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Ernest Fleischmann dies at 85; manager who guided Los Angeles Philharmonic's transformation

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Ernest Fleischmann, the willful impresario who dominated the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly 30 years and helped transform it into one of the nation's top orchestras through the force of his exacting personality, has died. He was 85.

Fleischmann died Sunday at his Los Angeles home after a long illness, surrounded by his family, the Philharmonic announced.

As the Philharmonic's visionary manager, he was a famed talent scout who had a hand in virtually every decision, large and small, concerning the orchestra during his tenure.

His accomplishments left a lasting imprint on the city's cultural landscape: He brought a young Esa-Pekka Salonen to Los Angeles as the Philharmonic's music director, championed the building of Walt Disney Concert Hall, revived and refurbished the Hollywood Bowl, and, as early as 2004, recognized the abilities of Gustavo Dudamel, who became the orchestra's director last year.

Deborah Borda, the Philharmonic's current president and chief executive, said in a statement Monday: "The unique and blessed musical landscape we inhabit in 21st century Los Angeles was made possible by a cultural giant of the 20th — Ernest Fleischmann…. To say that we stand upon his shoulders is a proven fact. He will be terribly missed."

From 1969 to 1998, Fleischmann brought to bear his love of the classics, his devotion to new music and his adopted city's rich show business history in developing an orchestra that drew concertgoers and increasingly demanded respect.

And while conductors came and went during Fleischmann's time as general manager, there was little doubt among orchestra members or the community at large as to who was running the show.

"He became one of my best friends," architect Frank Gehry, who designed Disney Concert Hall and renovated the Hollywood Bowl stage, told The Times on Monday. "We had a few dustups, and things like that that happened over time — but they weren't cataclysmic things.

"He was very demanding when he got going.… For Disney Hall, this was his dream and I was being entrusted with delivering that dream. He was quite specific on the issues he wanted to address. Besides the acoustics, he talked a lot of the intimacy of the building, he talked about the democracy of the seating so that all the seats were equal. He thought it through and spent a lot of time thinking about it and he wanted it to be special."

Loved and hated — sometimes by the same people — Fleischmann imposed his will by cajoling, shouting at, persuading, charming and intimidating those around him. Even those who questioned or chafed at Fleischmann's stratagems generally conceded that they always were in the service of making the Philharmonic better.

"He transformed a provincial second-rank orchestra into one of the world's best," Times music critic Mark Swed wrote when Fleischmann retired from his post.

Peter Sellars, the noted opera director, told The Times: "He made the Los Angeles Philharmonic not just a cultural ornament but as much a part of the lifeblood of the city as the baseball team is."

When Fleischmann arrived in Los Angeles from London in 1969, Zubin Mehta was midway through his 16-year stint as conductor for the Philharmonic, which had been ensconced in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for five years. Disney Hall was far into the future, and the orchestra's annual budget was barely $5 million.

Fleischmann saw the possibilities in the Philharmonic and went about improving the orchestra on the business and the artistic ends.

A frustrated conductor, Fleischmann loved and understood a wide range of music, and he made sure that it — and the talent required to make it — were the priority. Working with Mehta, whom he considered a brother, Fleischmann helped the orchestra develop a richer repertoire of the classics. Also under Fleischmann, the popular pre-concert lecture series was started, and orchestra tours and recording contracts were added.

Fleischmann brought back to life the Hollywood Bowl, transforming it into one of the city's favorite warm-weather venues and making it an important source of revenue for the Philharmonic. He introduced what would become perhaps the most crowd-pleasing event: fireworks, often to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." The Bowl became so successful that in 1991 it got its own orchestra.

But Fleischmann never let the merely popular dictate programming. He was deeply committed to new music, creating many ways for the orchestra as well as other musical groups to perform it.

In 1981, Fleischmann founded the New Music Group and, as Swed noted, he "refused to let it die, no matter what the budget demanded." The group's Green Umbrella concert series was launched under Fleischmann's guidance in 1987, resulting in dozens of world, U.S. and West Coast premieres.

But his biggest contribution to the Philharmonic must certainly be in the hiring of two post-Mehta conductors: Carlo Maria Giulini, whose time with the Philharmonic burnished its reputation as a world-class symphony, and Salonen, whom Fleischmann identified as a major talent while Salonen was still in his 20s.

Fleischmann was, conductor Pierre Boulez once said, "like an eagle, flying but looking down at the smallest mice," able to see the big picture but also able to spot talent with the canny eye of a promoter and a music lover.

The Italian-born Giulini, considered one of the great conductors of his time, brought depth and sensitivity to Philharmonic performances, particularly works by the old masters. Audiences loved him, and the orchestra's musicians felt privileged to work with him.

"Mehta gave us flash, and Giulini gave us poetry," Martin Bernheimer, the Los Angeles Times' music critic for many years, once said.

To secure Giulini's presence, Fleischmann had to promise that the maestro could conduct without having to fulfill the myriad organizational and social obligations that came with the job as music director but that Giulini abhorred. Fleischmann filled in much of the gap.

But some believed that this gave Fleischmann too much control over the orchestra's artistic and economic matters, leaving conductors to be, as the late music critic Alan Rich once said, mere "stick wavers."

Giulini's time in Los Angeles both in terms of the amount of time he spent each year in the city and his seven-year tenure — was relatively short, ending in 1985. It was followed by Fleischmann's most tempestuous period when he hired as music director Andre Previn, a successful film composer and jazz pianist who had by then turned to serious conducting.

Despite his Hollywood background, Previn was, Swed wrote in 2003, "a consummate musician [who] focused on refinement, not gaudy display." But too often his conducting and musical choices did not excite Philharmonic patrons.

Previn felt that Fleischmann intruded on the decisions that he should be making as music director, and Fleischmann said in 1993 that he felt Previn "had problems in making up his mind."

The coup de grace came when Fleischmann did not consult Previn when he hired Salonen as principal guest conductor and also made a deal with Salonen to take the Philharmonic on a tour of Japan in the summer of 1989. Previn exploded and soon departed.

Fleischmann told The Times in 1996 that one of his greatest disappointments as manager was the failure of his relationship with Previn.

But the Previn period of tension was followed by one of the Philharmonic's longest, most successful eras with Salonen.

Fleischmann first noticed Salonen, then 25, when the young Finn was guest conductor for a performance of Mahler's Third Symphony with the London Symphony Orchestra. After Salonen took the post as music director of the Philharmonic nine years later, he went on to more than fulfill Fleischmann's faith by enhancing and expanding the orchestra's reputation while also infusing it with a youthful flair. The two men appeared to have a good working relationship.

"People confuse Ernest's passion with egomania, but he's more interested in music than himself," Salonen told The Times.

In 2004, Fleischmann and Salonen were jurors for the first Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, a triennial international contest in Germany for young conductors. The winner was Dudamel, a 23-year-old Venezuelan who debuted the next year with the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl and in 2007 was named to succeed Salonen as music director when the Finn stepped down in 2009. Fleischmann told The Times that he ranked Dudamel with Salonen and future Berlin Philharmonic leader Simon Rattle as the three best young conductors he had ever encountered.

Fleischmann had a reputation for being tough on his staff, and there were many stories about fired secretaries or sudden resignations.

Even Fleischmann himself conceded he was "not the greatest diplomat in the world."

He also was famously defensive about his orchestra against all outside critics. He didn't hesitate to challenge the views of Bernheimer, the music critic whose 31-year span at the Los Angeles Times began four years before Fleischmann's arrival. Bernheimer said Fleischmann "tried to get me fired on many occasions" when his reviews weren't positive enough.

"Ernest and I had a very jerky up-and-down relationship — more down than up," said Bernheimer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1982. "He was ruthless, a manipulator, and very smart and very progressive."

Ernest Martin Fleischmann was born Dec. 7, 1924, in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, the son of Gustav and Antonia Fleischmann. The family moved to South Africa when the Nazis rose to power.

Fleischmann earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and in 1954 a music degree from the University of Cape Town.

After conducting and writing music criticism in his teens and 20s, he moved to London, where he managed the London Symphony for eight years, then directed classical musical recordings at CBS records. He was 44 when he took over as manager of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"It was a fortunate time to come here," Fleischmann told Los Angeles Magazine in 1992. "Anyone could have improved things."

Arts writer Barbara Isenberg, who interviewed Fleischmann through the years, said that when she asked him once how he would describe what he did, he said he was responsible for "everything that goes on at the Philharmonic" — raising money; supervising marketing and relationships with volunteers; creating positive relationships with musicians, unions, artists and guest conductors and their managements; and keeping on top of what was happening in the music world with what he called a "critical mind."

"I learned a lot about how to get things done from him," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said Monday. "He was a bridge between the backwater cultural city we once were, to what we are today."

After leaving the Philharmonic in 1998, Fleischmann was the artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival until 2003.

Willem Wijnbergen, Fleischmann's successor, lasted only 15 months in the post and was succeeded by Borda.

Fleischmann is survived by his three children, Stephanie, Martin and Jessica.

Services will be private. A public memorial concert is planned for the fall.

news.obits@latimes.com

Luther is a former Times staff writer.

Times staff writers Reed Johnson, David Ng and Mike Boehm contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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