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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.

"Andre came back later and told Robert Harth (Fleischmann's second-in-command) that he had changed his mind about Esa-Pekka as principal guest. Andre said, 'Esa-Pekka can come as a guest-conductor. You don't have to give him a title.'

"When I found out about this I realized that I had to find the right time to explain to him about the tour. . . . I hadn't wanted to tell Esa-Pekka that Andre had changed his mind. I thought that at the right moment I could get Andre to see the reason."

Apparently, the right moment never occurred.

Andre Previn does not mince words when he responds to Fleischmann's version of the story. "Ernest Fleischmann is very clever," he says bitterly, "because he mixes absolute truths with absolute lies. He had said to me in London that he was thinking of making Esa-Pekka Salonen a principal guest-conductor. I said, 'You want to be a little bit careful, because when I came you had two principal guest-conductors (Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson Thomas). You said to me, 'Pick one.' Since (having two) was impossible to do, I asked if he wanted to get rid of Simon now.

" 'We got rid of Michael Tilson Thomas,' I said, 'and now you want another one who is even younger. Isn't that going to be hurtful and make very little sense?'

" 'Oh, wah-wah-wah-wah-wah,' Ernest replied. I said, 'Let me think about it.' I didn't think there was any rush.

"He had already signed him. I hit the roof about that. I went to Mike Connell and said, 'Look, this really is crazy. You cannot sign somebody without telling the music director. This can't go on.'

"Finally Ernest said, 'I was wrong about this. I've done it very badly. So now can I have Esa-Pekka?' And I said, 'No.' "

Previn later talked to Salonen himself. "He was extremely pleasant. Esa-Pekka said he had no idea I didn't know. 'You can see where I can't have this,' I said. He said, 'Absolutely."'

Previn thought everything was settled. Salonen would not have an official title but would frequently conduct the orchestra as guest. Then Salonen inadvertently dropped the bomb:

"As he was leaving," Previn remembers, "he turned and asked, 'It is still OK for me to take the orchestra to Japan, isn't it?' I said, 'What?' He said, 'Oh, God!' These are verbatim quotes. That was one little item that had never been mentioned.

"I said, 'Esa-Pekka, this is not going to work.' He said, 'You're telling me!' "

Board president Connell, to whom both the executive director and the music director officially report, calls the tour fiasco "a grave misunderstanding" and "an innocent mistake." Eventually--to Fleischmann's embarrassment, Salonen's consternation and Previn's relief--the principal-guest appointment was cancelled and the Japan tour with it.

Andre Previn had won the battle, but he would lose the war.

"My hope," Fleischmann says, "was to mend fences with Andre as well as Esa-Pekka, when the question of contract renewal came up."

Did Previn want a renewal?

"Oh, yes," Fleischmann sighs.

Previn sighs, too, when he thinks about the contract renewal. "It was the week when we did the Mahler Fourth (early last March), I think," he remembers. "(Mike Connell) came to me and said he had good news. There would be a new contract. 'Go home,' he said, 'tell your wife, go out and celebrate.' I asked him what Ernest thought of this. I swear to you on my child's head that he said, 'Ernest has nothing to do with this. We are all tired of feeling that Ernest is the figurehead of the Philharmonic. From now on. . . .'

"Ernest found out about it, and within a couple of weeks I didn't have a new contract. I confronted Mike Connell about the contradiction and reminded him of what he had said to me. He uttered a sentence that was, for sheer lawyer-talk, almost unbeatable. 'Oh, Andre,' he said, 'I have no doubt that you thought you heard that, but I didn't say it that way.' "

Reached at his law office, Connell remains mum on the subject. "My agreement with Previn," he says, "is that I am not going to comment on his departure from the organization. If he wishes to comment, that is up to him."

Other well-informed sources, who require anonymity, claim that there was no plan to offer Previn a third contract. One disenchanted, unidentifiable board member emphatically in the Fleischmann camp put it succinctly: "Previn is a petulant little shit. He quit before we could fire him."

Most insiders are convinced that Fleischmann had fixed the race in Salonen's favor. He was going to succeed Previn as music director--unless, of course, he got an offer that he couldn't refuse from New York or Berlin.

No one was less surprised about Salonen's appointment than Andre Previn.

Previn says bitterly, "The whole thing was planned beautifully from day one. Esa-Pekka Salonen has never been a music director before in his life. He will do as he is told."

Fleischmann doesn't like that interpretation. "To even suggest such a thing is beneath contempt," he protests.

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