We certainly had the required office space in our garage but now we had to decide what to do with our ideas! Jeff and I had many long talks about our new venture and what we needed to do first, second and third. Like any entrepreneurial idea, we had to figure out how to pay for the venues, commissions, and musicians. Finding the money — task number one.
We knew from our careers thus far that arts organizations in the United States rely on becoming tax-exempt non-profit organizations. In other words, our business would be exempt from paying taxes because we would have status as a charity, not looking to make a profit — our activities would be recognized for the public benefit. In return, people who made a donation to our organization would be able to deduct their gift from their income and not pay taxes on the contribution.
Well, that sounds easy, but in reality it is very difficult. First, the organization needed to apply to the Internal Revenue Service for non-profit status, which meant finding a lawyer who was both expert and willing to donate their services to a start-up group. Fortunately I had a college friend who was a lawyer and found a colleague both expert and willing to help us with the IRS requirements. (Please remember the expert part — the lawyer was actually not too much of an expert after all – that story will come later.)
We needed a name and a reason for existence. Contemporary music would be central to the new group and we wanted to find a way to raise money to commission new works for our yet-to-exist ensemble. We described our organization as a concert-giving organization that included commissioning new compositions — the Composers Arts Association.
We put together a small descriptive brochure for the Composers Arts Association in the hopes of eventually finding donors for new compositions for the ensemble once we were active. But, this misled the lawyer to think that we would be only a granting organization to composers, that we would be raising money to give to composers. (Again, file this away for a future story.)
We also were going out of the usual order. Most groups start performing and then apply for non-profit status. We thought it would be better to have our status and then put on concerts. It made sense to us as we wanted to find the money trail first in order to fund raise properly.
We received our non-profit status less than a year before our first concerts were planned. We had put together a small board of directors as required to be a non-profit, with the two of us, my mother’s first cousin Brian Mark who was a financial planner, and Nancy Salzman, the college friend who was a lawyer. At one of our first board meetings, my cousin Brian asked us “what are you going to do if this doesn’t work out?” We answered confidently that “we are going to put on concerts anyway.”
A very good friend, Debby Ayers, was working at an arts organization based at UCLA. We asked her for some advice about beginning our concerts, which she provided. “Have a short first season because no one will notice your existence — just get started any way possible.”
We needed a venue, a place to perform. We knew from our freelance work that the reality of life in Los Angeles could work for us with the ability to repeat the same program in different parts of the city, like a local tour. It would maximize our budget — paying for one set of rehearsals that could bring in revenue from three concerts, thereby paying the musicians more and enlarging a potential audience and donor base.
Already we realized that we needed a better performing name; the Composers Arts Association was only one part of what we hoped to accomplish. But, first we needed venues. I was teaching at Pomona College and my students included professor Don Brenneis. We had discussions about our new venture, and he suggested we look into performing at Los Angeles’ beautiful Southwest Museum which featured Native American art in a 1920s building. We quickly met with his former student who worked there and felt we might be a good match for the programs as well as bring new audiences to the museum.
We had a series of meetings and found that the acoustics in the Grand Hall were excellent. Finally, we met with the museum director, who quickly informed us that the Hall would have exhibitions in the near future that precluded any other activities. The answer was an emphatic NO. However, we had decided we liked the name Southwest Chamber Music Society, and asked if we could keep the name, to which he agreed. It was no wonder he was out of the loop with his staff as a year later it was discovered that he was stealing artworks from the Museum!
We were now Southwest Chamber Music Society. In 1987, groups still had descriptive names, not like all the hip names that are now in vogue. We were modeling our group on the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York, which was founded by notable New York musicians including my teacher Walter Trampler. And as I used to remind many people, we were not based in the American Southwest of Arizona and New Mexico, but actually the most Southwest major city in America, Los Angeles. We eventually dropped the “Society” in public although our legal name retained it.
All of the logistical arrangements remained to be solved, but we knew that our reputation would depend on the quality of the concerts. The artistic content was of primary concern; otherwise, there would be no reason for anyone to attend our concerts within the vibrant cultural life of Los Angeles.
Jeff has an incredible talent for programming alongside his gifts as a performer. This comes from working with the finest musicians in L.A., years spent studying in Vienna and Salzburg, and two summers at Tanglewood. But behind his studies is a lifelong love of music which led him to study any score he could get his hands on. His Uncle Vic Walters used to take him to DeKeysers on Hollywood Boulevard when he was a child so that he could buy a score to explore. His musical knowledge was the foundation for our new idea. Without it, we would be just another concert presenter.
It is not easy programming a music concert. The goal is to create an experience, a journey for the listener that enhances each piece by its role next to other works. Successful programming depends on an encyclopedic knowledge of composers combined with an ability to draw on the endless library of compositions. One must know the works thoroughly in order to construct a program. Jeff has this gift, and without it, we would not have had our successes. This is the strength of any idea: knowledge, experience, and creativity in presentation.
So, what program and new work could introduce our ensemble to the public? How would we demonstrate our identity as a Los Angeles ensemble? What would show the quality of our performers? And, what composer could take on a commission in a relatively short period of time to celebrate our new organization?
On our most recent trip to San Francisco, my dear great-uncle Lou Freedman was enjoying our stories of spending time with his friend, rare book dealer Jacob Zeitlin in Los Angeles. He went over to his bookshelf and returned with a small volume of poems that Jacob had written when he was in his 20s. My uncle said that although Jake found he was not a talented poet, the book was published by Grabhorn Press and had a forward by Carl Sandberg, which made the book valuable. He said to us “perhaps you’ll find a use for the poems. Sometimes bad poetry makes for excellent lyrics.”
One of Los Angeles’ composers, Anthony Vazzana, had written works for us and also for our founding pianist, Albert Dominguez, who was the accompanist at the University of Southern California for Jascha Heifetz’s classes, among many other notable accomplishments. We felt Tony was the perfect choice to write a work for our first concert. He was thrilled at the opportunity and generously refused a fee. Tony loved Jake’s youthful poems and set about work immediately for a new composition for voice and ensemble.
Now, what would be the rest of the program? The new work would end the concert. Jeff turned to our friends to ask them to participate and we were met with wonderful enthusiasm. Dorothy Stone, co-founder of the California EAR Unit, would open the concert with Debussy’s solo flute work Syrinx followed by Debussy’s Trio for Flute, Harp and Viola. Moving forward through the 20th century, The Heart of the Matter by Benjamin Britten would feature our superb pianist Albert and tenor Michael Sells. Anthony Vazzana’s new work would be the finale.
As Jeff began to program our first season of concerts, our ideas began to take shape. We had a frame of reference from our performances over the past 15 years but we wanted to demonstrate our uniqueness. Our goal was to be a professional ensemble presenting a Los Angeles-influenced repertory throughout the year, while creating and performing a new body of work written for our musicians. These were lofty goals and we hoped for the best. We were fortunate to have musicians and composers who believed in us. Now we were ready to move forward to plan our first season.