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Exit a force of nature

In the fall of 1996, Frank Gehry organized a party for Ernest Fleischmann at a Santa Monica restaurant. Fleischmann's impending retirement as general manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic had been announced some months earlier, and many local arts leaders spoke in spontaneous tribute. Finally Peter Sellars, the opera director, rose.

"Let's face it," he said, with a burst of laughter. "Everyone in this room has wanted to kill this man at one time or another."

In noting Fleischmann's impact on Los Angeles, Sellars went on to say that Fleischmann, like a force of nature, abhors a vacuum. And, never forget, Sellars emphasized, Fleischmann is a force of nature.

There was no inkling yet of a successor for Fleischmann, and the table talk was incredulous--no one actually expected to see Fleischmann go any time soon. He had headed the orchestra and run the Hollywood Bowl for nearly three decades.

This is not just any changing of the guard. There is no orchestra manager anywhere, and certainly no arts administrator in America today, with a prominence equal to Fleischmann's. Orchestra managers don't normally get their pictures on the covers of Sunday newspaper sections. One would have to go back to Rudolf Bing, who headed the Metropolitan Opera in the '50s and '60s, to find his equal as a public figure.

It would, in fact, be hard to find an administrator these days who has had the kind of effect on both an arts organization and a city that Ernest Fleischmann has had on Los Angeles and its Philharmonic. He transformed a provincial second-rank orchestra into one of the world's best. And then he demonstrated to this country and Europe that Los Angeles could be a major source of fresh ideas for rejuvenating not only what some feel may be an antiquated institution, but cultural life in general. "Legendary" and "visionary" are the two most common adjectives used before his name these days. But no one ever uses the word "easy."

As Fleischmann arrives for lunch to talk about his career, he displays few of the external trappings of a powerful corporate executive. His style is more that of a European intellectual. On this afternoon--wearing a brightly colored shirt, a sophisticated abstract tie and sports coat--he could pass for a semiotician in Bologna.

He comes on foot, walking down the hill from the Music Center, past the parking lot hulk of the future Walt Disney Concert Hall, the construction of which has been his unfulfilled dream for the past decade, and to the outdoor cafe at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Fleischmann is perfectly comfortable lording over the best tables of exclusive restaurants. Still, he is most at home where he is likely to encounter the art world rather than politicians or business folks.

So when asked whether he thinks he has managed the Los Angeles Philharmonic differently than the way most other orchestras are administered, the reply is an unhesitating yes.

"I didn't run it in the sort of corporate way that certain orchestras are run," he contends . "I think I ran it more as a team, as a family. I think there's better interaction between musicians and staff. I ran it more loosely. That's the way I am."

Some who have worked for Fleischmann would be quick to object, pointing to his reputation for obsessive, autocratic micro-management. But there can be no doubt that in Fleischmann's mind, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is family. And this--along with a remarkable expertise allied to a deep knowledge of and profound love for music--may be what most separates Fleischmann from other managers. And then there's that ruthless streak.

When Fleischmann arrived in Los Angeles in 1969, he was 44 and feisty. He had been born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, but moved with his family to South Africa when the Nazis came to power. By his teens and early 20s, his reputation extended from Cape Town to Johannesburg as a conductor, festival director and music critic. He also squeezed in a degree in accounting. In 1959, he chose orchestra administration over conducting and moved to London to manage the London Symphony Orchestra. Eight years later, he was ousted in a sudden coup by players who wanted to run the orchestra themselves. He spent two years at CBS records in London before the call came from the West Coast.

Fleischmann has always said that what attracted him to the Los Angeles Philharmonic was the potential he saw in the orchestra. It was, from his European perspective, a fresh, young band. Zubin Mehta, who was only 26 when he became music director in 1962, was growing up with the orchestra. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion had only opened in 1964. And in the late '60s, the world seemed primed for youth and optimism, for discovering and realizing potential.

It was also a time for flamboyance, and Fleischmann saw that he could capitalize on Mehta's youth, glamour and dynamism. The orchestra had decent players but Fleischmann felt it wasn't performing nearly up to its capacity. He didn't understand why the resource of the Hollywood Bowl, much underused at the time, wasn't being exploited.

Twenty-nine years later, much of what he set out to do has been accomplished. The quality of the orchestra, according to Fleischmann, continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. "I don't think I'm prejudiced in saying that I find almost every week is an improvement on the weeks gone before. I've never experienced quite this change, this kind of development, in any orchestra that I've known."

But for Fleischmann the actual job of selling the orchestra remains a worry. "What surprises me," he admits, "is that our concerts are not automatically sold out, because such terrific things happen and so many people are missing out. One of the challenges is to convince people that there is something extraordinary that they have on their doorstep."

From the moment he arrived in Los Angeles, that, in fact, was Fleischmann's principal challenge. He immediately made a name for himself through marketing strategies that raised the eyebrows of highbrows. He used Mehta's youth and Hollywood persona, to give the orchestra a young image. He invited Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to join the orchestra in Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. He did a "Star Wars" concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977.

Ad copy was flashy or hyperbolic. "Boulez! Boulez! Boulez!" was one striking example in a time when orchestras were more sedate.

The orchestra acquired a reputation for sound spectaculars, thanks to Mehta's specialty of late Romantic blockbusters and to a series of recordings on London Records that exploited wide dynamics and stereo sound effects. It became a turned-on, tuned-in orchestra, its records bestsellers among hippies and hi-fi addicts.

Masterminding the Philharmonic's image over the years became the Fleischmann hallmark. After Mehta left the orchestra in 1978 to become music director of the New York Philharmonic, Fleischmann enticed a beloved Old World maestro, Carlo Maria Giulini, to the New World, adding new class and refinement to the orchestra's image (he also switched to the record label most closely associated with the greatest conductors and orchestras, Deutsche Grammophon.)

By hiring Andre Previn to succeeded Giulini in 1985, Fleischmann saw an opportunity to return some of the Hollywood glamour to the orchestra while still holding on to its newfound classiness. Previn was both a four-time Oscar-winning film composer and a highly respected classical musician who had been music director of the London Symphony (after Fleischmann left) and the Pittsburgh Symphony. But the chemistry wasn't right, and Previn angrily resigned in 1985 over Fleischmann's high-handed management style.

"One of these days the whole story will have to be told," Fleischmann says, still apparently stung by the incident, but ultimate relieved by how it turned out. "It was touch and go. [Previn] could have stayed, which certainly would have been a step backward."

And looking forward has always been Fleischmann's overriding concern. Previn's pique was over not being consulted in the appointment of Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal guest conductor, or in Fleischmann's invitation to Salonen to take the orchestra on tour. His leaving opened the way for Salonen to become music director, something Fleischmann had toyed with a decade earlier, even as he was hiring Previn. But at that time, he had decided that Salonen, then in his early 20s, was too young.

With Salonen, who was 34 when he became music director in 1992, the orchestra again recaptured its youthful image. But unlike Mehta, Salonen has seemed less concerned with Hollywood glamour (though he's got it anyway) and more, like Fleischmann, the European intellectual and modernist. Under Salonen, the orchestra is hot--in New York, Paris and Salzburg.

The relationship between Fleischmann and Salonen, who share a taste for the modern and adventurous in music, has all the appearances of a father and son, including a certain amount of quiet rebelliousness on the conductor's part. And while there is speculation, none of it confirmed, that Salonen's own desire to have a stronger hand in running the orchestra may be, at least in part, behind Fleischmann's retirement, Fleischmann is unequivocal in his support of Salonen.

It was also a time for flamboyance, and Fleischmann saw that he could capitalize on Mehta's youth, glamour and dynamism. The orchestra had decent players but Fleischmann felt it wasn't performing nearly up to its capacity. He didn't understand why the resource of the Hollywood Bowl, much underused at the time, wasn't being exploited.

Twenty-nine years later, much of what he set out to do has been accomplished. The quality of the orchestra, according to Fleischmann, continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. "I don't think I'm prejudiced in saying that I find almost every week is an improvement on the weeks gone before. I've never experienced quite this change, this kind of development, in any orchestra that I've known."

But for Fleischmann the actual job of selling the orchestra remains a worry. "What surprises me," he admits, "is that our concerts are not automatically sold out, because such terrific things happen and so many people are missing out. One of the challenges is to convince people that there is something extraordinary that they have on their doorstep."

From the moment he arrived in Los Angeles, that, in fact, was Fleischmann's principal challenge. He immediately made a name for himself through marketing strategies that raised the eyebrows of highbrows. He used Mehta's youth and Hollywood persona, to give the orchestra a young image. He invited Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to join the orchestra in Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. He did a "Star Wars" concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1977.

Ad copy was flashy or hyperbolic. "Boulez! Boulez! Boulez!" was one striking example in a time when orchestras were more sedate.

The orchestra acquired a reputation for sound spectaculars, thanks to Mehta's specialty of late Romantic blockbusters and to a series of recordings on London Records that exploited wide dynamics and stereo sound effects. It became a turned-on, tuned-in orchestra, its records bestsellers among hippies and hi-fi addicts.

Masterminding the Philharmonic's image over the years became the Fleischmann hallmark. After Mehta left the orchestra in 1978 to become music director of the New York Philharmonic, Fleischmann enticed a beloved Old World maestro, Carlo Maria Giulini, to the New World, adding new class and refinement to the orchestra's image (he also switched to the record label most closely associated with the greatest conductors and orchestras, Deutsche Grammophon.)

By hiring Andre Previn to succeeded Giulini in 1985, Fleischmann saw an opportunity to return some of the Hollywood glamour to the orchestra while still holding on to its newfound classiness. Previn was both a four-time Oscar-winning film composer and a highly respected classical musician who had been music director of the London Symphony (after Fleischmann left) and the Pittsburgh Symphony. But the chemistry wasn't right, and Previn angrily resigned in 1985 over Fleischmann's high-handed management style.

"One of these days the whole story will have to be told," Fleischmann says, still apparently stung by the incident, but ultimate relieved by how it turned out. "It was touch and go. [Previn] could have stayed, which certainly would have been a step backward."

And looking forward has always been Fleischmann's overriding concern. Previn's pique was over not being consulted in the appointment of Esa-Pekka Salonen as principal guest conductor, or in Fleischmann's invitation to Salonen to take the orchestra on tour. His leaving opened the way for Salonen to become music director, something Fleischmann had toyed with a decade earlier, even as he was hiring Previn. But at that time, he had decided that Salonen, then in his early 20s, was too young.

With Salonen, who was 34 when he became music director in 1992, the orchestra again recaptured its youthful image. But unlike Mehta, Salonen has seemed less concerned with Hollywood glamour (though he's got it anyway) and more, like Fleischmann, the European intellectual and modernist. Under Salonen, the orchestra is hot--in New York, Paris and Salzburg.

The relationship between Fleischmann and Salonen, who share a taste for the modern and adventurous in music, has all the appearances of a father and son, including a certain amount of quiet rebelliousness on the conductor's part. And while there is speculation, none of it confirmed, that Salonen's own desire to have a stronger hand in running the orchestra may be, at least in part, behind Fleischmann's retirement, Fleischmann is unequivocal in his support of Salonen.

"I think that if Esa-Pekka will stay with the orchestra for a good length of time--the contract has been extended, now to 2002--there is a fabulous future for this orchestra," he says with feeling.

Indeed, Fleischmann's relationship not just with Salonen but with the musicians and staff (nearly all of whom he has hired) has a strong parental component. But sometimes the relationship has hinted at dysfunction: Fleischmann has a reputation for harshly criticizing staff, as part of his general outspokenness.

"I will always say what I think. It may be foolish, but, sorry, I can't help it," he says, when asked if leaving the Philharmonic will free him even more to speak his mind. "So I don't think I need to be any freer. Nobody's ever stopped me from doing or saying anything."

In many ways, Fleischmann hardly seems to be a man on his way out the door. In his final days, he is still actively fund-raising for Disney Hall. "We're in the last stretch of raising the money," he asserts. "At the moment, if there isn't a week where I don't raise a million bucks, I feel I've failed."

Fleischmann, who doesn't necessarily raise the weekly million personally, says he is now certain that the money will all be found, but he also senses increasing urgency. The hall is now estimated to cost $255 million, with the current shortfall put at $24 million, but with new seismic regulations going into effect and a general escalation in construction costs, that total figure may be something of a moving target.

Fleischmann is also busily planning the next two seasons, since most artists must be booked far in advance. But beyond that, he is actively finalizing plans for a two-year overview of what he will call "The Surprising Century."

"The idea," he explains, "is to show the sort of unexpected things--for example, two pieces of music composed in the same year but in totally different styles--that can coexist. We will also have a number of conferences, a number of weekends, when we will bring people here to talk about and play related [20th century] music."

This is all part of a millennium project that Fleischmann, thinking big to the end, has envisioned. Although he would prefer to be accurate about the dates and hold off a year, he is too much the marketer to miss the people's choice for the millennium, New Year's Eve 1999. He says that he has suggested to Salonen that on Dec. 31, 1999, the conductor look back with a performance Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and John Adams' piano concerto "Century Rolls." Then, on Jan. 1, he feels Salonen should play music of a number of composers the conductor thinks are going to be important to the 21st century.

As for Fleischmann, he will move on, but not completely. At 73, he hardly seems to have slowed down. Offers pour in, and he says he finds it difficult to say no. Divorced and with three grown children, he is free to roam the world, and he plans to do consulting for the NDR Symphony (the radio orchestra in Hamburg) and the London Philharmonic. The town of Spoleto, Italy, has asked him to be the music consultant for a new comprehensive arts festival. In June, he will oversee his first Ojai Festival, as the annual event's new director.

But Fleischmann's heart clearly remains in L.A. He is under contract with the Philharmonic for half-time work as a consultant over the next two years, although he is still not certain what that means. He will not maintain an office at the Music Center, but nearby. And he is not likely to have much contact with the staff or musicians anymore.

"But my attachment, my love for the Philharmonic remains," he confesses somewhat wistfully. "If there are ways in which I can still be of use, I'll be delighted. But I've been here long enough. Too long, maybe."

What advice does he have for Wijnbergen?

"Be yourself. Do what you think is right. And cherish Esa-Pekka and the musicians."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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