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35 Years of Music : Philharmonic Society Overcame Some Special Obstacles to Evolve Into the County’s Showcase Concert Presenter

For 35 years, the Orange County Philharmonic Society has been the premier music organization in the county, presenting major orchestras, conductors and soloists from around the world.

This week, in a special blaze of glory, the society will present Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony on Monday, Sir Colin Davis and the Bavarian Symphony of Munich on Wednesday, and Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic on Saturday. All three concerts will take place at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

But where did this organization get its start?

It all goes back to one woman, 83-year-old conductor, cellist and teacher Frieda Belinfante of Laguna Beach. “If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think there would even have been an Orange County Philharmonic Society,” says longtime board member Camille Durand.

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A resistance fighter against the Nazis in her native Holland, Belinfante came to the United States in 1947, moved to Laguna Beach in 1948, and commuted to UCLA to teach cello and conducting.

“In those days, there was really nothing cultural in Orange County,” she said recently. “We started everything at that time, in 1954.”

Belinfante formed a professional orchestra made up of “the best free-lance players in Los Angeles, who had done recordings with Bruno Walter,” she said.

She called the group the Orange County Philharmonic, and conducted it for the first time on May 22, 1954, at Santa Ana High School. The program included the Overture to Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” Mozart’s Symphony No. 38, Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Beethoven Symphony No. 1. About 150 attended.

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After a second concert, at the Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach 3 months later, she was approached by a group of friends who wanted to ensure that the orchestra would become a permanent part of the community. A series of winter concerts was planned.

Thus was the society born.

But changes lay ahead. The orchestra played all over the county--in Fullerton, Garden Grove, Anaheim and Costa Mesa--but it would last only until 1961.

A woman conductor was an anomaly in the 1950s, and Belinfante was resented in some quarters of the community.

“Frieda was a fine musician--she is a fine musician--but the community did not accept her,” board member Durand recalls. “I do remember some chauvinists who said, ‘Well, who wants to go to a concert and watch the back of a woman ripple up and down?’ ”

Male chauvinism was not the only obstacle faced by the young organization. “We had to be very careful about programming Russian music,” said Durand, who was on the programming committee. “We had ticket cancellations because we were playing Tchaikovsky--or any Russian composer. This was a very reactionary county. . . .

“But we tried to sneak in as much as we possibly could.”

At first, the concerts were free. But even that created problems, recalls Lucy Gaynor, another longtime board member of the society.

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“Because the concerts were free, people did not support them very well,” she said. “It was a psychological thing there. People may not think they are worth much if you aren’t charging for them.

“So we tried to put them together in a more businesslike way and began to charge for performances. But then we ran into problems with the (musicians’) union.”

The union refused to allow its members to continue donating their rehearsal time. Costs began to skyrocket, and some concerts had to be canceled.

“I remember when I was chairman of the youth concerts, which was pretty early on,” Gaynor said, “a Saturday concert had been canceled the day before. I sat in front of the high school, (telling) the few students who showed up.

“That was the way it was then. The society was very personalized. I was the only one in the office for many years. I was office manager, I signed checks, kept the books and did everything before we were really professional.”

Gaynor remembers that money came in from volunteer women’s groups--which to this day are the backbone of the organization. More than 1,500 community members now provide volunteer services through about 30 committees.

By 1960, problems began to snowball. Concert attendance was proving erratic, and the availability of core orchestra musicians had diminished as the movie industry in Hollywood slumped, still feeling the effects of television.

The coup de grace was delivered when the Los Angeles Philharmonic decided to expand its touring dates in the Southland, offering to put on concerts at half of what it cost the society to maintain its own orchestra, according to Belinfante. The board decided to abort the orchestra in 1961.

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Belinfante protested. “ ‘You don’t have to hire me,’ I said, ‘but for God’s sake don’t give up your orchestra.’ ” She recommended Daniel Lewis, Maurice Abravanel or a then-relatively unknown Zubin Mehta as her successor.

But her wish was in vain and, as Belinfante remembers, the bylaws were rewritten in 1962 so that the group could act as a booking agency, presenting outside orchestras.

Belinfante wasn’t the only one upset. There were people who argued that importing “world-class” orchestras would undercut any efforts to establish an orchestra of the county’s own.

In at least one instance, that turned out to be the case. A “Symphony Orchestra of Orange County” was established in Anaheim in 1962, conducted by Eugene Ober, who was succeeded by Daniel Lewis in 1967. But it folded in 1969, when it was unable to raise $40,000 to complete its season of six remaining concerts.

The Orange County Philharmonic Society, however, began to thrive in its new mission, bringing in the Los Angeles Philharmonic on a regular basis, along with major orchestras from Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, London, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, among other cities.

Subscriptions, which had averaged around 1,000, had doubled by the end of the society’s second decade and continued to rise, as listeners were drawn by such conductors as Erich Leinsdorf, Carlo Maria Giulini, Pierre Boulez and Rafael Kubelic.

Major performers included violinists Isaac Stern and Itzhak Perlman and pianists Alicia de Larrocha and Martha Argerich.

At the same time, the society proved intent upon building future audiences through youth programs, begun in 1956. The society has reached approximately 3 million young people to date, second-graders through high school students, from more than 400 schools.

While audiences grew, the society’s major problem seemed to be finding an adequate venue.

Peg Reday, a Newport Beach resident who has been a society subscriber for 30 years, remembers “following (the society) around from UCI to Santa Ana High School and (finally) to the Center.”

Plans for the Performing Arts Center were announced in the early 1970s, and with them came a whole new set of challenges, not the least of which was the need to fill a hall twice the size of what the society was used to. The board decided it was time for professional management, and Robert Elias was hired in December of 1983 as its first executive director.

Within 9 months, though, Elias left to become executive director of the Pasadena-based Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where he had served as assistant manager from 1979-81. Erich Vollmer, the society’s current executive director, came on board in November, 1984.

How had the society managed to work for so many years without a professional director?

“Just a number of people all working together, each taking responsibility for a function,” Vollmer said. “The board was organized into committees, each responsible for a function of the organization, and everybody did his bit. In that respect, it was a model organization for a nonprofit organization.”

Professionalism has had its effects, though: Under Vollmer, the society’s budget has risen from $750,000 to the current $2.3 million, and subscriptions have just about doubled, from 3,300 to 6,500.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing, though. Like many local organizations, the society saw some drop-off in subscribers after an initial surge of buyers who were interested in seeing the Center for the first time.

Vollmer’s biggest disappointment so far, he said, has been his failure to bring back the New World Festival, a series of concerts by conductor Thomas and his Miami-based New World Symphony, which the society co-sponsored with the Center and UCI last summer.

He sees his future mission clearly.

“We have got to find a new audience,” Vollmer said. “We can’t exist on the subscriber core that we’ve carried all these years. And we know we are not beginning to reach the numbers of people who are out there and have probably not been to (Segerstrom) hall for the first time.”

Vollmer hopes to woo new audiences by offering such stellar attractions as the London Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra--both are on this season’s roster--and by offering subscribers four series, which include recitals and chamber music programs.

“We are looking for that new infusion. . . . I think the expansion of the society’s programs outside of orchestras--going into recitals and chamber music--is a healthy step for its growth, and for the variety and the added musical experience we’re making available for Orange County.”

The Orange County Philharmonic Society will present three programs this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, in Costa Mesa. Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the London Philharmonic in works by Berlioz, Stravinsky and Oliver Knussen Monday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $12 and $40. Sir Colin Davis will lead the Bavarian Symphony of Munich in music by Beethoven and Brahms on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10-$30. Zubin Mehta will conduct the Israel Philharmonic in a program of Brahms, Schoenberg and Mark Kopytman Saturday at 8 p.m. Sold out. Information: (714) 642-8232.


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