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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.

The cure, Fleischmann's diatribe suggested, was simple. Hire a strong, imaginative, resourceful, enlightened manager, pay him a lot of money, and let him run the show. The board of the Los Angeles Philharmonic did just that. The board hired Fleischmann.

The new boss made waves. He expanded both the summer and winter seasons. He increased audiences. He oversaw the creation of community outreach plans, a minority training program and a summer performance institute. He expanded Philharmonic horizons with ambitious tours and enhanced the reputation of the orchestra with recording projects.

He helped improve the Philharmonic's uneasy relationship with contemporary composition. He added chamber music to the symphonic agenda, improved educational involvements and sponsored stellar recitals. He tried to improve the acoustics both at the Music Center and at the Hollywood Bowl. In many instances, he hired better guest-conductors and better soloists than those to whom a complacent public had become accustomed.

In moves that he now claims to regret, he also sanctioned advertising campaigns that attempted to sell the orchestra as if it were a detergent. In one bizarre ad, he billed the British mezzo-soprano Janet Baker as "one of the greatest singing artists of our time," and blithely attributed the quote to "Fleischmann, L.A. Phil."

He dabbled in programmatic gimmickry. The Los Angeles Philharmonic was suddenly giving crossover concerts with rock stars. The orchestra was performing in baseball and basketball stadiums, on television shows, in thematic marathons at popular prices. It even ventured isolated tributes to black and female composers.

It wasn't always clear to outside observers if Fleischmann really wanted to serve the cause of music or just the cause of the executive director. Even his adversaries had to admit, however, that the Philharmonic wasn't boring any more.

"I don't think," Michael Connell offers, "that there is anyone better than Ernest Fleischmann at figuring out, within the bounds of what is truly classical music, what sells and still meets the artistic goals."

The personal side of Fleischmann's life appears to have played a secondary role to his work. A colleague at the Philharmonic defines Fleischmann's non-job interests succinctly: "He likes fine food and, when he makes the time, attractive women." Now divorced, he was married in 1953 to Elsa Leviseur, a successful landscape architect who came to Los Angeles with him in 1969. He has three children, all now in their 20s. (One was recently drafted to write silly poems to accompany Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" at the Bowl.) His romantic involvements--including a lengthy, open relationship (now terminated) with an employee who rose rapidly from the lowly ranks to prominent managerial duties--have kept backstage gossips happy for years. His most notable extracurricular activities, however, remain musical. He has served as panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and on the board of the American Symphony Orchestra League and California Confederation of the Arts.

His devotion to the orchestra is well compensated. Connell, whose job it is to know such things, will demurely admit that there is probably no one in the world who gets more for managing an orchestra. According to official Internal Revenue Service figures, he earned well over $320,000 in 1988, although, Connell says, the figures may not include pensions and medical benefits.

From time to time during his reign, Fleischmann has threatened to leave Los Angeles. Various offers--from New York, San Francisco and London--were duly reported, especially if the renewal of his Los Angeles contract beckoned. In 1985, he actually announced his intention to accept an invitation from the Paris Opera. Political problems in France intervened. A few days later, citing an "immense outpouring of appreciation for my work," he rescinded his resignation.

Music Center sources claim that there was much rejoicing in the halls when he quit, much doom and gloom when he changed his mind.

ANDRE PREVIN at first expressed surprise when told that many of Fleischmann's associates, especially members of the orchestra and its administrative team, were willing to talk about him only if their names were kept secret.

"I don't know why everyone is scared of Ernest," he says. Later he reconsiders. "Those poor buggers. They daren't talk. They've got kids, and houses in the Valley."

Then he speaks for himself. "Other people don't want to talk about Ernest because they are frightened. I want to be above that idiotic ranting."

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