Andre Previn’s official statement Tuesday submitting his resignation as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic was polite--just barely--and ominous. It was not ambiguous.
“I have decided that, in the current structure of the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” he said, “it has become obvious to me (that) there is no room for a music director.”
It is not difficult for local observers to translate the statement. Previn wanted to run his orchestra. Period.
He had left Pittsburgh because of managerial interference. He would not tolerate managerial interference here.
He wanted to make the fundamental artistic decisions. He wanted to be the boss.
That should not seem odd. But making music in these frantic, jet-propelled times, is a complicated business. Many a famous and glamorous conductor likes to wave the baton, bask in applause, and then get out of town. Additional fame and fortune await in other halls, other lands, other recording studios. Many a famous and glamorous conductor is happy to hold a ceremonial title and let someone else mind the store.
Ernest Fleischmann has been minding the Los Angeles store for a long time. He did so effectively for Zubin Mehta, who was much too busy in Israel, at the Met and on European podia to care much about what happened here during his lengthy absences. Fleischmann also ran the orchestra nicely on behalf of Carlo Maria Giulini, who was too busy communing with Beethoven, Brahms and Verdi to worry much about trivial policy decisions.
Previn was different. He wasn’t a charismatic showman like Mehta, or a pensive old-world poet like Giulini. He was sensible, practical, old-fashioned. He thought his orchestra should reflect his tastes, his ideals, his visions.
That would have made perfect sense if he had captured the undivided devotion of his public, not to mention his orchestra. That, unfortunately, does not seem to have been the case.
Everyone found Previn an agreeable and sympathetic presence on the podium. He may have lacked Mehta’s flash and Giulini’s spirituality, but there was much to be said for his honesty, his integrity and his no-nonsense approach to music.
One could regret that he was more persuasive with Elgar and Ravel than with Beethoven and Brahms. One could find him perfunctory in some basic challenges. The avant-gardists among us complained that his preferences in matters of novelty tended toward the conservative.
Still, such problems could be solved, temporarily at least, with canny selection of repertory and cagey use of guest conductors. Previn earned the respect of his audience. Early in his tenure, he made it clear that no one needed to worry about any traces of Hollywood pizazz in his aesthetic makeup.
His problem was simple. He seldom excited the crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The crowd, moreover, was often small when he was in charge.
Kurt Sanderling, a beloved old-school guest, attracted full houses and won standing ovations for his interpretations of the Germanic romantics. Young Esa-Pekka Salonen stirred the masses in more gregarious challenges. Meanwhile, Previn was in danger of becoming good old reliable Andre.
Fleischmann, hardly a self-effacing, behind-the-scenes operator, obviously found this a difficult situation to accept. He is aggressive, demanding, autocratic, egocentric and, under the right circumstances, very good at his job. A clash was inevitable.
Clashes have been reported, in backstage whispers, for a long time. When Previn renewed his three-year contract last year, it was generally suspected that he would be cast as an interim caretaker. He would hold the forte, as it were, until the board could sign someone with greater mass appeal or someone more willing to let Fleischmann run the business.
Los Angeles owes Previn gratitude for bringing necessary stability and unquestioned competence to his post--and for model performances in a limited, specialized repertory. One has to regret the acrimony that led to his abrupt resignation. It is reassuring that he will remain a positive influence upon our orchestra.
At the same time, one can confirm some good arguments for a change of Philharmonic direction. The ultimate wisdom behind the present change will be tested, of course, by the immediate outcome.
Some crucial questions linger. Is the day of the genuine music director really over? Is Fleischmann the de facto music director here, and the chief conductor merely a figurehead? Was the battle between the maestro and the manager a battle of egos or of philosophies?
Who really runs an arts institution--and how? Should we draw parallels between Previn’s resignation and the decision of a powerful manager to fire Daniel Barenboim from the helm of the Bastille Opera in Paris?
The ramifications of the inherent conflict could reach far beyond Los Angeles. Musical chairs is an international game. The months ahead will be interesting.