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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.

"Ernest," he will say in a moment of extreme pique, "(is) an untrustworthy, scheming bastard."

Previn, who had begun his career in Hollywood, brought with him a respectable reputation with European orchestras. He was known as a solid technician, a charming television personality, a conservative composer and a refined specialist in music by such composers as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Elgar, Walton and Ravel.

The Philharmonic hype machine, overseen by Fleischmann, worked overtime to glamorize his homecoming. The euphoria, however, did not last long. The new conductor proved most persuasive in repertory that failed to excite the majority of subscribers. On the podium, he tended to be businesslike, not flashy like Mehta or romantic like Giulini. His concerts varied in quality. The press tended to be respectful, seldom ecstatic.

Under the circumstances, Fleischmann had trouble selling Previn to the masses. Empty seats greeted the music director with increasing frequency, though the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was usually full for such popular guest-conductors as Kurt Sanderling, Simon Rattle--and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Vague reports of friction between the music director and the executive director surfaced early. The reports were denied on both sides. Then, in interviews that began on the day of Salonen's appointment, Previn and Fleischmann admitted the friction was real.

Previn, it seems, made a serious mistake. He wanted to run his orchestra. He wanted to make the important decisions. He wanted to be consulted on the unimportant ones. Instead, he contends, Fleischmann had in mind a more ceremonial role. "I wasn't allowed," he claims, "to have any opinion." When certain guest-conductors were chosen, no one asked for Previn's thoughts, he says. He wasn't always consulted when works were commissioned or programming was developed. When Previn complained to the board about being passed over in the decision-making process, he recalls one member telling him: "Ernest is physically, mentally and psychologically incapable of uttering these words: I will have to check with the music director . It has nothing to do with you."

Previn might have maintained the control he wanted if he had been an overwhelmingly popular or critical success. He might have endeared himself to the board if he had taken a more active role in fund raising. If Previn had exuded an aura of strength, Fleischmann might have retreated. But, according to authoritative observers backstage, Fleischmann would not play second fiddle to an ineffectual conductor.

"From my perspective," the executive director says, "Andre did not exercise enough music-directorial leadership. I mean, you either have it or you don't. . . . It became clear that the orchestra was standing still, making no progress."

Previn, says Fleischmann, was "fragile." "In meetings he was very often terrific for the first hour. Then his energy level dropped, and he wanted privacy. . . . It was always difficult to confront issues. He made one very apprehensive to say anything to him that wasn't pleasant, not bolstering."

When Previn's original three-year contract was renegotiated, Fleischmann remembers taking a "neutral role. There was a lot of opposition from the board. I defended him," he says. The board decided to offer Previn only a two-year extension. That would have kept him here until 1991. It also may have have given Fleischmann ample time to find a more dazzling successor.

In London in 1983, Fleischmann had "discovered" a young, handsome, energetic and intense conductor named Esa-Pekka Salonen. He invited Salonen to make a guest appearance in Los Angeles in November, 1984, the season before Previn took over as music director. After numerous return engagements, the executive director decided he wanted to engage Salonen as principal guest-conductor. Ordinary guest-conductors merely come, conduct and leave. Being a principal guest gives the visiting maestro a place in the power structure of the orchestra and validates an ongoing relationship--up to and including, in this case, the possibility of taking the orchestra on a high-profile international tour.

By all accounts, the romancing of Salonen would be the beginning of the end for Andre Previn.

"It was," admits Fleischmann, his basso quasi-profondo halting, "a murky episode. When Andre's first contract was being renewed, the board asked me to go and see him, to explain some things that worried them." He sounds distantly, elegantly British, and listeners with keen ears also detect stubborn traces of his native Germany. "Andre and I had a few days at his place in England. We discussed the possibility that Esa-Pekka should become principal guest. I think that was back in 1986. Andre agreed, and I was to work out a contract with Esa-Pekka's manager.

"The manager said that Esa-Pekka wanted a tour of Japan and, where possible, U.S. tours, because he will want U.S. exposure. Japan was important.

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