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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.

So does Deborah Rutter--a former administrative associate of Fleischmann's and now executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. She is one of the few Fleischmann associates--past or present--who is willing to be quoted. "There are so many wonderful things he does," she says. "That makes the lousy things--the insulting things that are so extremely hurtful, that can be demeaning at times--pale in comparison. This is not a man who is afraid of being hated. He has strong convictions about what he is doing. This empowers him to keep going.

"Did I take a lot of abuse from him?" She sighs. "Yes."

Then she reflects. "It sounds piddling and petty. But, yes, he comes in and destroys you because you used the wrong word in a sentence. Of course, he does that to everybody. But think of the great things he has done.

"There are people who don't want to work with Ernest," Rutter says. "It is unfortunate. There are some great artists who won't come. It's a damn shame."

Love-hate relationships with Fleischmann would seem to be common. "His power comes from his brilliance," observes one of the musicians who insisted that his identity be concealed. "When he goes to a meeting, he really is more prepared than anyone there, simply because he knows more than anybody there. That is pretty dominating in itself."

"It is a matter of personality," observes another colleague. "If people need to have his input, his knowledge, his creativity, they're going to listen. Anyone with a strong sense of self-worth can't work for him for long, not on any level. In any situation, he starts out by taking charge, as soon as he can. He insists on having control. When he came here, he wanted to control music in the whole city.

"He gets control of a situation, sometimes, by lying to a person. While the person tries to figure out what this is about, Ernest goes on with the meeting. He changes every 10 or 15 minutes. He has all the characteristics of a narcissistic personality. If he finds a weak spot in you, he's going to go for it."

Another equally reliable and equally anonymous source at the Music Center says that the players in the orchestra feel intimidated by Fleischmann. "He could make their lives miserable if he wanted to. He can withhold certain favors. Morale is not nearly as good around here as it should be, especially in the rank and file."

The name of the Fleischmann game is simple: power. But it isn't a game. He exults in power. He creates it, demands it, seizes it. And like many a megalomaniacal autocrat before him, he pretends that he doesn't want or need it.

"I can't explain why people think I am power-crazed," Fleischmann says innocently.

"I have strong opinions, I suppose. . . . If I could write better, I would be a critic. I am a de facto critic. That causes certain conflicts. The word and concept of power are of no importance to me. Being influential, fighting for what I believe to be worthwhile--sure."

But does he fight clean?

"Sure. Of course. The big problem is, I lay it all on the line. I don't know how to scheme and plot. I have no time. People know where they stand with me.

"When something bothers me, I cannot hide my disappointment, or whatever it is."

Does he suffer fools gladly?

"I suppose not. I know I shouldn't, but I make people uncomfortable when I point out errors."

If one can judge performance strictly in terms of results, Fleischmann must be very good at his job. But he isn't very good at sharing power. He isn't even very good at delegating responsibility.

He says that he has mellowed over the years. That is a matter of debate.

Just minutes after denouncing Previn, Fleischmann called to say he was having second thoughts. He had not been sufficiently diplomatic, and Previn was scheduled to return to the Philharmonic for lengthy visits as guest-conductor.

"Perhaps I didn't make myself clear enough," he added rather anxiously for the record. "I didn't stress the very positive aspects of working with Andre. He is a catalyst for interesting ideas. Even he enjoyed making programs and dreaming up stuff. I believe his heart about music and the orchestra is very much in the right place.

"On a personal level, I hope I haven't made the relationship sound like a totally downhill one. The problem was as much my fault as anything. It was my fault that I didn't say to hell with it and talk. . . . Now he comes here to make great concerts (as guest-conductor). I want a positive working relationship."

Previn tries to put Fleischmann in perspective as well. "Now I see the relative unimportance of it all," he says.

He says that he feels a new sentiment toward Fleischmann. "I'm kind of sorry for him, in my own weird way. He is driven by that extraordinary need for solitary power. It drives him on through life.

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