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The TYRANT of the PHILHARMONIC : Ernest Fleischmann May Be Arrogant, Rude and Ruthless, But Even His Critics Admit He's the Best Orchestra Boss in the Business

October 08, 1989|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Martin Bernheimer has been observing the Los Angeles Philharmonic for The Times since 1965. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1982.

THERE IS GREAT importance in being Ernest Fleischmann. He'll tell you that himself.

Pity the flunky who doesn't escort him instantly to the head of the line, offer him the best table, select the right verb for a press release or defer to his professional judgment in all matters, great and small.

"Do you realize who I am?" he habitually huffs when--perish the ignoble thought--proper attention is not paid. He says the words with equal hauteur to ushers, prima donnas, security guards, politicians, receptionists, waiters, lawyers, agents, educators and garage attendants. Once, according to a popular and oft-told tale, he said it to Secret Service agents barring him from a hotel floor reserved for the vice president of the United States.

Actually, it is amazing how many people do realize who Ernest Fleischmann is. He usually gets the table he wants and the deference he demands. He has served for 20 years as executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and he loves publicity--and power--almost as much as he loves music.

Theoretically, executive directors of major orchestras are supposed to tend anonymously to business problems. They are backstage administrators. Music directors, the men most often on the podium, are supposed to make the artistic decisions and take the spotlight. However, the executive director may wield tremendous authority, provided the music director and the board of directors want him to have it--or let him grab it.

Michael J. Connell, the president of the Philharmonic's board of directors, claims that the separation of powers has been maintained in Los Angeles ("Ernest and I have a sound agreement about what exactly the scope of his job is . . . ," Connell says. "In no way should he dominate the music director. . . ."). In fact, during the regimes of three music directors, Fleischmann, now 64, has been nothing if not the authority figure for the orchestra. He has functioned as impresario, talent scout, super-organizer, programmer, arts politician and sweeping policy maker. For better or worse, and most observers concede the former, he is the most important single force on the serious music scene in Los Angeles. He is an emphatic, dominating, bulldozing, brilliant presence. He is a star.

When he came to Los Angeles in 1969, he found a solid, second-rate orchestra basking in the fleeting glamour of Zubin Mehta, a charismatic conductor who wanted to spend a lot of time out of town. Fleischmann took over, presumably with Mehta's blessings, and proceeded to make the Philharmonic a progressive enterprise.

After Mehta moved on to New York in 1978, Fleischmann managed the coup of persuading Carlo Maria Giulini, the distinguished and universally beloved Italian conductor, to become music director. The arrangement worked well. During his relatively brief stints here, Giulini tended to the needs of God and Mozart, while Fleischmann ran the store virtually without interference.

Even in the least troubled times, however, controversy followed Fleischmann like a faithful sheep dog. He insulted volunteers, challenged his board, bullied his colleagues, attacked the press, humiliated his subordinates and tried to manipulate his critics. He abused his employees, at least one of whom abandoned his desk in the middle of a working day, never to return.

Something akin to a scandal finally erupted last April. Music director No. 3, Andre Previn, who succeeded Giulini in 1985, walked out after a four-year tour of embattled duty, leaving behind a terse but telling statement: "In the current structure of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it has become obvious to me there is no room for a music director."

It was obvious to insiders that Previn was not happy about the way Fleischmann had been usurping his privileges. It was obvious, too, that Fleischmann was not happy about the way Previn had been functioning as music director. Neither party, however, would discuss the conflict in public. They had agreed to a pact of silence. It was time, Fleischmann told Los Angeles, to look to the future.

The great conductor quest began--or at least seemed to begin. A search committee was named. Pundits played guess-the-maestro games. Fleischmann granted grave interviews in which he alluded to numerous contenders for the job and the unsettling prospect of a long, difficult wait fraught with complex multilevel negotiations.

But abruptly, in mid-August, a new music director was named. Enter Esa-Pekka Salonen, a 31-year-old Finnish Wunderkind .

Suddenly, the silence was broken, the recriminations began, the charges and countercharges flew. Amid the noise, the gossip and the leaks, virtually everyone would agree on one point: Ernest Fleischmann, as usual, had gotten what he wanted.

Attention had been paid.

ERNEST FLEISCHMANN can be affable, sensitive, charming, caring. Ask his friends. He can be arrogant, callous, rude, ruthless. Ask his victims. Ask Andre Previn.

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