Commentary: What does a post-Plácido Domingo future look like for L.A. Opera and the L.A. Phil?
Has the Music Center lost its moxie?
The short answer is no. Not by a long shot, however much it may seem that way.
Out of the blue on Monday, the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that Simon Woods, one of the most highly admired and personally liked administrators in the business, had tendered his immediate resignation leading the world’s leading orchestra. Across the street, Los Angeles Opera is in turmoil too, with its general manager, Plácido Domingo, under investigation over allegations of sexual misconduct. No matter how that investigation plays out, or how much a fan base remains devoted to the world’s most popular opera star, Domingo seems to have little hope of remaining at the company he helped found 35 years ago and has been identified with ever since.
None of this looks good on the surface. But poke a level deeper and what you find are two companies with exceptionally strong No. 2s, trailblazers in their own right who have already proved themselves indispensable in making the L.A. Phil and L.A. Opera what they are today. While there can be only speculation that Chad Smith, L.A. Phil’s chief operating officer, and Christopher Koelsch, L.A. Opera’s president and chief executive, will be become the new heads, they are the obvious candidates. They are visionary stars of the next generation of administrators. And even if they wind up remaining where they are, playing the essential roles in which they’ve long proved themselves, their presence will be an assurance that the institutional crises can be as capably healed as a bone fracture on a star athlete.
As to what’s really going on behind the scenes, both companies have powerful boards that know how to keep members’ mouths sealed. I offer no dish. For that, go to your favorite chatty blogs or egregious social media outlets and believe whatever fake news you like.
What we do know, and what can be fairly easily surmised between the lines, is this. A number of female singers have accused Domingo of uninvited kissing, fondling and persistent propositioning at L.A. Opera and elsewhere. Most of the accusers so far remain anonymous, fearing reprisals. In hiring Debra Wang Yang to lead the investigation, savvy L.A. Opera has found a controversial counsel who all but assures Domingo’s exit.
If Yang finds the accusations credible, Domingo’s out, no questions asked. If she can’t find evidence of actions that allegedly occurred years ago, there would be inevitable complaints of bias from an investigator who let Chris Christie off the “Bridgegate” hook, and the calls for Domingo’s departure would continue. Complicating the Yang investigation further is inappropriate pressure from the Metropolitan Opera to wind it up quickly. Domingo is in rehearsals to star in Verdi’s “Macbeth” in New York next week, and the Met says it will wait for results from the L.A. Opera investigation before it takes any action.
Beyond the Met, there is so little faith in the Yang report that the American Guild of Musical Artists has begun its own independent investigation of Domingo. At this point, L.A. Opera’s best option has to be to rebrand for new era.
The L.A. Phil situation is entirely different. Woods, who did a wonderful job turning around a dysfunctional Seattle Symphony, was a very strong candidate to follow Deborah Borda. She had powered the orchestra into becoming the international model of a progressive modern arts institution, where saying no to the boldest and most idealistic proposals is not an option. She was more than a hard act to follow; she was an all-but-impossible one, especially for someone from the outside.
In his year and a half at the L.A. Phil, Woods accomplished much, including filling in some gaps that Borda left. He has a background in recording, and the L.A. Phil had languished in capitalizing on the prominence of Gustavo Dudamel and documenting the orchestra’s remarkable success of creating a new repertory. Woods’ first season was the historic centennial blowout. Not enough of it got recorded (“Atlas,” alas), but Woods did have the mikes out a lot more than they had been in the past. Andrew Norman’s sensational “Sustain,” which helped open the season, has just been released as a Deutsche Grammophon download. Fine if you want to stop reading and hunt it down and listen this minute. You should never wait to have your mind blown. Much more is said to be in the can.
My own memories of Woods, who trained as a conductor, were of highly enjoyable conversations about music, which he loved talking about much more than the music business, and seeing his unmistakable delight, the huge smile on his face, at Dudamel’s performances. He never seemed able to get enough of his music director, and often flew to wherever Dudamel conducted.
Woods also championed YOLA, Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, and community outreach as essential to the L.A. Phil. He was, as far as I could surmise, very well liked wherever he went. He’s British. He knows how to say the right thing in the right tone.
But I also take at face value the statement Monday from Borda, who had no part in selecting her successor. He was the wrong fit.
Over almost the entirety of the last seven decades, the L.A. Phil was run by three larger-than-life figures. Dorothy Buffum Chandler did the impossible building the Music Center. Ernest Fleischmann, whose middle name should have been Visionary, did the impossible getting Walt Disney Concert Hall going. Borda did the impossible turning the L.A. Phil into the phenomenon it is today.
Woods aimed for the possible, a blessing at any other orchestra. But the L.A. Phil has so grand a mission that it throws caution to the wind (although Borda’s secret weapon was always her underlying fiscal pragmatism). It demands not just vision but vision so vast that it would swallow any other arts organization in our institutionally cautious country.
What makes Koelsch and Smith uniquely capable of taking their respective companies to the next level is that they developed over the last two decades at them. Smith, for instance, has long been an artistic engineer helping to drive the L.A. Phil, empowered by Borda and her fundraising brilliance.
Koelsch’s position has been trickier, a balancing act between his own imaginative ideas and Domingo’s more conventional ones. That imbalance is especially clear in the company’s new production of Barrie Kosky’s “La Bohème” that opened its season Saturday with one foot in the future and one stuck in the past, the Domingo-championed young singers incapable of conveying the modern theater that the production promised.
It is up to the boards to determine whether Koelsch and Smith are really the right guys to run these complex operations. But Koelsch and Smith know far better than anyone what belongs on those stages and how to make it happen. As long as they’re around, they can be trusted to make the future possible.
That, though, leaves REDCAT, where earlier this year Mark Murphy left abruptly, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, where earlier this year Scott Harrison left abruptly. Both are managers with imagination and ambition. Murphy made REDCAT what it is. Harrison had begun making LACO hip. Here, we are faced with circumstances so opaque — no one is talking — as to be truly troubling in the moxie department.
This fall’s classical music highlights include Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Porgy and Bess” and the L.A. Phil’s birthday gala.
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