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When City Ballet Orchestra went into an abrupt hiatus last month, cultural observers wondered whether it would be the next casualty of San Diego’s arts community. The group's fortunes are intimately tied to its founder, conductor and fundraiser, John Nettles.
Though it’s smaller than California Ballet, the city’s largest, City Ballet stands out among San Diego’s ballet companies. It’s the only one with a year-round orchestra to accompany its productions.
That’s thanks to conductor John Nettles, who corrals both funding and musicians for a professional-level orchestra from season to season.
Nettles is conductor, programming director, administrator, fundraiser. He straddles the line between left and right brains, the business manager and the artist. Above everything else – and what became apparent to those of us outside the pit these last few weeks – he’s the guy holding the baton when it all falls down.
When a major piece of funding fell through last month, forcing City Ballet Orchestra into an abrupt hiatus, cultural observers wondered whether it would be the next casualty of San Diego’s arts community. The U-T’s music and art critic practically eulogized it. Soon, though, a few donors offered their support, and now the orchestra is due back to start rehearsals Sunday for City Ballet’s production of “Don Quixote.”
This wasn’t the group’s first episode of emotional and financial distress. Both have punctuated the orchestra’s eight-year history. To Nettles, the hiatus gave the orchestra time to regroup.
But for the rest of us, it was a sudden peek at the fraying duct tape that’s holding together a valuable component of one of San Diego’s cultural institutions.
Let’s be clear: City Ballet doesn’t live or die by Nettles, or even the orchestra itself. The ballet company could easily keep performing with canned music or musician combos, as many companies do.
But as details of the orchestra’s drama trickled out, my interest was piqued. Who was this guy at the center of it all?
What I found after talking with Nettles, digging into his past and fielding complaints and praise from his colleagues and musicians, was a man with all the passion to solve the existential crisis of a traditional artform in the 21st century, but few of the practical skills to do so.
City Ballet Orchestra’s growth and hiccups are intimately tied to Nettles’ own path. In 2004, he found himself at a crossroads. He left a safe, salaried job as a teacher and choir director at Vista High School, where he says he felt stagnant. He needed to stretch, to re-evaluate. After a year of freelancing – singing and directing, mostly – he stopped by City Ballet’s studios. He hadn’t seen the company perform since he’d been a specialty dancer in “The Nutcracker” in 1996.
The company had come a long way since then, and Nettles thought it was worthy of a professional orchestra.
By then, he had a full Rolodex of musicians he’d worked with around town, and about 10 years’ experience in conducting.
“I said you know, if we could get some funding together, I think I could start a music program from the ground up,” Nettles said. “I sold that idea to the board and we went for it in 2006.”
The orchestra, 35 players strong, had its inaugural performance during “The Nutcracker” that year. But the ballet company quickly made clear it didn’t have funding to support the orchestra.
“As a ballet company, our first priority is to our dancers,” City Ballet managing director Jo Anne Emery told me, “not musicians.”
In early 2007, Nettles took over a small singing telegram business called A Class Act.
“This was still when the economy was good, so novelty entertainment was actually working,” Nettles said.
He started to build it into a broader events entertainment company.
This was his next phase in life, he decided. He’d make money through A Class Act and put it toward funding the orchestra.
Essentially, A Class Act became a contractor for City Ballet. The ballet company paid Nettles a lump sum, and he took care of finding and training musicians. Having an orchestra attracts donations to the ballet, the thinking goes, so the ballet can afford to put money toward the orchestra. Meanwhile, Nettles would also coordinate gigs for his musicians at schools and nonprofits through A Class Act.
“It’s kind of like a win-win,” Nettles said. “The donors get to support this, they get their tax write-off here, the nonprofit gets a greater scope of services and all the people who are working for me get more work.”
Both Emery and Nettles acknowledge City Ballet’s orchestra arrangement is a little unorthodox. But the typical model, Nettles said, “is to cut it, to be honest.” Other San Diego ballet companies tend to save money by going without a year-round orchestra. San Diego Ballet, for comparison, collaborates with Grossmont Symphony Orchestra about once a year for its “Nutcracker” performances, but otherwise hires a handful of musicians here and there.
Even if Nettles had the fundraising savvy – which he’s the first to say he lacked – experience suggests City Ballet Orchestra would’ve had a rough go anyway.
“The mantra is, in Southern California, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much,” said Javier Velasco, artistic director for San Diego Ballet.
As Nettles hustled to keep his fledgling orchestra afloat, he got into the habit of tucking his own money into its funding, becoming a “de facto donor,” he said. On top of A Class Act, he held a part-time job as assistant music director for Corpus Christi Parish in Bonita. He bought a condo in Santee.
“And then,” he said, “everything went to hell for everybody in 2008.”
That year, Nettles fell victim to the subprime mortgage crisis, which would later prompt a two-year legal battle with Wells Fargo and several financial institutions. Nettles’ side jobs started to dry up. He lost his condo, and filed for bankruptcy four times.
As Nettles remembers it, the orchestra was the one thing going well as much of his personal life fell apart. It gradually added more concerts and performances to its season schedule, and expanded its operating budget from roughly $27,000 in 2010 to $60,000 for each of the last two years, half of which came from City Ballet.
Still, getting the checks out on time proved difficult.
“Everyone who has ever come or gone through City Ballet is able to attest to the madness that is the financial situation,” said City Ballet Orchestra manager Tiffany Sieker.
Patricia Schenkelberg played flute for the orchestra for four years.
“We were never paid consistently. We were never paid on time,” Schenkelberg said. “There was one year, the last Sunday performance of ‘The Nutcracker.’ We all clean up, we get our stuff and go down into the green room and expect a check. And John is nowhere to be found. He didn’t have money for anybody so he went and hid.”
Nettles had the best intentions, she said, even if that was hard to keep in mind when he’d abandon his post as conductor after a performance, running up on stage to take a bow with the dancers.
City Ballet’s production of “Giselle” in March 2012 also stands out in musicians’ memories.
A grant to City Ballet from the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture didn’t come through, and musicians weren’t paid for over a month after closing night.
In his email updates during the lag, he tapped into a sense of trust he’s tried to develop among his musicians. He asked for patience and politeness, “no drama, panic, rumors, gossip.”
It’s a common theme in Nettles’ leadership. Written into the orchestra’s “rules, rates and rallying cries” document that’s given to musicians is this: “Negative attitudes are generally not welcome … Any gossip will always get back to the director (there’s no way to prevent it; it’s as certain as the law of gravity) and will carry consequences.”
Nettles seems always to have been anxious about the potential for hushed mutiny.
“The problem that I’ve had is, it’s 40 imaginations running wild,” Nettles said. “It’s just a much more possibly emotional, volatile situation when something goes awry, which is why I just dread it.”
More grumbling surfaced after this past December’s production of “The Nutcracker.” Another funding source fell through. Nettles was forced to pay musicians in installments.
“I’ve been contacted over the last two weeks by people who are letting me know their checks are rolling in for half the amount owed,” Sieker, the orchestra manager, told me earlier this month. “No one was ever told about the installment plan, nor was I ever given any direct knowledge, so as administrator, I’ve been fielding complaints right and left since Jan. 1.”
In his email to the orchestra on March 19, where he announced the hiatus was over, he also promised the last of back pay from “The Nutcracker” would go out “in the next few days.”
“We’re already getting new donations for the final production,” he wrote, “so it’s all good.”
Another financial debacle came up frequently when I spoke with musicians, past and present, and Nettles’ colleagues: the time he tried to enroll the orchestra in a pyramid scheme.
In early 2013, Nettles brought in a representative from a company called Lyoness to make a pitch to the orchestra. The company gives rebates to members who shop through its online portal, use its vouchers or flash their Lyoness cards at participating retailers.
The Austrian company also came under investigation by Australian authorities last year for running a pyramid scheme. Nettles said there was nothing shady about the pitch.
“It’s just a little opportunity to use businesses and merchants to help make a little extra revenue, which doesn’t cost anybody anything … No, there’s nothing, nothing nefarious about it,” he said. “It’s actually quite legitimate and it works on certain levels and not many people know about it and again they’re trademarked and it’s not really, they work with all kinds of big companies that are respected throughout the world. That’s a total red herring, I must say.”
On his own, Nettles still works with Lyoness.
“In fact I’ve done a few trial runs with some other ventures. It’s actually worked a little bit and maybe in six months, there might be some interesting developments,” he said.
Nettles has his defenders in the orchestra. “Honestly it’s sad that John is stuck fundraising,” said Mark Donnelly, who has played oboe with the orchestra for about a year and a half. “He’s an artistic type.”
Several musicians I spoke with, even those frustrated by delayed paychecks and disorganization, agreed Nettles was juggling too much. Conducting, chasing down donations, drumming up outside gigs – he should’ve gotten some help on the business side, they said.
“Unfortunately it’s so specialized right now, I’m the only one can make sense of it. The reality is, I’m the only person who could’ve gotten it this far,” Nettles said.
He’s perpetually optimistic, about both the future of the orchestra and his own ability to take it there. For years, he’s clung to the promise that firm footing for the group was just around the corner.
In an email to the orchestra back in October 2012, Nettles told members his goal was to “develop and grow a professional orchestra that plays together on a year-round schedule,” and “develop a compensation plan which helps facilitate that goal.” That was five years into the orchestra’s existence. Two and a half years later, it’s still struggling.
“Ultimately we’re all in the same boat, trying to do the same thing,” he said. “The real thing we’re up against is the apathy, the indifference, the ignorance. That’s the real enemy.”