Willem Wijnbergen, the new managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, brings a contemporary touch to a classical art form.
The shaggy-haired Dutchman relies on a Palm Pilot to keep track of e-mail and appointments, draws grids to explain his marketing approach, and whips out color-coded charts and glossy concept boards to illustrate his dream of a physically and artistically revamped Hollywood Bowl. A pianist and conductor, he also holds a master’s degree in business and arts administration.
Nearing the six-month mark at the Philharmonic, the 39-year-old Wijnbergen acknowledges he feels like a “kid locked in a toy store"--having fun, but occasionally overwhelmed. In April, he moved aside Hollywood Bowl General Manager Anne Parsons (who has since left for a job with the New York City Ballet) to take charge of that operation. Since then, he’s been consumed with Bowl renovations and finalizing plans for Disney Hall, due to open in 2002. On top of that, he’s working on bolstering world music and jazz at the Bowl, consolidating the Philharmonic staff under one roof and making the orchestra relevant to all of L.A.
Wijnbergen finds the Southern California landscape far more diverse than Amsterdam, where he ran the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, starting in 1992. That increases both his “options--and responsibility,” he says. Planting his lanky 6-foot-4 frame behind a desk in his Music Center office, the executive discusses what he’s been up to and what’s yet to come.
Question: How have you been filling your days?
Answer: More than 50% of my time is focused on project management and construction. One moment I’m talking about the fine points of Mahler’s Second, and the next, discussing the installation of new plumbing. I haven’t been as close to the music as I’d like to be; I could become a corporate tiger in no time.
Q: How do you play the corporate game? With the Los Angeles Philharmonic board of directors, for instance, are you a diplomat or a bull in a china shop?
A: I wouldn’t admit to the last one, but it comes damn close. [Board President] Barry Sanders and I have to learn to make sure we’re not turning a corner with the band marching [straight] on. Our chairman, Bob Attiyeh, fortunately, balances this entrepreneurial energy, always looking for consensus.
Q: What kind of orchestra did you inherit?
A: A very flexible one. The Philharmonic plays a vast range of repertoire at a higher level than any other orchestra I know, even performing “Bugs Bunny on Broadway” at the Hollywood Bowl. There they were with headphones and click-tracks with only one rehearsal to pull it off. . . . The Concertgebouw would have hanged me. That doesn’t mean that I think the Philharmonic should be doing this, however. I’d like to see them challenge the best European bands--Vienna, Berlin, Concertgebouw. They’re almost there, but there’s room to grow if they focus exclusively on it.
Q: Would that mean eliminating all Philharmonic pops performances?
A: Artists should do what they do best. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra is the specialist in pops--high-quality music that’s not intimidating and makes people feel good. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be doing classics--but only on a limited basis.
Q: You’re mapping out the next Hollywood Bowl season now--what can we expect?
A: Our priorities are world music and jazz. And we want them under our umbrella rather than contracting them out as we did in the past. I’ve hired Tom Schnabel of KCRW’s “Cafe L.A.” to put together world music concerts and John Clayton--whose Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra will become the house [jazz] band of the Hollywood Bowl--will play a very important part in next year’s jazz [offerings]. To introduce the program, we’ll take it into the neighborhoods--maybe this winter.
Q: This, I assume, is an effort to increase ticket sales and bring in a broader mix.
A: The Hollywood Bowl--whose profits subsidize the rest of the Philharmonic operation--is doing pretty well. [But] unless the Philharmonic as a whole becomes important to the many distinct communities in L.A., we’ll be floating on a very small cushion. We need to target concerts [at the Bowl and the Music Center] for specific audiences if we want to survive beyond the next 50 years.
I’ve been talking with various ethnic groups to find the barriers that exist. [County] Supervisor Gloria Molina has set up meetings in the Latino community which, as the largest group, is my focus. We just put together a lunch at the office of [Disney Hall architect] Frank Gehry at which people spoke their minds. If they get involved in the fund-raising for the proposed plaza amphitheater, say, they might identify more with Disney Hall instead of regarding it as a rich white people’s thing.
Q: Your vision of a new Hollywood Bowl is far from a fait accompli--subject to budgets, building codes, official approval. If things go your way, though, what do you foresee?
A: I’m going for a unified Streamline Moderne style that would restore the Bowl to the glamour years of Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s. We’re working with public officials and the architects Hodgetts and Fung to come up with a total concept. We may build an elliptical shell modeled on the one Lloyd Wright designed in 1928. We have about $15 million funded by Prop. A [in 1992], but we might have to raise more money.
Q: You’re currently in negotiations with John Mauceri, whose contract as principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra expires this summer.
A: We’re both considering continuity. The issue is programming. Weekend concerts have been his area of expertise and we have to see if his vision matches up with our idea of the total landscape. Right now, we’re playing tennis together, figuratively, that is.
Q: One of your first moves was to redefine Anne Parsons’ job at the Hollywood Bowl, so you could take over the reins.
A: I had to do what I had to do. Regardless of who was in that position, the Hollywood Bowl operation needed a new pair of eyes. You can’t have different visions getting in each other’s way. I [asked] her to focus completely on the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, but that wasn’t what she had in mind.
Q: I hear you’re looking for a new home for the Philharmonic staff since the Disney Hall space can’t accommodate all of your employees.
A: Our 150 staff members are now spread out over seven different locations, and I literally can’t find our marketing department. To increase the responsiveness of our organization, we need to bring different parts of the family together. Synergy happens in an informal way--around coffee machines instead of at structured meetings. We’re checking out older--more affordable--sections of downtown as well as areas of Hollywood near the Bowl.
Q: Your predecessor Ernest Fleischmann vowed to get out of your way. Did he make good on that promise?
A: He did--graciously. He’s now a consultant looking at programming options for Disney Hall. I try ideas out on him to see if they hold up. Both of us like give-and-take . . . and we can handle each other, let’s put it that way.
Q: How have you been able to put your stamp on Philharmonic programming--outside the Bowl?
A: Not much. It’s almost a done deal since it is planned at least two years ahead.
Q: Is the Filmharmonic series--in which filmmakers and composers are teamed up to produce original pieces--on track?
A: We’ve learned that the dynamics of the film industry are very different from those of the Philharmonic. One project scheduled for October, by director Renny Harlin, got sidetracked because the guy has to make a movie somewhere else--and I understand that. Instead, we’ll present a new project at which the orchestra will play [works by] Sibelius selected by Peter Sellars--to Victor Seastrom’s classic silent film “The Wind,” starring Lillian Gish. We’re stretching the concept a bit but as long as there’s artistic interaction between the two media, why should we be rigid?
Q: Esa-Pekka Salonen will be taking a sabbatical in the year 2000 to compose an opera. How will that affect things?
A: Esa-Pekka is the artistic conscience of the Philharmonic. He’s the boss of the orchestra and they have a different discipline when he’s there. Though he [probably] won’t be available for performances, we can get together to discuss the future of classical music in L.A. [Taking time off] will give him more creative energy that I plan to tap into . . . and I know where he lives.
Q: You’ve been vocal about your love affair with Los Angeles. Any downside so far?
A: Talking on the phone while driving. How many times have I nearly killed myself? In Amsterdam, I had a limo with a driver and I was really looking forward to driving again. Now I see stop signs, red lights, but it doesn’t register. I’m surprised I’m not already in jail.