Tommy Phillips is Not Distracted

Photo courtesy of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County

Tommy Phillips

Classical music is not built for short attention spans. It takes patience to uncover its more subtle and nuanced treasures, and that can be a challenge in a culture of More! Faster! Newer! With so much information at our fingertips, so many options for what to do with ourselves, the idea of sitting in a concert hall for a couple hours doing nothing but listening? Considering the traffic, and the expense, and the flashier entertainments just down the road, serious music has a lot of hurdles to jump.

It’s no less true here in Orange County, despite the fact that, after a few decades of heavy lifting by some visionary impresarios, a parade of internationally celebrated artists march through our halls on a regular basis. One of the artform’s central players in our region, Tommy Phillips, is keenly aware of how difficult it is to be heard above the din.

Phillips, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, is well aware of the Society’s storied place in the region’s artistic growth, and knows what he’s up against.

“I think that we have, along with the establishment of the Segerstrom Center, helped cement classical music in Orange County,” he says, “and our goal is to adhere to our mission and enhance our place in the community through classical music – to continue to be that pillar of excellence, even while living in the Great Distraction era.”

Just over a year ago Phillips took the Society’s reins from John Mangum, whose arrival in 2014 marked the end of the colorful, longtime tenure of Dean Corey, one of those early visionaries. Phillips comes prepared after a multifaceted career in classical music administration. Eight years with the San Diego Symphony, co-founder of his own production company, long-term consultancies with San Francisco Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Pacific Symphony, and Mainly Mozart Festival, among many – the kind of resume, connections, and regional knowledge that made him an ideal candidate.

Now, Phillips has a year on the job, and Orange County listeners get a look at the first Society season that truly has his stamp on it.

“Every season is different based on a lot of factors—who’s touring, who’s coming to California,” he says. “Typically, we get a lot of artists here during times that it would be colder in other parts of the world. Plus, those extra elements that take years of planning and relationship work, special appearances by an artist or orchestra, which not only brings that fantastic artist to Orange County, but helps us cement what we do in the community.

“Next season is the first when I had most control. There were a few concerts in place when I came, but we’re heading into a great Beethoven anniversary, the 250th anniversary of his birth, and we’ve got five out of the nine symphonies this season. Our goal is to do all nine in the 2020/2021 season, so for the calendar season of 2020 we’re performing all of his symphonies, as well as recitals dedicated to his works.”

And while the international superstars like Yuja Wang, Joshua Bell, Renee Fleming, and Midori capture the headlines, balance and regional presence to create a well-rounded season is equally important to Phillips.

“We bring in these great artists from around the world,” he says, “but the special part for me was to focus on ensembles in our own backyard. So we have three what I would consider world class ensembles coming on our series that are local. We have our perennial visit from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, then an orchestra near and dear to my heart the San Diego Symphony, which is part of the Beethoven celebration with guest conductor Edo de Waart, and finally the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. For me, it was important that we bring the world to Orange County and also highlight those gems that we have right here.”

With all that, Phillips plainly notes that he tries to keep his personal tastes and preferences out of the process of building a season. Ask him if there’s any particular artist he’s looking forward to, and there’s not. Not that he’ll admit to, anyway. “I aim to be very careful to avoid that exact thing, not programming for myself,” he says. “I feel fortunate to say that I have a well-rounded appetite for many genres of classical and I try to make sure that we are well-rounded.

What he will admit to is his excitement for breathing new life into their programming. “With our Eclectic Orange series, we’re trying to address a lack of focus and attention. We’re trying to make (concert going) more palatable for people who don’t want to sit through a 90-minute Mahler symphony, to present this music in a very carefully designed and not demeaning way. We also have a special project worth mentioning with the Colburn Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka is a concert version of Wagner’s Die Walküre.”

The other part of the greater identity being provided by the Philharmonic Society includes their education efforts. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the society’s Orange County Youth Symphony. Their season-closing concert will feature Sarah Chang and Carmina Burana.

“Everyone looks at the Philharmonic Society as a great presenter of world renowned artists, but that’s the shiny part. Under the surface, there’s an amazing network of music education initiatives. That’s the foundation of what we do, and that’s why we work with youth. To build audiences for tomorrow. As long as we do that, we’re insuring we have an audience for those marquee performers into the future.”

Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at palefevre@gmail.com.