James Arkatov, founder of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, dies at 98

James Arkatov lived long enough to see the L.A. Chamber Orchestra celebrate its 50th anniversary. He died Saturday at age 98.
(Alan Arkatov)

His was an immigrant’s story, a child from Russia who landed in San Francisco, befriended violinist Isaac Stern — whose fame was still to come — took up the cello and decided to pour his life into making music.

James Arkatov found work with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and then with the philharmonic in San Francisco before coming to L.A. as a Hollywood studio musician who worked on movie soundtracks and backed up Ella Fitzgerald on some of her more memorable recordings, such as “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Books.”

Amazed at the dazzling talent around him in Hollywood, he came up with a simple but lasting idea — form their own orchestra.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra made its debut on an April evening in 1968, as hundreds squeezed into the newly built Mark Taper Forum. Arkatov played cello as usual as the ensemble drifted through the works of Mozart, Vivaldi, Haydn and other legends of the classics who’d written music specially for smaller orchestras.


Arkatov, who lived long enough to see the orchestra celebrate its 50th anniversary, died Saturday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 98.

“The orchestra represented a contextualized part of L.A. that had simply never been captured,” said his son, Alan Arkatov, the chair of the education and technology program at USC’s Rossier School of Education. “L.A. simply didn’t have this type of ensemble.”

Though they both played symphonic music, the L.A. Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra coexisted from the start, revealing that there was enough oxygen in the city to support a full spectrum of the arts.


But the story of the chamber orchestra was also one of survival. The 1992 riots forced it to cancel a chunk of the season. A 1994 earthquake pushed the orchestra from UCLA’s structurally suspect Royce Hall, its longtime home. And its ambitious dreams and arduous schedule often stretched its budget to the breaking point.

“It reminded me of a princess whose family had fallen on hard times and was looking back on former glory and forward toward uncertainty,” said the orchestra’s former director, Jeffrey Kahane, in a 2006 interview with The Times.

Alan Arkatov had a sunnier take.

“My dad felt if you had great musicians and great management, the rest would take care of itself.”

Resolved to survive, the orchestra pushed through the hard times, emerging — as The Times, Los Angeles Magazine and KUSC-FM (91.5) all agreed — as one of the finest chamber orchestras in America.

Arkatov was born in Odessa, Russia, on July 17, 1920, and moved around Europe before sailing with his family to San Francisco, where his father opened a photo studio. One of his early childhood friends was Stern, who would become an international star who performed on the world’s biggest stages. Arkatov, who began playing the cello when he was 9, formed a string quartet with Stern when they were teens.

After stints as a cellist in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, Arkatov became a member of the NBC Orchestra, the studio musicians who supplied the soundtracks for the movies that kept Hollywood humming.

Pulling from the talent of Hollywood like an NFL team on draft day, he cobbled together a roster capable of handling the delicate and nuanced music written for chamber orchestras. In contrast to the L.A. Phil, which filled the stage with 100 or so musicians, the chamber orchestra was but half that size. The idea was to create a group that would play works written expressly for such an orchestra, many of them from the Baroque era.


“The ensemble was never meant to compete with the Philharmonic,” Arkatov’s son said.

The Mark Taper Forum remained the orchestra’s home until the late 1970s, when the ensemble was essentially kicked out. Like a nomad, the orchestra drifted around L.A. from stage to stage until finding a permanent home at UCLA and a vacation home as it were at the Alex Theatre, an old vaudevillian movie house in Glendale.

Arkatov, who also had a passion for photography and published several collections of images he shot of musicians, continued to attend the chamber orchestra concerts as recently as this spring, watching what he had created from Row P at the Royce.

Arkatov is survived by his wife, Salome; his son; a daughter, Janice; and three grandchildren, Daniel, Jacob and Michael.

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