Big Shoes to Phil : L.A. Philharmonic executive Ernest Fleischmann will be a tough act to follow

Big Shoes to Phil : L.A. Philharmonic executive Ernest Fleischmann will be a tough act to follow
Ernest Fleischmann (Paul Morse)

Orchestra managers come, and orchestra managers go. And their coming and going, unlike that of the music director who conducts the orchestra and is its public figure, is rarely of much interest to the public at large. Most music lovers in most cities probably don't even know who runs their orchestra.

But Ernest Fleischmann is different. Not only did the announcement of his forthcoming retirement in June 1997 as managing director and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic make front-page news, but it has also proved an irresistible topic of gossip throughout the national and international musical community. It was, for instance, table talk at a recent press luncheon given by the New York Philharmonic to announce its new season.

Anything but a behind-the-scenes functionary, Fleischmann has been an inescapable spokesman and symbol for the Los Angeles Philharmonic--indeed he is the only really well-known manager of an American orchestra. So questions not just of replacement but also of significance are already being asked, questions about what Fleischmann's retirement will mean for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and what the orchestra wants and needs for its future.

"Ernest is a beacon for the whole American orchestra community," contends Joseph Horowitz, executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. "And the future of the Los Angeles Philharmonic will have an impact not only locally but nationally."

That assertion is based on Fleischmann's artistic vision as revealed during his 27 years with the Philharmonic.

"These are perilous times for orchestras," Horowitz says. "There are a lot of pressures, pressures to innovate and to transform. And that can be accomplished in two ways. It can be done cynically or expediently, which is the norm. Or it can be powered by artistic vision, which is the exception. To my knowledge, of the major orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Ernest has the most ambitious and interesting programs."

Consequently, if the Philharmonic board chooses to follow the cynical and expedient method, Horowitz says, he believes it will signal to the orchestral world in general that the vision thing does not work, with dire consequences for musical visionaries everywhere.

Fleischmann's successor will be selected by a search committee composed of four board members, three orchestra musicians, Fleischmann and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Though yet to meet, it has a pressing first order of business, says Joseph Labonte, the Philharmonic's chairman of the board: to create a specific job description.

But the official word is that those visionaries have nothing to fear. Labonte confirms that the Philharmonic still wants to have, like Fleischmann, a risk taker with a willingness to experiment and to embrace multiple points of views. The board, he says, wants exactly what it has long had in Fleischmann, or as close to that as possible.

"We're looking for someone who will measure up to Ernest," board President Robert Attiyeh says. "And if we find three-quarters of that, we'll be very happy. I'd be very happy to duplicate three-quarters of Ernest and fill in the gaps some other way, rather than go in a different direction. The present model works."

Not everyone, however, feels quite so sanguine. Betty Freeman, a prominent arts patron who has long collaborated with Fleischmann on some of the orchestra's more venturesome programming through her commissioning of new works and financial support, resigned from the board two years ago over differences on Disney Hall. She now worries about the Philharmonic's future.

"I have nothing but compliments for what Ernest has done," she says. "The word isn't even 'improved.' He brought the Los Angeles Philharmonic to a world-class standard, and occasionally the programming has been innovative and brilliant.

"But the future for the Philharmonic looks bleak financially," she says, referring to last year's $1-million deficit and the increased difficulty in generating community support.

Freeman's greatest concern is that the board will want to replace Fleischmann with someone who will lower standards in the hopes of attracting conservative audiences.

"We should go the other direction," she asserts, agreeing with Horowitz, who says that this is not the time for Band-Aid solutions. "We need a brilliant manager who can bring programming into the late 20th century," she says.

The 71-year-old Fleischmann is unique among managing directors (sometimes called executive directors, as Fleischmann was before he was made a vice president) in his qualifications. He was born in Germany and raised in South Africa and had training as a musician and in accounting. He had a brief career as a conductor, critic and festival organizer before moving to London, where he ran a major classical record label and became the manager of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Peter Rofe, a bass player with the Philharmonic since 1986 and the chairman of the orchestra committee, praises Fleischmann's management for having had unusually harmonious relations with the orchestra musicians.

Rofe notes that while it is to the players' advantage to have at the helm a musician who understands their needs, "you also need somebody who has a very keen business sense, and very few musicians have a very keen business sense."

Fleischmann himself emphasizes just how important both musical passion and genuine business acumen are for the job: "Everybody knows what's happening in the arts funding in this country," he says. "Los Angeles has never had the funding basis that older cities like New York, Boston, Cleveland or Chicago have. We still don't have a substantial endowment fund, and the entertainment industry is totally tuned out. All of this makes for an uphill battle."

But not only is it unlikely that the Philharmonic can find a candidate with Fleischmann's combination of qualifications, but it is also a question of just how much the Philharmonic should need or want that. Times now are very different from when Fleischmann arrived, when Zubin Mehta was music director. It was the moment for the orchestra to reinvent itself. It was the late '60s and a time when there was a great belief in almost unlimited possibilities.

Fleischmann was the first professional brought in to run the Philharmonic. He marketed the orchestra in an aggressive way new then to classical music. And he insists to this day that however controversial some of his marketing schemes have been through the years, marketing remains a crucial component of the job.

He instituted gimmickry and innovation in equal measure. He revitalized the Hollywood Bowl and turned it into the cash cow that now makes it indispensable in financing the orchestra. He set the artistic direction of the orchestra, first through his influence with Mehta and later in the appointments of Carlo Maria Giulini, Andre Previn and Esa-Pekka Salonen as music directors.

While doing all this, however, he also acted with imperiousness. When he felt that conductors had overstepped his bounds, Fleischmann ceased to hire them or, as in the case of Previn, got rid of them. Fleischmann spent lots of money and made lots of enemies.

But clearly, no matter whom the Philharmonic now hires, the balance of power will change.

In Salonen, Fleischmann has a music director with particularly strong artistic and progressive ideas about the orchestra. And both men have regularly made the point of just how much they are in accord. But there are inevitable generational differences. Salonen is 37, and his career is still very much in international ascent, whereas Fleischmann, vigorous though he remains, has long been at the top of the heap.

Board Chairman Labonte, moreover, spells out the future division of power a little more clearly than it has been in the porous past.

"The person who sets the direction for the orchestra is the music director, and that's where the orchestra will go," he asserts. "We just renewed [Salonen's] contract for six years, and we will have a new managing director who is simpatico with the music director. I'm expecting we will have a strong managing director who will impact on the music director, but at the end of the day each knows his specific role. Esa-Pekka sets the artistic goal, and the managing director is there to manage."

Fleischmann agrees, saying that one of the roles of the managing director is "to make it possible for the music director to realize his full potential--and if that costs a lot of money, it's the job for the managing director to find the money."

Nonetheless, a new managing director will come to town at a time of possibilities--but possibilities quite different from the ones Fleischmann found 27 years ago, when the orchestra was practically like clay to be molded in his hands.

For just that reason, Ara Guzelimian, former orchestra manager of the Philharmonic and now artistic administrator of the Aspen Festival and director of the Ojai Festival, argues that the orchestra needs a strong managing director. He praises Fleischmann for "his absolutely unquenchable passion for music," adding: "I think they need to find somebody with the same driving passion, that same kind of advocacy of music for the community."

There are, of course, perils along with the possibilities in Los Angeles. Fleischmann emphasizes just how much the orchestra has accomplished and particularly how well it is regarded these days under Salonen. But much of the orchestra's future is pinned upon the building of a new concert hall, and the struggle to get Disney Hall built continues, with $150 million still to be raised. The first third of that sum needs to be reached by the time Fleischmann retires, the remainder under the new managing director's reign.

Fleischmann will be retained as an advisor for two years after he retires, and Disney Hall will continue to be one of his priorities.

"I will help fund-raise for [the hall] and help define some of the things that go on with it and in it," he explains. "If and when it's built, I will be around to explain and interpret, from a practical point of view, what was meant by certain decisions."

Board President Attiyeh says he believes that Fleischmann's departure will actually give Fleischmann more time to work on the hall. He also says that "the stability of having the next generation in place gives comfort to the kind of major donors who are clearly needed." But mainly Fleischmann's continuing role remains to be determined.

Both Fleischmann and Attiyeh agree that another pressing challenge for the Philharmonic is to find its place in an increasingly multicultural society.

"Demographics are dynamic, and the geographic sprawl is dynamic," Attiyeh says. "We have our work cut out for us in finding ways to draw even more upon the whole community, not just the traditional segments, and to do this without pandering. The new managing director has to deal with that, and it is a tough, ever-changing challenge to do it right."

So can the Philharmonic find someone up to that challenge? Fleischmann says that the pool of talent is small and that the good people already have good jobs. "It is more difficult to find a first-rate managing director than a first-rate music director," he says.

Labonte says that a worldwide search will be undertaken and that the process will not be hurried. And Fleischmann has agreed to stay on as long as necessary if an appropriate successor is not found by the end of next season.

In the meantime, no one yet is counting out Fleischmann. He still wields his power autocratically and demands fierce loyalty.

Moreover, when his retirement was announced, it hardly came as a surprise to insiders. It had been rumored for months that his current contract (through June 1996) was being extended, not renewed. Yet when the news broke, nearly every response inside the music business was the same: "I'll believe it when I see it" has become the refrain.