Philharmonic Society’s New Leader Talks About His Past and His Plans

Tommy Phillips will take the helm of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County on Oct. 1. (Photo courtesy of Drew A. Kelley)

Today, Sept. 17, 2018, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County announced that Tommy Phillips, 34, would succeed John Mangum as the organization’s new president and artistic director. We talked briefly with Phillips about his background and the new job, which he assumes Oct. 1. His most significant previous job was director of artistic planning at the San Diego Symphony.

Voice of OC: Tell us about the last few years of your career.

Tommy Phillips: I had left San Diego a little over two years ago to work on diversifying my own portfolio. I’ve been consulting with a number of different organizations and orchestras throughout the country.

VOC: How familiar were you with the Philharmonic Society?

Phillips: I have known the Philharmonic Society for many years and have been a fan and patron of theirs for the past decade. They stand for quality and superb artistry. When the opportunity presented itself, I said, “Of course I’m interested.”

VOC: Tell us about the negotiations.

Phillips: We had been talking on and off throughout the summer. I had just started Black Cats (a producing organization that brings American musicians to China and vice versa). That was part of the impetus of leaving (the San Diego Symphony), to start something on my own.

VOC: One of your jobs in San Diego was “logistics manager.” Tell us what you did down there.

Phillips: I feel very fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to really build my resume and my strengths piece by piece. I’ve walked the line as it were through the entire gamut of this industry, from backstage operations to youth management to artistic planning, which has been the bulk of my career. When I look at a performance or presentation on the stage, the product is the first thing I look at.

VOC: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?

Phillips: I grew up in San Diego. And my parents, my mom especially, was a big believer in the arts being part of our lives. I remember a specific weekend when my mom said to my sister and I, “What should we see today — a play or maybe a symphony? Wait, is the orchestra even around? You know what, let’s go to the zoo.” It was a sad day. We didn’t even know if the orchestra existed at that point.

VOC: The orchestra’s fortunes certainly took a turn for the better with some very generous help.

Phillips: Yes. Flash forward, and two years into my career I was planning for (San Diego Symphony’s) 100th anniversary with a strong financial foundation. For me personally, that meant the world. It was a very special part of my career. It tugged (my heart). It was my hometown band. Big arts institutions … are not all thriving. It’s because of tremendous individuals like the Jacobs family in San Diego and the Segerstroms in Orange County that the arts thrive here.

VOC: What are your plans for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County?

Phillips: The plans are still being developed. Obviously I want growth. I think growth (by) appropriate means is necessary for any arts organization. I was frankly surprised (by the Philharmonic Society’s $5 million budget). They present themselves as a superior artistic body and have those world-class seasons that make them one of the big boys in Southern California. They’re on a par artistically with some much bigger organizations.

VOC: How do you plan to address the changing demographics of Orange County?

Phillips: The demographic transformation here has happened so much more quickly than in other places of comparable size and artistic offering. I think that the goal is always to have balance in programming across all offerings. That’s something I want to maintain. The growth should be really based on all sorts of factors – race, age, gender, and socioeconomic status. We want to make sure that what we present on stage reflects the demographics of our region. Diversity in the arts is what makes them succeed.

VOC: Will you change the touring orchestra part of the season at all?

Phillips: I’m not going to fix what’s not broken. They do that tremendously well. I would only want to add to it by bringing in orchestras that have not visited in the past.

VOC: Do you want to do anything that’s not being done currently?

Phillips: The one thing that I would be comfortable expanding on is what (former Philharmonic Society leader) Dean Corey initially thought of with his Eclectic Orange series. That goes back to what we were talking about: diversity of culture and forward thinking. It all ties into education and outreach. I view outreach not as just kids, schools and teachers. It’s about expanding audiences and creating compelling engagements for all concertgoers.

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.