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Merger May Sound a Discordant Note : * Pacific Symphony, Philharmonic Play Different Tunes

Orange County music lovers are fortunate to have two good organizations dedicated to quite different missions. The Pacific Symphony is the county’s own orchestra, providing interesting offerings during the regular season at the Performing Arts Center and at Irvine Meadows during the summertime. The Philharmonic Society brings nationally and internationally recognized orchestras through Orange County to give listeners a taste of the best from around the country.

These organizations, which thrive on the generosity of individual contributors, are feeling the pinch in a time of recession. They have begun talking openly about what might have been unthinkable awhile ago--the merging of the two groups into a single organization to serve the diverse needs of both.

Times being what they are, a merger may prove unavoidable. But there is much to be said for retaining separate organizations as long as possible.

These two groups are united in their dedication to quality music, to be sure, but serve different and perhaps even conflicting missions. The risk in combining the two in an effort to save money could be that the best interests of one or both might be compromised.

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The Philharmonic Society, which faces a $300,000 deficit this year, recently brought the Cleveland Orchestra out here after a five-year absence. The Times’ music critic, Martin Bernheimer, hailed conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi for offering “a bravely sophisticated program and, under his no-nonsense leadership, the orchestra played it with pervasive flair, not to mention precision and urgency.”

But there are those who worry that such offerings from the Philharmonic Society, which sponsors appearances by major touring orchestras like Cleveland’s, might give way to a reordering of priorities in an effort to build the local orchestra, the Pacific Symphony, into one of increased stature.

Obviously, the home team is important too. It’s a collection of able younger musicians with hopes of gaining prominence on an national level.

The realistic and unavoidable challenge in any merger, being studied by a committee including representatives of both groups, is to find ways of reducing the combined operation deficits of the two organizations that are now about $1 million.

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But the question is whether a new group could combine the best efforts of both successfully, or whether one would have to give way to the other. The pressure, suggests Edward Halvajian, immediate past board president of the Philharmonic Society, would be to opt for “pride of ownership"--building the home-grown product instead of also providing quality established musical groups from afar.

The Pacific posted a loss last year of $231,000, which brought its deficit to $830,000, and the Philharmonic Society, in the black until last year, had a deficit of $244,000. The argument in favor of merging is that it would allow elimination of duplicated administrative services. But Burton Karson, Cal State Fullerton music professor, asks the right question: Which of two organizations would relinquish its executive director? And would hoped-for savings in a single fund-raising effort materialize, or would people who might have given to two organizations give less to only the one?

It may prove possible for a single organization to pay attention to the needs of both, and it may come to that one way or the other. But efforts to retain separate missions are worth holding onto until it’s clear that financial pressures leave no choice but for merger.


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