When Deborah Borda made a surprise announcement last year that she would leave her enviable post as president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and try to revivify the beleaguered New York Philharmonic, the joke was that she left behind the best job in the world — and the worst.
Simon Woods, who now sits in Borda’s old office at Walt Disney Concert Hall, explains that it’s the best because the orchestra has financial security, Disney Hall, the Hollywood Bowl, Gustavo Dudamel, basically everything going for it. “It’s the worst,” he quips, “because it’s all those things, and who would want to follow Deborah?
“I can’t say that didn’t weigh on me,” he says. He also can’t say it didn’t stop him from succeeding her.
There was little surprise that Woods — who is genial, 55 years old and British — got the most enviable and the best-paid orchestra job in the business. His was the first name that came to the mind of almost everyone in the know. He is a consummate professional who studied conducting and composition at Cambridge University, worked as a record producer for EMI at Abbey Road studios for a decade and then moved on to orchestral management, most recently at the Seattle Symphony.
In large part thanks to Woods’ progressive leadership, which embraced Seattle’s consummation with innovation while also addressing its social impact on economic inequality and homelessness, Gramophone magazine just voted Seattle Symphony its orchestra of the year.
In love with Seattle and having appointed a new music director, Thomas Dausgaard (the imaginative Ludovic Morlot had begun just when Woods arrived in 2010 and is now in his last season) — and with the youngest of his two children still having another year to go in high school — Woods insists that only one thing could have pulled him away from the city, where his wife and daughter will remain for the school year. Describing himself as “a big fan of what Deborah’s done here and a big fan of Gustavo,” he says Los Angeles offers an opportunity to do what he was already doing on a greater scale.
Woods describes his musical roots as growing up with parents who weren’t musicians but who loved music. An avid record collector from an early age, he can to this day list his dad’s eclectic record collection, which included Beethoven, the Beach Boys, Sondheim, “Sgt. Pepper’s,” early music, jazz and so on.
He absorbed it all and says he still does. “Although I’ve worked my entire life on the classical side,” Woods says, “you are just as likely to find me at home listening to pop music or jazz. I’m extremely eclectic, because that’s what I’ve always known.”
The conducting bug began early, and in college Woods, as had John Eliot Gardner and others before him at Cambridge, formed his own orchestras as well as conducting the university orchestra and opera. He even later had a master class in 1985 with Leonard Bernstein. “He was amazing, but I did very badly,” he says.
“I knew I wanted to make a meaningful contribution to music, but it was not going to be with conducting,” he says.
The lure of the recording world was always there as well, and the timing couldn’t have been better, the development of CDs leading to a bonanza. “With everybody rebuying their collections, record companies decided to re-record all the repertory with the new generation of performers,” he says.
The turning point, Woods says, came after he had been producing orchestral recordings for about a year when he happened to be sitting at the mixing board, working on a recording by the Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink.
“Bernard turned to me at one point and asked, ‘Do you think it’s too slow?’” he says. “Here is one of the greatest conductors in the world asking me, a 26-year-old, whether it’s too slow.
“That moment of feeling like even the greatest musicians need people around them to help bring their vision to reality made me realize that I can be one of those people.”
But after a decade in the studio, Woods says he began to need something more than the transactional act of making one record and then another. He wanted to get more deeply into the orchestra.
That led to being the artistic director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, then he worked his way up, heading the New Jersey Symphony, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Seattle.
At those other orchestras, Woods took over at a time of either crisis or unfulfilled ambition. Here, however, the wildly audacious centennial projects were fully planned before he began last January, but Woods says, “all the values that are in the centennial about community and collaboration and working across genres are exactly the things that I fully embrace. A lot of what I believe in is already being instituted.”
So at the moment Woods says he is more interested in implementation than adding yet more newness. “As I’ve said to a lot of people, the commitment to continuity is an intentional leadership act.
“That said, the goal of what follows will be how to take the organization to the next level of how we engage with the community around us.”
The big question of relevance is the one that dogs Woods most. “By around 2040, there will be no single racial majority in this country,” he warns. “If that doesn’t tell you something about where you have to go as an art form, then you’re not paying attention.
“So when you think of what success will look like a decade from now, it is creating an organization that is as welcoming as it is innovative.”
That means more risk, Woods contends. Subscribing to the Silicon Valley concept that learning comes from failure and that orchestras need to take bold steps with programming, the concert experience and reaching a much wider audience. “If you never fail, you are doing something wrong,” he maintains, before adding a necessary proviso.
“At the same time as being ardent in my commitment to social impact, I’m also incredibly conservative about my passion for the art form and the traditions. And I don’t see the two things as contradictory. What is incredible about the LA Phil is that it has begun the process of reframing what it means to be an American orchestra. This is the orchestra that has leveled the playing field between the tradition of the new, of other cultures and our own culture.
“The challenge is to find an integrated approach that enlarges the number of people who are in our orbit,” he says. “As demographics change and people become more distracted, the notion of how you create compelling experiences on stage and how you build vast community around them is, I think, the next frontier. I don’t think we fully know how to do that yet.”
One way, though, will mean coming to terms with new media. Woods put his record-producing experience to good use in Seattle, creating the orchestra’s own label for its recordings and winning three Grammys in the process, including for John Luther Adams’ revolutionarily immersive “Become Ocean,” which the orchestra commissioned, and which won the composer a Pulitzer Prize.
But that was then.
“Like with coffee places,” Woods, ever the Seattle maven who quickly learned the downtown coffee bars, says, “we’re now at the third phase of recordings,” after LPs and CDs. “There is certainly in the LA Phil’s future some kind of groundbreaking media project, but I don’t know what it is yet.”
It won’t be a traditional recording label “but rather more community-oriented,” Woods expects, making it evident that his ambitions do, in fact, go well beyond maintaining status quo.
“How might a new media project build community and support our mission around young people?” he says. “I think we’ll answer that in the next few years.”