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L.A. Phil chief Chad Smith makes a surprise move to Boston

Chad Smith stands against the silver walls of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Chad Smith, chief executive of the L.A. Phil, photographed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)
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The Boston Symphony made the surprise announcement Monday that this fall its next president and chief executive will be current Los Angeles Philharmonic CEO Chad Smith.

In his two decades at the L.A. Phil, of which he became CEO in October 2019, Smith has played an outsize role in the progressive ambition of the orchestra, which now has the largest budget, the broadest range of musical and educational activities and the most extensive community engagement of any orchestra in the world.

“He opened my eyes to new music,” Gustavo Dudamel said in a phone call from Berlin, as he was about to go onstage and conduct the Berlin Philharmonic in “Téenek — Invenciones de Territorio,” a work by Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz that was commissioned by the L.A. Phil and premiered by Dudamel in 2017.

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“I was not a teenager when I began at the L.A. Phil,” Dudamel said of becoming the orchestra’s music director in 2009 at age 27, “but musically I was a teenager, very young. Chad gave me the possibility to grow up inventively.”

Smith leaves at the height of his career and when the L.A. Phil is in the best shape of its 104-year history. While many other American orchestras are struggling to come fully back from pandemic shutdowns, the L.A. Phil, which lost more than $100 million in projected income, has brought audiences back to Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Thomas Beckmen, the orchestra’s board chairman, said the L.A. Phil will be ending the year with record sales and income of $160 million. Artistically as well, the L.A. Phil is an international leader; no orchestra is more influential.

Smith, whose relatively short time as CEO was dominated by pandemic crisis management, said he was full of mixed emotions.

“I love the music we make in every way,” he said, “in how we are advancing the art form and how we get to more appreciate it. My favorite days are those sitting down and talking with Gustavo and with composers.”

But Smith also noted that the orchestra is “super healthy, in amazing shape, and thrives in times of change while always retaining that thing that is the L.A. Phil.” Meanwhile, at 51, Smith said he was ready for a new challenge. Boston is where his musical roots are, having graduated from New England Conservatory of music and spent many Fridays attending Boston Symphony concerts at nearby Symphony Hall, arguably the best concert hall in America until Disney Hall opened in 2003.

Gustavo Dudamel is set to leave the L.A. Phil at the end of his contract in 2026, when he will then take top post at the New York Philharmonic.

Feb. 7, 2023

Like the L.A. Phil, the BSO has a broad range of activities and a legendary summer home, Tanglewood, in the Berkshires. The orchestra has a full concert season there as well as a prestigious teaching program, where Leonard Bernstein famously got his professional start — and so did Smith, who was a vocalist. There he met Michael Tilson Thomas, who brought him to the New World Symphony in Miami and then the San Francisco Symphony.

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Shortly after Deborah Borda became head of the L.A. Phil in 2000, she hired Smith to run the orchestra’s new-music Green Umbrella series. He worked with her for most of her 17 years at the L.A. (with a brief break Smith calls a hiccup at the New York Philharmonic). He helped to open Disney Hall and worked closely with Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen to expand the orchestra’s musical profile and then with Dudamel in a multifaceted directorship that has included an enormous commitment to education through Dudamel’s YOLA program, the Frank Gehry-designed Beckmen YOLA Center in Inglewood and the Ford amphiheater, which serves as yet another venue.

“I’m sure it makes L.A. uncomfortable,” Borda said of Smith’s departure. “He’s a great manager. He guided the L.A. Phil through the pandemic, diversified the board, kept its creative spirit alive. But there comes a time when you feel a need of a challenge.

“After 17 years in L.A., as much as I loved it, I felt that need,” she said of leaving her job as the orchestra’s president and CEO to move to the New York Philharmonic, where she has given new life to a then-struggling orchestra.

What it means for Los Angeles and New York for Gustavo Dudamel to become head of the New York Philharmonic in 2026.

Feb. 8, 2023

The BSO, a storied American orchestra, has a popular music director in Andris Nelsons, but the orchestra has struggled for a long time to maintain a strong artistic profile and to regain its former vibrancy as a cultural institution in a city that is culturally conservative but also youth-oriented and full of digital startups. The BSO, which also includes the fabled Boston Pops, hired another former L.A. Phil executive, Gail Samuel, in June 2021. But the dynamic didn’t work, and she resigned at the end of last year.

In Smith the BSO is getting the top orchestral manager of his generation. Stravinsky once said that 50 is the age for a new career. Salonen left the L.A. Phil around 50. Borda left the New York Philharmonic to come to L.A. around 50. “It’s an age where you feel like you have accrued technique and knowledge,” she said. “You are filled with energy. And if you’ve had success, you begin to think, ‘What can I do to make a difference?’ It seems for Chad like a natural and organic change.”

Tom Morris, former head of the Ojai Music Festival and the Cleveland Orchestra, led the Boston Symphony between 1969 and 1985, when Seiji Ozawa was music director and during one of the orchestra’s periods of creative vibrancy. He’s not surprised by Smith’s hiring.

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“The orchestra needs someone with artistic chops, and that is what he brings to the table,” Morris said. “He is the way of the future.

“It is good for Boston. It is good for L.A. And it makes me very happy.”

Keith Haring’s first-ever L.A. museum survey, Sondheim celebrations, a groundbreaking Chicanx art show, intriguing Ojai Music Festival offerings and plenty more to check out this summer.

May 9, 2023

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