s been in the symphony’s office in Balboa Park only once or twice in the last six months. Sometimes he smarts from old wounds, but it’s important to make clear that he says he doesn’t feel bitter about leaving. He’s the first one to say it’s time for Peter Eros to move on. It is an irrefutable fact that, for a variety of reasons, he had decided some time ago he didn’t want to stay. This decision he reached six months before the organization informed him his contract would not be renewed. From his perspective, though, he was disenfranchised long before he came to that conclusion, in the spring of 1978. So his talk naturally gravitates to his harsh experiences here.

“Board members cannot be fired. Board members are holy cows. If the board president makes the wrong decision, the president won’t be fired. The only people who get fired are managers and conductors.” Though it’s difficult to ferret out the many sources of Eros’s problems here, the one under discussion seems clear to him. “Due to one president’s wrong decision, they tried to push down the throats of the community more concerts.” In 1975, the board, under president Bill Jenkins, expanded the concert programs from two performances each to three. Eros opposed this, and he believes it was a root of the symphony’s attendance problems. He opposed many other moves, and a few key people in the organization and the media developed distastes for him, as will be later explained, and now he’s leaving on a sour note.

The musicians have again taken their places onstage. The maestro lights up another cigarette and continues exercising that instrument which is undoubtedly the source of some of his difficulties: his tongue. “Most people’s problems with me were because I was never able to develop an inferiority complex,” he says, stifling a grin. The comment is made that the whole situation — the way venality and petulance grew up around the conductor, the orchestra, the organization — is really tragic and sad. “Look,” confides Eros, leaning his small frame forward. “I’m a tough guy. If you are in a position to collect dead bodies when you are twelve, losing your job is no big thing.”

The sprouting conductor entered the Franz Liszt Academy in war-torn Budapest in 1947, where first he studied piano, then composition, and finally conducting. Though he had only reached the equivalent of fourth grade when the war thundered in, the academy took care of the rest of his academic training by offering the usual school subjects in the morning, from eight to eleven. From noon to about eight at night, Eros was immersed in music studies. He developed the ability to look at a score and hear the music, either in its totality or one instrument at a time. He began to learn the standard eighteenth- and nineteenth-century musical repertoire, studying each piece in its historical context. And though he was by then an accomplished pianist, at the age of seventeen he became a coach to the Hungarian State Opera. In that capacity he was involved with the rehearsing of the singers and much of the backstage organization, and it marked his alignment on the track toward becoming a conductor. But why did he end up a conductor and not a pianist? “It was not a choice. It was a desire in me since I heard that first orchestral concert. It was an indefiable desire. You could ask why a stage director isn’t an actor; it’s the same question. Of course, every stage director is an actor, too, otherwise he couldn’t direct the actors. I am a musician, but I am a stage director as a conductor. Musically speaking, I love to organize the crowd; that’s my talent. As bigger the crowd is, whether it’s a 120-person choral or an orchestra, as happier I am, as better I feel.”

While Eros evolved at the academy, life in Hungary under the Russians became unbearable. Eros remembers it as a fearful time: you couldn't think too loudly, nor speak of certain things; people disappeared. On October 23, 1956, the Hungarians revolted. In twelve days of bloody fighting the Russians were forced to withdraw. For about one day the country was free. But in the night and early morning of November 5, the Russians rolled quietly back in, and when the Hungarians awoke, they were again a satellite. “Everyone, especially young people, saw that there was no future anymore,” recalls Eros. On November 23, Eros and his wife to be, Georgy Weiser, caught the last train for the border. In a two-week period, 200,000 people escaped Hungary, and the young couple was lucky to squeeze onto the train. It dropped them off about seventy miles from the border with Austria, which Eros and his fiancee negotiated partly on their bellies over a period of several days, eluding Russian patrols.

From the border the couple hitchhiked to Vienna, where they stayed for three weeks with an old friend of Eros’s mother. Their ultimate destination was Holland, where Eros had an aunt, but in order to get passports, the Dutch embassy in Vienna said the couple would have to be married. So they got in line with about a thousand other men and women, and when their turn came, a two-and-one-half-minute civil ceremony united them in matrimony.

After a few accompanist and conducting jobs in Amsterdam, Eros signed on in 1959 with the Amsterdam orchestra, called the Concertgebouw, as an assistant conductor. This was when Eros made contact with George Szell, and the young climber quickly became a disciple of the accomplished master. “I would call myself a spiritual child of Szell’s,” says Eros. “He never gave me a lesson in his life, but I practically feel that I learned most of what I am able to do from him. In that eleven years, from 1959 to August, 1970, I would not have made a decision without him — not in music, not in my career, not in my family life, not in anything.”

When Szell told Eros at their first meeting that he had to come to America, the young conductor had no idea that in eight weeks’ time he’d be standing before a packed house in Cleveland, conducting one of the best orchestras in the world. Sitting in the Amstel Hotel, Eros had said, “But maestro, I don’t speak English, and I don't have any money to make the trip. I'm an assistant conductor here. I only make enough to live on.” Szell replied, “Well, the money you can get from me; I’ll get you a foundation grant or something. And if you’ll come over in about six weeks I’ll get you free from your orchestra direction here. They’ll let you go. and you still have six weeks to learn English. So you better start now.”

For the next ten years Szell was influential in most of the guest conducting jobs Eros landed. Hamburg, San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis — Eros’s opportunities blossomed under Szell’s tutelage. “This was a wonderful guy,” Eros gushes. "Other conductors of his class would congratulate you and tell you that you undoubtedly have a great future, but never help you a bit. Szell never told you anything nice, but built your career from one place to another. ’’ Szell helped other conductors in this way, notably Louis Lane, now in Atlanta, and Jimmy Levine, the glamour boy at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Though Eros eventually became associate conductor at the Concertgebouw, he was eager to leave Europe and try his fortunes in America. On several trips to Amsterdam, Szell cautioned Eros to stay put. “Stay, stay here. It’s good for you. Don’t make your first mistakes in America. Make them here, make them in South Africa, Australia,” Szell would tell him. Eros left the Concertgebouw in 1965, and then from 1966 to 1968 he was resident conductor of the Malmo Symphony in Malmo, Sweden.

In 1968 Eros received two job offers. One was to become chief conductor of the Melbourne (Australia) Symphony, and the other was to pursue the music directorship at the Denver Symphony Orchestra. Eros asked Szell what he should do, and the maestro told him to go to Australia, that America was very complicated, with boards of directors, managers, women’s committees, unions. Szell thought Eros wasn’t ready for it yet. He went to Australia.

Outside the United States, orchestras are run very simply. Most are state- or city-endowed, which eliminates the need for complicated fundraising and organizational structures, and thereby sidesteps the internecine politics and power plays and social hierarchies that characterize many stateside orchestras. With funding taken care of, an orchestra’s developmental course is pretty much determined by artistic interests and leaders. In America, and more specifically in San Diego, municipal subsidization is relatively miniscule, and ticket sales thus assume tremendous significance. For example, more than half of this orchestra’s 1979-80 budget is projected to come from the box office — $1.4 million of $2.7 million. The need to raise money for the other half of the budget requires a management that is strong and stable. Throughout the 1970s, these characteristics have been lacking in San Diego. And now Eros certainly understands more clearly why Szell counseled caution.

“Outside America,” Eros reflects, “you have a budget from the city or state. They hire a manager, hire a conductor, and it’s your problem to solve your problems. Nobody meddles all the time with your life. You worry practically only about the artistic points. And if you do a good job, they are happy; and if you don’t do a good job, they tell you. They don’t cut your throat immediately in Europe. That’s an American thing. They respect you. They wouldn’t do like they do here, to talk about conductors in such terms as they talk about me, right now, or they talk about Ormandy in Philadelphia after he had served forty-two years. And now he’s a nobody, suddenly. That’s a very American syndrome.”

Eros, who is now a Dutch citizen but will become an American citizen within a month, knows that some of his critics blame him for the San Diego Symphony’s lagging attendance. They say he doesn’t have the charisma to draw an audience, to dazzle them, to excite them. He has his own perspective on this. “I think it’s a way of life here. Everybody came individually and had to try his life individually. Still today, it’s in your hands what you do or what you don’t do. As opposed to Europe, which is a more collective effort.

“I give you an example. Bruno Walter [the esteemed late German conductor] came to Los Angeles in the Forties to start a new career. One day he said to an interviewer, I don’t understand your life here in America. I read in the newspaper that in New York there’s the greatest conductor, in Pittsburgh there’s the most exciting, in Philadelphia there’s the most brilliant, fantastic — whatever. I read this guy is absolutely unbelievably great, that guy is sensational. Can 1 ask you a question? Where are all thz good conductors?’ That story gives you the great difference between European thinking and American thinking. Here everything has to be big, sensational, a star, new, exciting. We don’t believe in those overexaggerated, hysterical things. We think that you are good and that’s fine. And if you are good, you do many good things and you make some mistakes. And if you make some mistakes, talk it over. And have it over. You are not in danger of being fired if you make a mistake. You talk it over in a very human way. This is European. And that’s not your way.”

But even some of Eros’s supporters see that in Eros there is something lacking that seems to be essential in America. Academy award-winning composer John Green, who is a friend of Eros’s and who has been a guest conductor with the San Diego Symphony for years, and who raves about the orchestra’s artistic advances under Eros, says, “In seven years the glamour explosion of that orchestra has not taken place. This is America, and if you want to have a major symphony orchestra here, you gotta have a glamour boy on the podium.”

It may be that a person’s charisma lies in his simply being perceived as charismatic. When Eros first came to San Diego in 1971, he was perceived by some to be the young glamour boy this town had been waiting for. And even though he had gained wide experience conducting major orchestras all over the world, and has continued guest conducting during his tenure here, the official cry now is for a conductor with more international experience than Eros is perceived to possess.

In 1970 George Szell died of bone cancer. “It was a great, great disaster for me,” Eros comments. Szell had told Eros to sign only a two-year contract in Melbourne, “and after that he’d help me get an orchestra in the United States. But he died.” Eros went back to Amsterdam, which was his home, and where he now had two boys in school, and from there he freelanced as a guest conductor. This is a common practice with conductors worldwide, and it’s lucrative. Today Eros commands a standard $5000 fee to conduct a concert program in most places. In 1971 he was in Mexico City, on one leg of a Latin American tour that was to bring him to Rio de Janeiro, Lima, and Mexico City. After conducting the National Orchestra in Mexico City, Eros decided to visit friends in San Francisco. He stayed in the home of a U.C. Berkeley professor, who one night at dinner asked Eros if he knew the conducting job in San Diego was open. Eros barely knew where San Diego was located, much less whether the town had an orchestra. The professor got up and made a call to the president of the board of directors here, who told him, “Yeah, the job is open. We don’t have an orchestra right now, we don’t have a conductor, we don’t have a manager, and we don’t have any money, but yeah, the job is open.”

In 1970 the San Diego Symphony’s budget was around $350,000. It was a community orchestra, the plaything of a few rich dabblers, and the previous conductor, Zoltan Rozsnyai, had been released amid turmoil. It had nearly dissolved to scratch when Peter Eros, then thirty-nine years old, met with an improvised committee of about seven people in the Cuyamaca Club downtown. They told him they’d just elected a new president, Tom Halverstadt, that they were a conductor search committee, and asked if he’d be interested in the job. Eros asked what the budget was. They said about $400,000. “1 said I couldn’t make an orchestra with miracles. It was totally out of the question. I declared myself uninterested, thanked them for the very nice lunch, and left.” But before going back to Amsterdam, he told them that if they got a million dollars, he might be able to do something.

The money came in the form of a half-million-dollar matching grant from the Ford Foundation. Eros agreed to conduct two pairs of concerts in the 1971-72 season, and he was signed to a one-year contract in February of 1972 to be principal guest conductor. Though the tradition here had been to sign conductors to two-year contracts, Eros was cautious; he wanted to keep his home in Holland and wait and see what happened. He no longer had George Szell to advise him.

The maestro describes that first year as a total moral victory. “All the press was crying with enthusiasm. They loved me. Every concert, they wrote that this orchestra sounded better than it ever did before. Donald Dierks [the San Diego Union music critic] was one of the most enthusiastic people. We became very good friends. He invited me and my children over, he loved the children, we had a social life together, et cetera, et cetera. Everybody was just extremely happy.” At the end of that first season, the board of directors signed Eros to a three-year contract ^s music director, a move that was touted in the press as indicating the symphony’s supreme trust and confidence in him.

Eros’s own assessment of th& orchestra's quality that first year wasn’t in line with that of most critics of that time. “I think the orchestra played lousy, but for them [most observers] it was fantastic; they never heard it so well. For me it was plainly lousy. Hopeful, but lousy.” Eros gave every musician two years, and then he asked several to leave. Many left on their own; others contested their firings in the long and complicated process the musicians’ union required. Three or four of them retained their jobs. There was much turnover, still is, usually resulting in higher-quality players joining the orchestra. But the most dramatic change in personnel came about in 1976, with the signing of a master agreement between the musicians and the symphony organization, which, along with raising the musicians’ pay, mandated daytime rehearsals. This was the giant step toward becoming a major orchestra, because it weeded out most of the musicians who had other full-time jobs. Eros had little to do with the signing of the master agreement. And it was about this time that his position here started to change.

Bill Jenkins was board president then, and from Eros’s perspective, and that of board members who were present at the time, the real power of decision was in the hands of Jenkins, Laurie Waddy, and Paul Stevens. All three were on the executive committee of the board of directors and they were all heavily monied. Jenkins is a local partner in the law firm of Jenkins and Perry, which claims the entire nineteenth floor of the Central Federal tower downtown; Waddy is a businesswoman who started her fortune making redwood caskets at the end of World War II; Paul Stevens is a businessman who once held the reins of Campbell Industries. All three have contributed big money and big ideas to the symphony’s development over the last five years. Eros apparently was more or less swept along in the trough of their power wave.

As early as 1975 the decision to push and shove and spend whatever it took to produce a major orchestra had been made; however, since 1972, the group had been running up a yearly deficit, spending more money than came in by expanding to three performances of each concert, steadily increasing the number of concerts, paying the musicians more money, and other costly moves. Eros didn’t get along well with the symphony manager. Bob Christian, and today he feels that Jenkins “supported the manager, and he never supported me. My opinion was that Christian mismanaged the symphony. The president’s opinion was that he liked Christian, probably because Christian never opposed him, and that I shouldn't meddle.” Eros disagreed sharply with the growth process, and he feels that instead of listening to his opinion, the powerful members of the board — Jenkins, Waddy, and Stevens — shut him out. “The basic problem for me was, during the presidency of Mr. Jenkins, the job of music director was made insignificant. Mr. Jenkins, just as much as later Mrs. Waddy (when she became board president in 1976], made it extremely clear that the board was not interested to hear the music director’s opinion. They were anxious not to hear me, not to allow me to tell the other board members what I think. That’s the reason they never invited me to board meetings.”

Eros and Laurie Waddy also developed personal dislikes for each other, relations which weren’t helped when, in September of 1976, Eros was informed that the budget committee of the board, while he was conducting for the summer in Australia, had decided to let Eros pay the $2000 fee for the only guest conductor of the upcoming season. Eros protested, and not just in view of the fact that the spring before, Jenkins had informed him that his pay was being cut from $38,000 a year down to $31,000. The decision that Eros should pay for the guest conductor was later rescinded.

Though Waddy is currently visiting Australia, Jenkins and Stevens are still around (Jenkins is off the board, Stevens is board president). Neither man’s recollection of the events of the last five years corresponds very closely to Eros’s, and both were surprised to learn that he had

from COMBO, the umbrella organization that distributes contributed money to various arts organizations around town. Eros says he was against this move, but Jenkins and Stevens can't recall anything about Eros having an opinion on COMBO or the expansion. Both Jenkins and other board members now say that Eros should have nothing to do with fundraising anyway.

Eros understands this. And he says, “Jenkins, Waddy, and Stevens’s opinions totally match up. Their opinion is that the music director’s job is to conduct music, and anything else he shouldn’t meddle into. And my opinion is exactly the same as theirs. Except, if I see we are heading for disaster, I put my feet down. When I did put my feet down, it caused them a great deal of difficulty. I went to them, to other board members, I meddled. They accused me of trying to manipulate the board. I never denied it; I still don’t.”

There are those who say that all conductors have a streak of paranoia running through them, and that it’s not uncommon for them to think in terms of conspiracies and battles. But there are also those who think that Eros was right. Though the symphony lost about $200,000 by seceding

such sharp differences with them. “I don’t recall him expressing an opinion,” Jenkins says, regarding Eros’s opposition to expanding the number of performances. “He didn’t express them to me.” Stevens feels substantially the same way. Eros believes the salary cut and the measure concerning the guest conductor were efforts to get him to resign. Jenkins doesn’t remember anything about Eros having to pay for the guest conductor, and he strongly denies that his pay was cut in order to precipitate his resignation. He says the move was made because Eros had signed on as chief conductor with the Australian Broadcasting Orchestras, which kept Eros out of San Diego between May and September. Though the maestro acquiesced to the salary cut, in a strongly worded letter to Mrs. Waddy dated September 1, 1976, and intended to voice his protest over having to pay for the guest conductor, Eros wrote that, “I have made it very clear on several occasions that I do not accept his [Jenkins ’] explanation [of the salary cut] as I very seldom conducted during the summer, and my presence in San Diego was never, and is not needed.”

In 1976 the symphony withdrew itself from COMBO, it was able to make up that money by doing its own fundraising. But the whole reason for pulling out was to allow them the opportunity to raise more money than was possible while a member of COMBO, and in 1976-77 their income was not much more than the previous year; a deficit of nearly half a million dollars was also accrued. The abandonment of COMBO stirred resentment of the symphony among other arts organizations, such as the opera and the Old Globe, and their supporters. And in 1977 the city, in a show of support for COMBO, withheld from the symphony its share of public money that was usually funneled through COMBO. The huge deficit that year is the immediate source of the symphony’s current financial problems, and the implications are still resounding. The million dollars that originally attracted Eros to San Diego had to be used to cover day-to-day operating expenses, and is now all spent. Just this year the Parker Foundation, which had given the symphony $25,000 in 1976 and 1977, and $50,000 in 1978, decided to withhold its contribution because of the dire financial picture at the time it examined the books.

Besides the loss of money, the pullout from COMBO lost the symphony many friends among arts patrons. Membership in the symphony orchestra association dropped, and even though the symphony rejoined COMBO in the spring of 1978, resentment still lingers.

“The fact that I warned on this,” says Eros, “and I warned on many other matters, made the past two presidents [Jenkins and Waddy], and the present president [Stevens] think that I am, as they say, a Hungarian intriguer, a meddler, a manipulator, an operator. I thought 1 was a part of the symphony; I thought I had a voice in this thing; I thought I was building them this orchestra; I thought they would listen to me.” Obviously, Eros feels very strongly he had opinions that were not admitted as part of the board’s deliberations, and in the period between 1976 and the spring of 1978, he was disgruntled about

many things. So it’s more than a little puzzling to hear Jenkins say, “Peter was always very cooperative. I always thought everything was going very well, that things were good.”

But there were many sources of problems for Eros. Aside from his disagreements with decisions and his antagonistic relationships with Laurie Waddy and symphony manager Bob Christian, Eros has had to withstand four major shifts in management of the organization. When the maestro was hired, Phil Whitacre was symphony manager; Christian followed him, then came Dick Bass, who stayed about a year. Bass was replaced by the current manager, Michael Maxwell. “San Diego is the symphony manager’s tomb,” Eros comments. “It is the graveyard of symphony managers. Four different board presidents arid four managers in seven years. And the conductor has to adjust again and again and again. Each one comes in with terrific plans, and I wake up a year later and they’re not here anymore.”

Another problem was that Eros’s public image began to change in 1976, maybe starting at the end of 1975. Internally, the powers on the board were having their share of disagreements with Eros’s artistic decisions: they were criticizing some of his musical programming decisions, had pressured him about his selection of a con-certmaster who proved unequal to the job, and were trying to advise him on the selection of soloists. Eros believes that because of the poor internal relations, his “public marketing” by the symphony was curtailed, though continuing turnover of public relations people probably had something to do with that. It is true that publicly, Eros seemed to slip into the shadows. But this was also due to the fact that about 1976, the conductor and the orchestra could no longer kindle in the city’s critics the excitement they once did.

Either because the orchestra was perceived to have reached an artistic plateau, or, as many musicians and Eros himself believe, because of the destruction of the personal friendship between the Union's music critic, Donald Dierks, and Eros, the general tenor of Dierks's reviews changed from critical but supportive to dismayed and frequently scathing. Dierks, who had an influence in bringing Eros here, has made no secret of his feelings that the orchestra is second-rate and very much in need of new conducting blood. From his point of view. Eros didn't turn out to be the kind of conductor he originally thought he would be, and when his reviews began to reflect that. Eros couldn’t stand the criticism and felt personally wronged, and the friendship couldn't exist anymore. Both men regret becoming close friends with each other. From Eros’s point of view, and that of many members of the orchestra, the reviews changed and the friendship ended at least partly because of this incident: Dierks had a close friend who was a substitute trumpet player for the orchestra. In April of 1977 there was an opening in the orchestra for a trumpet player, and Dierks’s friend went through the auditioning process but wasn’t selected. On April 19, 1977, a few days after the audition, Eros and Dierks shared a meal for the last time. It was lunch in the Cafe Del Rey Moro, and the two men’s accounts of their conversation regarding the trumpet player differ widely. That evening, Eros wrote down his recollections of what Dierks had said. He wrote that Dierks had told him he had “hurt the friend of a friend,’’ referring to the trumpet player, and the results of the auditions were decided even before they took place. Eros’s notes have Dierks saying a number of highly critical things about the orchestra, some of the musicians, and Eros himself; and the conductor is still puzzled as to why Dierks was so virulent. Dierks’s perspective is that he couldn’t have held any grudge against Eros due to the trumpet player’s not getting the job, because the auditioning procedure gives Eros only one vote on a seven-member X committee. His account of the meeting has Eros hurt because of the lack of good reviews that would “help me [Eros] get another job.” Both men are aware of the other’s belief about the reasons for their split, and they both dismiss the other’s perceptions with persuasive eloquence.

So for many reasons, some of which may never be known with certainty, Peter Eros was no longer held up before the community and touted as a dynamic, exciting leader, able to sway the board, slay the women, and squeeze exquisite music out of the orchestra. But looking at it another way, it also might be, in the words of board member Dave Porter, that the powers on the board “didn’t want to share the spotlight with Eros. Jenkins didn’t know how to muster community support or let go of power’’; maybe it was because of a shattered friendship with one of the most widely read music critics in town; or maybe it was because Eros isn’t believed to have charisma. “You haven’t seen big articles about the music director in the last Five years,” remarks Eros. “I don’t think you have seen a picture somewhere. This is a systematic . . . almost a breaking down, of the image of the music director. (The last feature story about Eros to appear in the major media was a relatively short article that appeared in the Union in late 1977. It was written by Dierks.] By their own decisions, my public relations stopped. This is unprecedented in symphony orchestras. In other cities, 1 never heard of a manager or president. Nobody knew who the manager was in Cleveland. Do you know who the manager is in Philadelphia? No. But you know that Eugene Ormandy is the conductor. Do you know who the manager is in Chicago? No. But you know that Georg Solti is the conductor. We have a totally reversed PR here. In my opinion, that didn’t happen because they had an antimusic-director attitude; this happened because they have the philosophy that managers make orchestras. This season was advertised as the most wonderful season in San Diego history — new management team. Would you buy a ticket because of new management? I wouldn’t.”

But people do buy tickets because of new conductors, and almost everybody, including Eros, believes it’s time for him to move on. Many believe he’s taken the orchestra as far as he can take it. And some critics now feel that, under a different conductor, the orchestra may be worthy of inclusion in the second rank of good orchestras in America — the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the principal orchestras in Baltimore, Buffalo, and Salt Lake City. And of course there are those who feel that Eros has done little here. All of these opinions can also be found among those most immediately and intimately involved with Eros: the members of the orchestra.

At Wednesday’s rehearsal for the Friday-night opening concert, the mostly blue-jean-clad orchestra members sit in their chairs onstage, listening attentively as Peter Eros tells them an amusing anecdote about an orchestra he conducted in Australia last summer. Sitting before the orchestra on a padded gray stool, clothed in a blue sweater and brown slacks, Eros is speaking in a perfect Aussie accent. The Australian orchestra hadn’t been following him at all, so Eros asked one of the musicians what the trouble was. ‘“No, we don’t follow the conductor, we follow the leader,’” Eros parrots the musician as saying. ”1 say, ‘Well why didn’t you tell me that before?’ ‘We thought you knew. ’ ‘Well why do you follow the leader?’ He says, ‘Well, he’s the leader, isn’t he?’ I say, ‘Well 1 guess I’ll follow the leader then, too.’” The musicians break out laughing at this, and Eros laughs with them. It’s easy to see that there is a respectful, relaxed rapport between conductor and orchestra, with room for banter between the maestro and musicians, and some degree of give and take. Eros is not a Toscanini or a Gustav Mahler, fiercely demanding perfection and getting it one way or another. He is more of a gentle prodder who seems easily pleased. Where some great conductors arc known to make a musician play a small part as many as twenty times before they’re satisfied, Eros is more apt to have a take-what-he-can-get attitude. “I want colors, colors, colors; lots of stars, lots of little feelings,” he announces at one point in the rehearsal. ‘‘If you don’t have it, get it.” A little later he commands, “Do it, do it. I can’t explain to you every note; I wouldn’t want to. You play. I’m here only to listen, and to enjoy myself.” At another point he doesn’t like the way the clarinetist is playing one part, so he whistles the way he wants it (he’s a terrific whistler), works for a moment with the player, then says, “I don’t know — you figure it out,” and proceeds. All these actions may illustrate why most of the orchestra members like Eros and respect him, but few of those musicians are without ambivalent feelings toward him.

Some who have worked under great conductors say they miss the intensity, the single-mindedness, that is lacking in Eros. Others feel he isn’t a strong leader, and therefore the leaders in each section of instruments have taken an unusually active role in advising their sections. Some feel he isn’t demanding enough, though they say he always has a strong conception of what he wants the music to sound like; but when he tells them to take care of problems themselves, it makes them wonder if Eros really knows which instrument is out of tune or which one played the wrong note. Still others just plain adore the man; they cannot say enough good things about him. If there’s any commonly held feeling among a majority of orchestra members, it seems to be that Eros has taken them a long way from what they were in the early Seventies, and that he’s gotten a bad shake here from the board and the media.

‘‘There’s been a remarkable change in the artistic quality of the orchestra since Eros came,” remarks Peter Rofe. the principal bass player. Rofe joined the orchestra about the same time Eros did. He says he knew of student orchestras that sounded better then, and he was ready to leave shortly after arriving. “Eros convinced me to stay,” he continues. “He said it would get better and it did. And probably will continue to.” But Rofe acknowledges that Eros has shortcomings. He says he isn’t much of a technician when it comes to getting in there and advising musicians on how to play their instruments, and that he might be weak on detail work. “But Eros has his own charisma, a lot of personality and character comes out of him. A lot of musicians respect him, like him. Others don’t. Some want the kind of degradation you’d get from a Szell or a Toscanini.” Rofe adds that many musicians are apprehensive about who the next conductor will be, and that they tried to insert a clause in the recently signed contract with the organization that would give the musicians a voice in choosing the conductor. They were unsuccessful.

Many musicians say they are sorry to see Eros go, and some have claimed that when he leaves, they’ll leave. The maestro feels that he has accomplished what he came here to do. ‘‘I had one goal all these last eight years,” he says. “I said to my wife and children, who nagged me these last three years to get out of here (if you ask my son, he thinks I’m an idiot; so does my wife), I said I promised these people something and I’m doing it. I’m a hard-headed idiot, but I'm doing it. And last year I considered it done. I think I made an orchestra which eventually could become a major symphony as far as quality's concerned. If they raise the necessary amount of money, if they get strong management, strong marketing, strong public relations, if they cease to have this personality bullshit going on on the board, if they become a civilized, acceptable society within the society, then I think they have a very good chance eventually to become a major orchestra. And that’s all I wanted, all I promised.”

Now what Eros wants is ‘‘a period of peace of mind.” He figures he can have that by keeping his home here in San Diego and freelancing as a guest conductor. Already this year he has spent the entire summer in Australia, returning in September only to leave for the Montreux Festival, where he conducted the Hamburg Philharmonic. Then after a short stint with the Vienna Broadcasting Orchestra in October, he opened the season here. In January he’s going to conduct in Hong Kong, Canada, and Austria. He comes back for two weeks and then goes to Portland, Oregon, for four concerts in February. After that he’s to attend to speaking engagements at Indiana University, and then he returns here to finish the season with both the San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Chamber Orchestra. Then in May he spends four weeks with the Polish Opera, and in June he conducts in Hungary. He’s taking a sabbatical from the Australian orchestras, and he hopes to take it easy next July and August, staying near his home in San Carlos.

At the completion of the opening night’s concert there is a champagne reception on the second floor of the Civic Theatre. Only about thirty people are in attendance, most of whom seem to be connected with the symphony organization in some way. The flaccid promotion for the event and the subsequent low turnout appear to be natural consequences of Eros’s position as a lame-duck conductor. But when Eros makes his entrance, showered and refreshed, strutting the sweet fatigue of the consummated artist, and ready to receive his admirers, he cannot hide his immediate dismay. Though he admits to having withdrawn from active and vigorous involvement with the symphony — outside of making music — and he stresses that he has no beefs with the present management, he’s still irked at the meager turnout. The maestro pulls the writer to the side of the room and in a low voice vents his frustrations, but he doesn’t allow them to be written down or printed. But he’d said almost the exact same things before, in his dressing room and his living room. And anyone could have read on his face the words that came back to the writer as the maestro left with his wife to go get his customary post-concert pizza. “I read in the newspaper, ” he had said earlier, “that they’re going to make this a major orchestra. I wish them luck.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader