The Philharmonic Society of Orange County has picked John Mangum, a veteran of nine years on the planning teams of four prominent orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to succeed the retiring Dean Corey as president and artistic director.
He becomes the point man for booking and promoting the major touring classical music groups and soloists the Philharmonic Society presents at Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa and the Irvine Barclay Theatre at UC Irvine.
Mangum, 39, will take over July 1, leaving the San Francisco Symphony after three years as its director of artistic planning. At the L.A. Phil he went from writing program notes while completing his doctorate in history and musicology at UCLA, to helping to shape and carry out the phil's seasons at Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl as artistic administrator from 2005 to '07.
He then served two years each as vice president for artistic planning of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, a major Minnesota group, and as artistic administrator of the New York Philharmonic. He returned to San Francisco because he was eager to work with music director Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, coming full circle to the orchestra that had given him his first immersion in classical music as a Bay Area teen.
Mangum said in an interview from his office at the San Francisco Symphony that he's been happy there and had not expected to leave. He became interested in the Orange County job after being contacted by the Philharmonic Society's executive search firm. He'll head an organization for the first time, with responsibility for the full gamut of artistic, fundraising, promotional and managerial tasks it entails.
"I thought artistically I would be in the kind of milieu I thrive in and find very fulfilling," he said. "And this felt like a great opportunity to take the next step and do all the things I don't necessarily get to do in my current role."
"I'm sad to lose him, but I'm very happy for him going in this direction of becoming an original entrepreneur, moving more into the area to which he wants to devote his life" on the classical music scene, Tilson Thomas said.
Mangum has been part of the back-and-forth that shaped the orchestra's programs, the conductor said, including sometimes identifying composers and performers, especially younger ones, who'd be worthwhile collaborators. "He really goes out of his way to establish a personal rapport with the artists," Tilson Thomas said. "People enjoy working with him and look forward to their conversations and planning of new adventures."
Corey has led the Philharmonic Society down some ambitious pathways in his 21 years of bringing in leading orchestras, chamber groups and soloists — working world music and the avant-garde into the mix when budgets allowed, notably in five annual "Eclectic Orange" festivals, ending in 2003.
The search process made it "apparent … that John was the candidate whose passion and views aligned with the Society's mission for presenting high caliber musical programs in Orange County," Corey said in the written announcement of his successor's hiring.
Mangum may not have to work with quite as thin a financial cushion as Corey has been faced with in recent years, when budget constraints caused the Philharmonic Society's bookings to fall below 20 performances per season. The organization announced last month that it had met its $2-million goal for a fundraising campaign to honor Corey and mark its 60th anniversary. The bar has been raised to $2.5 million.
The coming 2014-15 season booked by Corey offers 16 performances. He also has made substantial headway in putting together the subsequent 2015-16 season.
That, said Mangum, should afford him the luxury of learning about his new musical environs without immediate pressure to fill a schedule.
"The first six months or so will be me getting to know the audience and community and the board, listening to them about what they are interested in and passionate about," he said.
In addition to catering to their established tastes, Mangum said "it's important to me as a new person in this role to put new projects and [artists] in front of the audience so they can expand their interests."
Corey brought both musical erudition and a common touch to the job.
A YouTube clip from 2011, in which Mangum tackled the subject of humor in music for the New York Philharmonic, suggests some acumen in promoting classical music as something accessible rather than abstruse. He went so far as to emit a breathy buzz to mimic an "almost scatological" bassoon passage in Haydn's Symphony No. 93.
To Mangum's ear — although he put it in more delicate terms — the composer had deployed a woodwind to evoke someone breaking wind. Mangum admitted that a staccato bass line in Beethoven's 8th Symphony continues to remind him comically of "a chicken pecking seeds on the ground," the image that occurred to him in his teens when he first heard it performed by the San Francisco Symphony.
"It's a totally stupid reaction, and it's not sophisticated at all," he confessed on camera, aiming to reassure his online viewers that their reactions to classical music need not be highbrow. "It's not a question of being knowledgeable or trained or having a sophisticated ear. It's about you as a listener reacting to what you're hearing, and there's no such thing as a wrong reaction."
Moving to Orange County is technically a homecoming: he was born in Fullerton, the son of an architect and a homemaker, although his early childhood was spent in San Diego, followed by a move to the Bay Area at about 9 years of age. He'll depart San Francisco with Regina, his wife of 16 years and their 6-year-old son, John.
He sees his frequent moves among high-level orchestras over the past decade or so as beneficial, giving him "a chance to work with different artists in different environments. Saint Paul was a chance to be the head artistic person. [Then] when the New York Philharmonic calls, you answer. San Francisco was the opportunity to work with MTT [Tilson Thomas]. In each case I had a good reason for the move."
Mangum said he is beginning in Orange County with a three-year contract, but "the commitment is longer than that. It will take more time to build relationships and accomplish some of the things the Philharmonic Society would like to see happen."