Honoring Ernest Fleischmann, Legendary Impresario

With one music director after another, Fleischmann extended the orchestra's reach musically, financially and geographically.
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When impresario Ernest Fleischmann retired in 1998, then-mayor Richard Riordan led a special ceremony proclaiming the Los Angeles Philharmonic's long-time executive vice president and managing director as the city's first-ever "living cultural treasure." Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed credited Fleischmann with transforming "a provincial second-rank orchestra into one of the world's best."

Few would dispute his achievements as the city's cultural leaders prepare to again honor Fleischmann, who died June 13, 2010 at 85. Set for Tuesday are both the city's naming of Ernest Fleischmann Square near the Music Center at 1pm and a free Los Angeles Philharmonic tribute concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall at 8pm. On the podium will be maestros he admired conducting the new music he championed.

Born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany on December 7, 1924, Fleischmann was raised in South Africa where he received degrees in both accounting and music. He played piano as a child and was a music critic and professional conductor in his teens. But he soon channeled those passions toward the music others made and by 1959 was general manager of the London Symphony Orchestra. Determined to turn the flailing LSO into one of the world's top orchestras, he had done exactly that by the time he left in the late 1960s.

Fleischmann came to Los Angeles in 1969 at the invitation of the orchestra's then-music director Zubin Mehta, primed to do unto the Los Angeles Philharmonic what he'd already succeeded in doing at the London Symphony Orchestra. With encouragement from Mehta, Fleischmann worked at augmenting the orchestra's reputation, improving its solvency and making it more relevant in the larger cultural community. In Los Angeles, as in London, Fleischmann sought out the best guest conductors and artists he could, many of whom he'd been courting for years. Luminaries like Lorin Maazel, Pierre Boulez and Carlo Maria Giulini were soon heading west as guest conductors.

When Mehta left in 1978 to become music director of the New York Philharmonic, he was succeeded by the much-admired Giulini, whose appointment Fleischmann felt acknowledged the orchestra's growing status. Fleischmann was often accused of relentlessness in getting what he wanted--which he nearly always did get--and the impresario was less successful working with Giulini's successor, Andre Previn. Among other things, Fleischmann was so taken with the work of newcomer Esa-Pekka Salonen, he made guest conducting and other promises to the young Finnish composer/conductor without first consulting an infuriated Previn.

Previn's departure eventually cleared the way for Salonen's arrival in 1992. With Salonen, as with Mehta, Fleischmann found a partner compatible with his interests and aspirations. Mehta always wanted a real home dedicated to the Philharmonic, not a hall shared with the opera and the Academy Awards, and the architect Frank Gehry was already well into designing Disney Hall when Salonen arrived. Even while he was still working in Stockholm, Salonen was an integral part of the new hall's development.

At a press event held in 1990 to announce the appointment of director Peter Sellars as Philharmonic "creative consultant," Fleischmann opened his remarks by saying that orchestras were in trouble partly because they'd become dull, boring and repetitive. With young artists like Sellars and Salonen at his side, he promised, the Los Angeles Philharmonic would continue to change all that.

They were an odd-looking trio, the Old World Fleischman, eccentric-looking Sellars and reserved Salonen, but the three men shared desires to get new and younger concertgoers into the hall, encourage new music and extend the orchestra's outreach to the city's many ethnic communities. By the time Salonen left in 2009, concluding the longest tenure of any Los Angeles Philharmonic music director, the orchestra had introduced more than 200 new musical works to Los Angeles audiences and gone on nearly two dozen national and international tours.

With one music director after another, Fleischmann extended the orchestra's reach musically, financially and geographically. He increased recordings and broadcasting opportunities, expanded the Hollywood Bowl's programming and profits, took the orchestra out into the community through in-school programs and free neighborhood concerts, and founded the Philharmonic's New Music Group. The orchestra's many collaborations with Boulez, who is expected to conduct at Tuesday's performance, date back to 1969.

Fleischmann was artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival for several years after leaving the Philharmonic, but his continuing discoveries of new talent ranged far beyond Ojai. It was as a juror at a German conducting competition in 2004 that Fleischmann first encountered the magnetic young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who went on to win the competition, perform with the Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl the following year, and become the Philharmonic's 11th music director. Fleischmann was also a great fan of his successor, Deborah Borda, and one could sense his nostalgia as Borda nurtured the work of first Salonen, then Dudamel.

At a private memorial last year for family and friends, Martin Fleischmann observed that his father's mantra was "expect nothing and be pleasantly surprised." But, the son added, Ernest Fleischmann "made those surprises happen."

Barbara Isenberg is the author of "Conversations with Frank Gehry" and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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