Alex Novakovich, executive director of Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, with Curious City columnist Charles Andrews hold a recording of the orchestra's first performance.
Alex Novakovich, executive director of Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, with Curious City columnist Charles Andrews hold a recording of the orchestra’s first performance.

I’m not ashamed to admit it. I do let a few things slide by me.

I’m trying to remember if I ever went to a concert by our Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra before. I think so, but it was years ago. Then they fell off my radar.

I was going to go to their “Farewell Tribute to Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium” concert last May, but maybe I just couldn’t stand acknowledging the thought of losing that cherished venue. Tear it down? It seems unthinkable. Maybe that was the beginning of my curiosity about the awful things about to appear, and the treasures to disappear, in my historic adopted hometown, and why.

What is it with that little stretch of Main Street, that there are people wanting to knock down the historic/iconic “Chain Reaction” sculpture and bury our architecturally beautiful, legendary concert hall? I’ve begun to understand that it’s the ancient root of all evil — money. The land the Civic and “Chain Reaction” share is incredibly valuable, and any developer who could get his or her hands on it is going to be one fat cat. If our local government doesn’t prevent it, who’s to blame a developer from trying to make a buck (followed by seven or eight zeroes)?

But wait! Our elected officials do care. They recently appointed a blue-ribbon committee to find a way to save and restore the Civic. (Sad enough that across the street we will be losing another of our historic recreation sites, as our Bay Shore Lanes bowling alley is slated to be replaced by a four-to-six story whatever.)

So save the Civic, save “Chain Reaction,” save money, save coupons, save our ship, and save all the things that make us Santa Monica and not West L.A. or Miami.

But what about our Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra? It very nearly went under last year, and it had nothing to do with developers, but certainly with money.

My walk to Barnum Hall last Sunday for their most recent concert made me very glad they’re still here. It was a Beethoven-heavy program, and the opening “Symphony No. 6” (“Pastorale”) was a delight. I spoke to several friends who have attended a little more (ahem) regularly than I who all agreed the symphony did an exceptional job with that one.

But even when they’re not quite the Berlin Philharmonic, they’re valuable purveyors of an evening or afternoon of classical music, well-played — and conducted. And their concerts are always free, as they have been since their founding in 1945.

Many of the musicians are unpaid, others union professionals. Which means you have a large group of people with other jobs and obligations, for whom it must be extremely difficult to get together for very many rehearsals. (The Berlin Phil musicians all get paid, you know. Handsomely.) Conductor Guido Lamell had us stand (tradition) to run through the bare basics of the concluding “Hallelujah Chorus” audience sing-along, and as he finished and turned toward the orchestra, he turned back to us and quipped, “… and that’s about how much rehearsal time as we get, too!”

Here are a few things I learned recently about our symphony. The history and politics of the last two seasons are pretty interesting.

After 67 successful seasons, always somehow raising the money from sources large and small, it looked like the end of the line. They had been operating in the red for five years and were fast depleting their reserves. The executive director resigned, and the maestro of 21 years, Allen Gross, stepped into that position. Not long after, the board of directors announced that there would not be a 68th season. I’m told that every one of them regrets making that public declaration.

Gross left shortly thereafter, late August of 2012, to start a new Orchestra Santa Monica. And he took almost all the musicians from the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra with him. But there’s a whiff of rotting fish to that whole scenario.

You can’t launch a new orchestra in a couple of months. You have to have some startup money, a place to play, and so on. There are appearances that he had been planning this for a while, and the board’s announcement was his opportunity. Gross told the Santa Monica Daily Press in September that “we intend to be a permanent, viable organization. As we get going we hope to raise our profile and get significant support, both from personal donors, corporate support and grants to be able to continue this.” So his stated intention was to compete with the wounded 67-year-old institution for very hard-to-come-by funding that would not likely go to two symphony orchestra in one small city.

Seeing a crisis that needed fixing, in came a new executive director, Alex Novakovitch, and the board was whittled from 12 to 10 members with only three holdovers, with a new chairman and president.

Lamell, who, ironically, applied for the position 21 years ago when Gross got the job, stepped up in October and said, “I’ll conduct, and program, and we’ll do that November concert, and I’ll do it without pay the first year.” At that time he was left with only eight musicians, for an orchestra that should have 80. (Most of them have since returned.) But while Gross was an academic, Lamell was a working musician, a violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic, so he grabbed his Rolodex (that’s a joke), looked under “musicians,” and a month later the 68th season began. Lamell became only the seventh conductor/music director in the Symphony Orchestra’s long history. Another contrast between Lamell and Gross: the former lives in Santa Monica, the latter Pasadena. (For those of you who care about that sort of thing. I do.)

My wife had an old family friend give her an album, of four 78s, by the then-named Santa Monica Civic Symphony Orchestra, led by Jacques Rachmilovich, of their recording of Tchaikovsky’s “First Symphony,” from that first 1945-46 season. (They were the first anywhere to record both his “First” and “Second” symphonies.) It’s in almost pristine condition, and the symphony people were thrilled to get it and will probably feature the very cool cover (and possibly the inside info, which charmingly hypes in words and black-and-white photos, both the orchestra and Santa Monica) during their 70th year celebration next season.

Maybe that makes up for all the concerts I missed in the past.


Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 27 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at

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