An appreciation: Ernest Fleischmann


None who care about the cultural life of Los Angeles need Oscar Wilde to tell us about the importance of being Ernest. Ernest Fleischmann, who died Sunday night at 85 after a long, debilitating illness, is well known for having put the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the map during his 29 years running the orchestra.

He promoted the L.A. Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta to counter- and mass culture. He employed his remarkable powers of persuasion to persuade the revered Italian maestro Carlo Giulini to sign on with the Philharmonic and give L.A. Old World class. He provided Pierre Boulez with an important American base when the Modernist French composer and conductor proved too radical for the New York Philharmonic. He saved the Hollywood Bowl and turned it into the phenomenon (and cash cow) it is today.

He envisioned, fought for and built Walt Disney Concert Hall. He pioneered a new music series for symphony orchestras. He also pioneered the now internationally ubiquitous pre-concert talks. He was the greatest talent scout in the business, among the first to recognize, champion and empower James Levine, Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel.

Fleischmann was described as a visionary so often that you might have thought it was his first name. There were other adjectives occasionally attached to his name that he may have deserved from time to time, but they are not for a family newspaper.

Never shy about telling people what he was up to in his deep, intimidating voice, never hesitating to exploit his impressive South African English accent and natural eloquence, Fleischmann could bully when he felt he needed to. His nose for talent wasn’t infallible. He passed up David Robertson when he encountered the budding young maestro as a senior at Santa Monica High School. He made life miserable for André Previn and Michael Tilson Thomas. He may have turned the Bowl into picnic central, but it was no picnic working for him.

Still, no one can deny he was a force of nature. His regular reinventions of the orchestra extended to arts institutions in general and influenced even the arts themselves. He was an Olympian and intellectual with a common touch and a social conscience, and that is ultimately what made him great.

Last weekend, Sellars told me that when he was a struggling 23-year-old in Cambridge, Fleischmann flew to Boston simply to see if the young theater artist was someone worth cultivating. A few years later, Sellars was appointed director of the 1990 Los Angeles Festival, but he had no salary. Fleischmann quietly put him on a philharmonic retainer as an advisor, which allowed Sellars to actually produce a festival that had nothing to do with the orchestra. It was always, for Fleischmann, the big picture.

In the end, Fleischmann’s grandeur, his advocacy of youth and new ideas and his sense of community were all meant as ways of reaching people. Believing in the power of music to improve lives, he extended the philharmonic’s reach to an unprecedented degree.

He took the orchestra to the people, presenting free concerts in black, Asian and Latino neighborhoods and to UCLA for an anti- Vietnam War rally (what better way to get students in the ‘70s interested in classical music?). He also made education the business of a symphony orchestra, fostering youth programs and, in the ‘80s, starting a major summer training orchestra under Leonard Bernstein.

Mehta was hooked up with Frank Zappa and George Lucas thanks to Fleischmann’s restless quest for relevance. When Robert Wilson’s “the CIVIL warS” fell through at the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984, Fleischmann had Wilson create lighting for a concert-performance of a Philip Glass segment of the epic project. Meanwhile, opera lovers in L.A. have Fleischmann to thank for mounting Verdi’s “Falstaff” with Giulini in 1982, proving that homegrown opera of international importance could be staged in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Fleischmann saw the Bowl as the ultimate venue for luring the masses (and balancing the budget) and hence came his brilliant inspiration for the fireworks and society-grade picnicking. But he also went beyond pandering, using the amphitheater as a place to try out young talent. He produced all kinds of events, such as Mozart and new music marathon concerts. He turned it over, now and then, to Sellars as a very big playground in which to experiment.

There were many other artists Fleischmann believed in, such as Frank Gehry, whom he hired to renovate the Bowl stage. An architecture competition was held for Disney Hall, and Gehry’s entry was the most radical, controversial and seemingly impractical. Fleischmann, however, did whatever was necessary to insure that the building would be not only a signature structure for Los Angeles but would actually, against significant odds, get built.

When I began at The Times in 1996, everyone I spoke to said that Disney Hall, already years behind schedule, was moribund. Everyone, that is, except Fleischmann. He refused to give up on his fantasy of a living room for downtown, the most exciting place in the country to hear music and a new symbol for the city, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the music it made, in the very center of consciousness.

A joke was once told in the orchestra circles about how the Boston Symphony was known for its first-chair players, the Chicago for its brass, Philadelphia for its string sound — and L.A. for its management. The only thing is, this was no joke. Fleischmann made management an art and used art to transform a city.