Tuesday was an important day for Willem Wijnbergen. He had just arrived in town, after having been named the new managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sunday. He met the staff he will inherit when he begins his tenure here on March 1. He heard the orchestra, which rehearsed that morning, for the first time live. And he told us how to pronounce his name: VIL-em VINE-ber-gun, but not quite--the “g” is a Dutch guttural--not that he is bothered by the substitution of an American pronunciation.
The 6-foot-5-inch, 39-year-old Dutchman, who has been managing director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam for five years, succeeds Ernest Fleischmann, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s legendary managing director since 1969. Wijnbergen professes to adapt easily and finds America very attractive. He is leaving one of the world’s most admired orchestras for just one reason: “It is a different place, and that’s why I’m doing it,” he says.
Wijnbergen makes a strong first impression. He establishes eye contact like a locked-in smart bomb. He speaks smooth, articulate, idiomatic English with only a trace of an accent. He’s a smart dresser; his dark sport coat is a radical four-button style. He wears multiple watches, one on each wrist and as cuff links. He is personable and has a sense of humor, despite the fact that he still has had no lunch by midafternoon when he talks with The Times in the Philharmonic’s executive offices.
His resume would be unique if it weren’t so similar to Fleischmann’s. Like Fleischmann, Wijnbergen has a background in both music and business. In 1988 he gave up a post as an assistant conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic and an active career as a pianist to get an MBA at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“I wanted to have a sabbatical because I started very young as a musician,” he explains. “My father, who was an architect, conducted four or five amateur orchestras at night, as a hobby. So he would drag me and my brothers along to play in those. I played percussion, saxophone, cello, whatever was needed.”
Wijnbergen entered the conservatory in his native Groningen to study piano and conducting, and upon graduation became assistant to American conductor James Conlon at Rotterdam. “But I was doing too much,” he admits. “I was performing as a soloist and as an orchestra musician. I was doing the library work and involved in recordings. I wanted to take a year to study something else, and I landed in Dallas.
“I knew nothing about business, but I found out I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed marketing. I enjoyed entrepreneurial things, especially finance.”
So instead of returning to music, Wijnbergen returned to Rotterdam to sell soap, literally, as a brand manager for Procter & Gamble. He loved it.
“In terms of the micro stuff of marketing it was very competitive and very exciting. You would forget after awhile about the fact that you are dealing with a laundry detergent. Instead, all you’re looking at is a $200-million business and you are competing against all these other guys also running a business.”
Music went by the wayside, with a small but important exception. The week Wijnbergen returned to Holland to begin his new job, he got a phone call from the Rotterdam Philharmonic asking him to fill in for a suddenly disposed orchestra pianist in Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.” “I hadn’t touched the keys in two years,” Wijnbergen contends, but he agreed anyway.
“I was really surprised but I played better than ever and enjoyed it,” he recalls. “It was strange, strange, strange.”
But after that Wijnbergen immersed himself in his job and in his young family (his wife and four children) until a call for help came from the Concertgebouw in 1992.
The orchestra had deep financial woes, and there he was, a businessman, a musician and an outsider, someone who could afford to take action, who owed no constituency. In fact, he had never heard the orchestra live, an extraordinary situation for a Dutch conductor.
“It was a bit of a rebellious thing,” he explains. “I grew up with regional orchestras and I loved the Rotterdam Philharmonic when I got there. I loved their spirit of fighting for their position versus the Concertgebouw, which was considered to be that elite, arrogant group down there in Amsterdam that stole all the good musicians from the rest of Holland.”
In the end, saving the tradition he had once disdained was an irresistible challenge. The Concertgebouw had had its government subsidy cut from 100% to 50% a decade earlier and had never recovered from that. “It didn’t adapt,” Wijnbergen explains, “and the deficit started accumulating, reaching $3 million. When I came in there were no financial systems, there was no marketing or fund-raising.”
Wijnbergen says he applied marketing techniques to the orchestra, a new concept at the Concertgebouw. He established a new image for an orchestra that had always had a stuffy one. It wasn’t easy. There was, for instance, huge resistance for his plan to hold outdoor concerts in a nearby park.
“The Concertgebouw is not a great orchestra for doing those kinds of things,” he recalls. “I almost had to kick them physically on stage to do it. But when they did, they liked it. If you are a musician you simply cannot resist having 50,000 people cheering you.”
Still, Wijnbergen says, the Concertgebouw would absorb only so much innovation, especially once its finances were in order. “We worked hard restructuring, and we had some luck, and met our goals for 2000 already this year.” He claims that there is now a healthy surplus, and that means there is nothing very interesting left for him to do there.
Not so in Los Angeles. Disney Hall still has at least a $50-million deficit, and the orchestra has hopes of setting up an endowment. “It won’t be easy, I have no illusions about that. But that doesn’t matter. We’ll make it a priority, and it will happen. If it’s only money, then we’ll get it somehow.”
In any case, the new hall, Wijnbergen says, was as good as guaranteed him by the board, and he is already impatient to start making plans for it.
“You have to set [an opening] date,” he insists. “You have to book all the things that will go in there. And you have to do it now!”
And there is also, for Wijnbergen, the hope that Los Angeles will be the kind of place in which he can be really innovative. He wants to try all kinds of things. Although he won’t get specific, he talks of new marketing strategies and special projects, perhaps including Esa-Pekka Salonen/Peter Sellars collaborations like the ones that make news in Europe. In Amsterdam, he brought visual artists, dance and opera and theater groups to the Concertgebouw, and he thinks Los Angeles a perfect place for that kind of thinking.
But, he admits, L.A. is still unknown territory. Wijnbergen’s interview with the Philharmonic board in July was his first visit here. When reached in Amsterdam last week to comment on his appointment, he told The Times that he was looking forward to moving into “a fabulous old house” in Echo Park. He meant Hancock Park, but it was 3 o’clock in the morning his time.
And equally unknown is his relationship to Fleischmann, who will continue on for at least two more years as a consultant. (The Philharmonic will not reveal the length of Wijnbergen’s initial contract.)
“I only knew about him from people telling war stories,” Wijnbergen says, “but now that I’m getting to spend time with him, I must say I like him a lot. I very much like his taste, his wit, his sharp analytical skills. I’m not worried about this consultant thing, I’m thrilled!
“We’re like two of kind.”