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Taking Notes, High and Low : O.C. Philharmonic Society's Corey Assesses Needs and Goals After 14 Months on the Job


IRVINE — How is an arts organization like a box of crackers?

Brand identity, says Dean Corey, the executive director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society:

"You could have the craziest box of crackers in the world, but if it's got that red triangle up in the corner, that tells you something about what's inside."

Brand identity is something he thinks the society needs more of. He'd like potential ticket buyers to see the group's name on an event as a guarantee of quality.

Corey, who has spent about 14 months on the job here, considers the identity issue his No. 1 priority for the year ahead. Identity has been a quandary for the society ever since the Orange County Performing Arts Center opened in 1987--a quandary that also plagued Corey's predecessor, Erich Vollmer, before he left for a post with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

The society has been around since the '50s; of all the organizations associated with the Performing Arts Center, it is the oldest. It presents touring classical orchestras and ensembles at the center and at the Irvine Barclay Theatre; increasingly, it has broadened the center's scope by offering such attractions as Ireland's Chieftains and Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.

But in terms of public perception, Corey explained last week, the society is at a disadvantage.

"The center has a building, the Barclay has a building, the (Pacific Symphony Orchestra) is on stage, Opera Pacific is on stage. We don't have that kind of presence."

The very name of the organization presents problems, Corey added: It is too similar to "Orange County Performing Arts Center" and too limited to represent the range of attractions the group actually presents. A name change was contemplated but deemed impractical: "If we changed our name, then no one would know who we are."


Corey has found that the identity problem affects not only ticket sales but also donations and recruitment of volunteers. The society recently redesigned its logo, and Corey is planning other specific strategies to "get the whole level of awareness raised. But it's so complex."

Another set of problems surfaced last month when the California Arts Council decided to reduce the society's annual grant from $33,005 to $20,687, citing as one of its reasons a lack of diversity on the society board of directors. Corey is appealing the decision.

"We kind of suspected we might get called on this," he admitted. But, he added, "we've been working on this for some time."

He said he is repulsed by the idea of courting people with no previous ties to the society strictly on the basis of their ethnicity ("I think that's a very insulting thing"). He prefers making greater outreach efforts to different groups in the county, building relationships in a more natural manner. He also noted that board makeup aside, few arts groups here have presented programs appealing to as wide a range of people.

Although challenges face the group, it can count numerous strides made in the past year. In July, it announced that it had ended its fiscal year with a surplus, which enabled it to wipe out 70% of an accumulated deficit of $114,000. The current fiscal year is proceeding strongly, Corey said.

His goal, he said, is for the society to be in a strong enough position financially to book artistically adventuresome attractions without so much regard to expense.

He has continued Vollmer's efforts to present music that falls outside the Western classical tradition that had been the society's focus. Such experiments appeared threatened during the final year of Vollmer's tenure when Performing Arts Center management objected to some of the "non-classical" bookings.

But under the center's own new leadership, such disputes appear to be things of the past. Indeed, in July OCPS and center officials hailed "a new era of cooperation" and announced that they would jointly present two attractions in the coming season, Teatro de Danza Espanola (which comes to town Thursday) and Fiesta Navidad, a holiday-themed mariachi festival slated for Dec. 11.

When he first got here, Corey said, his relationship with center management "was touch-and-go" as a result of their predecessors' conflicts.

"Neither Tom (Tomlinson, the new center director, whose appointment was announced the same day as Corey's) nor I had any baggage with it, but it was there, and we had to go through that baggage."

Now, he said, "we have great cooperation with both the Barclay and the center. And we're branching out more and more.

"I thoroughly love orchestras," he added. "I've spent my entire career working with orchestras--but it's great to be able to do things that are not orchestras. . . . It's like a treasure trove of music."

Increasing ethnic diversity isn't the only way that Corey and his board, which he is quick to credit, are shaking things up.

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