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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.

"That is totally off the wall. I did not try to get anybody out, or in. It is preposterous, totally untrue." He adds that Salonen had indeed served as a music director, with the Swedish Radio Orchestra, though he admits that it wasn't a major international post.

Fleischmann says all he ever wanted to do was strengthen his conducting team. "There was little suggestion that Esa-Pekka would want to be music director, or that he would be free. I had heard that Esa-Pekka was being wooed for the (London) Philharmonia. I hoped he would return here as principal guest-conductor. Giving him the title would ensure that and bolster the roster of the Philharmonic."

Esa-Pekka Salonen remained safely and somewhat ambiguously diplomatic on the subject when his appointment as music director was announced this summer. "My contract says that the music director is the one who makes the decisions," he declared.

"I can't comment on what happened with Andre and Ernest," he continued when prodded. "In any case, the results are important, not the power. If the music director and executive director cannot collaborate, it is difficult. I met Andre a few times and liked him very much. I respect him as a conductor."

So does Ernest Fleischmann under the right conditions. "Andre is a terrific musician. When his energy level is high, he is very inspiring. . . . Andre did do some marvelous things when his adrenaline ran high."

But asked what went wrong in his dealings with Previn, Fleischmann begins to attack: "Why can't someone accept that something really didn't work out very well? We tried to make the best of it.

"It didn't work out for the orchestra. Here is this amazing musician, gifted in all kinds of directions. He earns the respect of musicians everywhere. Yet he always had something holding him back. I had hoped that bringing him back here would unlock that special spark.

"There were danger signs. . . . His big musical talent never reached its full potential because of all kinds of hang-ups. . . ."

Earlier, Fleischmann had delivered what might serve as his epitaph for Andre Previn: "He is a much better guest-conductor than music director."

In fact, Previn is contracted to conduct here for seven weeks during the current season--he is conducting this weekend in his first engagement since his resignation--and for six weeks each during 1990-91 and 1992-93. He is still scheduled for some recordings with the orchestra and a U.S. tour in May, 1990. Nevertheless, he functions now in the capacity described by Fleischmann: guest-conductor.

ERNEST FLEISCHMANN was born in Frankfurt am Main, in Germany, on Dec. 7, 1924. As the Nazis rose to power, he moved with his family to South Africa. He earned a degree in accounting from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Cape Town.

At the age of 17, he made dual, significantly conflicting debuts in that city, as critic and conductor. In 1952, he organized the Van Riebeeck Festival, the first major international arts festival held in South Africa. That proved so successful that he was engaged to oversee the prestigious Johannesburg Festival two years later.

In 1959, he was offered two interesting jobs, one as music director of the Cape Town Symphony, the other as manager of the London Symphony Orchestra. After much agonizing, he chose the latter, moved to Britain and, for most practical purposes, gave up the baton. In 1967, he lost a power struggle with the players of the self-governing London orchestra and became an executive at CBS Records in London. In 1968, he took time off from his desk to make a brief and short-lived comeback as a conductor. In a forgettable Technicolored saga called "Interlude," Oskar Werner pretended to be a conductor on the screen while Fleischmann took the podium for the sound track.

America probably first noticed Fleischmann in 1969, when he contributed a provocative article to High Fidelity magazine. In it he dared attack the "amateur boards" that control American orchestras.

"The U.S.A.," he complained, "is the only country in the world today where the fortunes of most symphony orchestras depend on the generosity, the wisdom, the enthusiasm, indeed the musical tastes and policies of bankers, oil men, meatpackers, merchants and housewives."

Fleischmann might have had Los Angeles in mind when he diagnosed the ills of American orchestras. At that time, the Philharmonic found itself in a characteristically precarious position. The music director was very busy with an independent career. The orchestra manager was a low-key and not particularly potent bureaucrat. The board of directors, dominated by Dorothy Buffum Chandler, seemed to be calling many of the artistic shots. Standards were uneven, musical achievements were limited and finances problematic.

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