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Entertainment & Arts

L.A. Phil cancels rest of its season; Hollywood Bowl prospects uncertain

Gustavo Dudamel, music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, music and artistic director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic canceled the remainder of its 2019-20 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday, announcing layoffs and pay cuts as part of a money-saving response to its extended coronavirus-related closure.

The L.A. Phil’s music and artistic director, Gustavo Dudamel, will take no compensation during the cancellation period, the orchestra said. Payroll reductions of 35% in the aggregate will include the layoffs of 94 part-time employees and pay cuts of more than 35% for the leadership team, the orchestra said. Orchestra members will receive 65% of their weekly minimum scale beginning April 20.

All 101 full-time orchestra members and 174 full-time administrative staff will retain their health benefits.

“It’s an impossible situation,” Chief Executive Chad Smith said in an interview shortly after announcing the plan to staff in a digital meeting. “We’re an institution that brings large groups of people together to experience music communally. That’s our entire reason for being, and in this time that’s exactly what we can’t do.”

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The news comes almost a month after the L.A. Phil canceled concerts through May 10 and as coronavirus cases in Los Angeles County passed 7,500 and deaths neared 200. The orchestra emphasized it had kept all wages in place since the initial closure of Disney Hall on March 12, but that it was moving now to ensure the long-term financial health of the organization.

Seven national grant-making groups have banded together to launch the Artist Relief Fund, which will provide $5,000 payments to artists in dire need.

The fate of the summer season of the Hollywood Bowl, which the L.A. Phil manages, remains up in the air, Smith said in the announcement.

“We’re hopeful that there will be all or some of our Hollywood Bowl season, but tours are being canceled and artists are canceling too,” Smith said. “We’re re-modeling it every day.”

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At Disney Hall, among the highly anticipated concerts going dark are Zack Winokur’s new production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” which was to be the orchestra’s major theatrical production of the season. With Dudamel conducting, it was to be a highlight of Sondheim 90th birthday festivities around the world.

Also lost will be Dudamel’s first go at Schoenberg’s massive “Gurrelieder,” which was to feature orchestra, chorus, narrator and soloists; two marquee L.A. Phil co-commissions, Kaija Saariaho’s “Vista” and the collaboration between composer Steve Reich and painter Gerhard Richter, “Reich/Richter”; and Andrew Norman’s piano concerto, “Suspend,” featuring Emanuel Ax.

Smith said there’s no way to accurately calculate the magnitude of the financial losses that the organization will incur because of the unprecedented closure. The loss of ticket revenue from Disney Hall alone is somewhere between $9 million and $10 million, he said.

This is usually the busiest time of year for sales, Smith said, as the organization would normally be selling subscriptions to the Bowl as well as for the 2020-21 season at Disney Hall.

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Smith compared the financial health of any arts organization to a three-legged stool consisting of ticket revenue, endowment and donations. Ticket revenue is the normally the largest source of income for the L.A. Phil. Its endowment, like those of most arts organizations during the crisis, is fluctuating alongside the stock market. That leaves philanthropy as a beacon of light.

“We know there isn’t going to be one solution. We know it will be series of solutions that get us to the other side, and philanthropy is a big part of that,” Smith said. “We are so blessed with some of the most generous people anywhere, and we are already hearing people asking, ‘What can we do?’”

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Smith said the hardest decision was cutting wages and laying off staff members. Part-time staff members across all departments lost their jobs, including 24 who worked in box office and audience services.

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A core group of teaching artists and part-time support staff will continue the work of Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, with instruction conducted remotely, Smith said.

“The critical work they do has to continue,” Smith said of YOLA staff’s involvement with kids. “There’s a lot of the work those teaching artists are doing remotely to stay in touch with the kids and to keep music a part of their lives.”

The L.A. Phil announcement follows the March 30 move by fellow Music Center resident company Center Theatre Group, which suspended all shows through summer and furloughed about half of its staff. Across the street from Disney, the Museum of Contemporary Art laid off all of its part-time employees and had to furlough or cut pay for all staff except for four security personnel. About two weeks ago the New York Philharmonic canceled the rest of its season.

Times music critic Mark Swed contributed to this report.

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