Ernest Fleischmann | 1984

Los Angeles Philharmonic Executive Director Ernest Fleischmann at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Los Angeles Times)

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.