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In Surprise Move, Manager Resigns From Philharmonic

June 16, 1999|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Willem Wijnbergen has resigned as executive vice president and managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra after 15 months in the prestigious post.

Only the second person to hold the position in 30 years, Wijnbergen surprised even his board with the announcement.

In an interview Tuesday, Barry Sanders, president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., said the development was "unexpected and unsought." Sanders said he received a letter of resignation June 9, the day after Wijnbergen left on vacation, and did not speak to him until Tuesday. Wijnbergen, who had been unreachable, called from his native Holland, where he is vacationing with his family.

Sanders refused to comment on the manager's reasons for his decision, calling it a personnel matter and saying that any explanation should come from Wijnbergen, who is scheduled to return to Los Angeles next week. The resignation is effective Sept. 7.

Sanders stressed: "This is no dismissal. We very much regret his resignation and his departure, and we would very much like him to stay."

Wijnbergen was unavailable for comment Tuesday. Staff at the Philharmonic offices were told of the announcement at a meeting Tuesday afternoon. Orchestra members, who are on their annual break, were informed by fax at the same time.

Wijnbergen, 40, came to the Philharmonic in March 1998 from Amsterdam, where he served as managing director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for six years. His selection followed an almost two-year search for an executive to replace Ernest Fleischmann, the Philharmonic's powerful managing director of 28 years, who retired in 1997.

Wijnbergen earns about $300,000 annually, and he had a contract through next June, with options to extend to the inaugural season of Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new Frank Gehry-designed home for the Philharmonic, now scheduled to open in 2002.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Philharmonic, is in Sweden and could not be reached for comment.

Colleague Is Dumbfounded

Colleagues at the Music Center learned of the resignation from a news release.

"I'm dumbfounded," said Gordon Davidson, artistic director/producer of the Center Theatre Group. "I think he's great, and he's been a wonderful new colleague here. We were planning a lot of joint of activities, among them a celebration of the 100th anniversary of [the birth of] Kurt Weill."

When Wijnbergen's appointment was announced in October 1997, the often outspoken executive expressed boredom and dissatisfaction with European tradition. Wijnbergen said he was excited by the new challenges of a young city with a young orchestra and a young music director--Salonen, who is 40.

"This orchestra [the 110-year-old Royal Concertgebouw] will be what it is," he said in a Times interview after his appointment. "It is not going to expand into other areas. I can put it in cruise control and monitor it, but I am too young for that."

Wijnbergen, who settled with his family in Hancock Park, also frequently expressed his love for Southern California, as well as his fascination with Hollywood. His constant refrain was the need to attract younger and more diverse audiences to the orchestra and the new Disney Hall. Involving the city's various ethnic groups in the fund-raising for the $255-million project, he said, would keep it from being perceived as a "rich white people's thing."

Despite the brevity of his tenure, Wijnbergen made some aggressive changes. He increased staff at the Philharmonic during the past year from just over 100 to more than 150.

Much of his focus was on the Hollywood Bowl--restructuring its executive leadership and this season introducing the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra as the house jazz band. Wijnbergen has also set in motion a $15-million renewal plan to return the Bowl, as he said, "to the glamour era of the 1930s and '40s."

Sanders also credited Wijnbergen with raising $11 million, or 75%, of the Philharmonic's commitment toward a new $15-million administration building to be completed near Disney Hall. Sanders also said Wijnbergen was at the helm of the acoustical redesign of the Philharmonic's current home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, for next fall.

Wijnbergen was born and raised in the Netherlands and trained as a concert pianist. He received his master's degree in piano performance and orchestra conducting from the Music Conservatory of the City of Groningen, then became assistant conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Finding Successor Viewed as Difficult

In 1988, Wijnbergen came to the United States to enroll at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he earned a master's degree in business and arts administration. He was recruited by Procter & Gamble to serve as brand manager at the company's Rotterdam office.

Wijnbergen is credited with using his business expertise to bring fiscal stability to the Royal Concertgebouw after it suffered massive cuts in government subsidies.

Although Sanders said it will be difficult to find a successor to Wijnbergen, he added that the previous executive search helped to identify possible candidates and declared that there will definitely be a new orchestra manager on hand for the opening of Disney Hall.

"We will have somebody in place," Sanders said. "There is going to be a transition, and it is a transition that we didn't want to make, but it is a transition that we will make in a way that is stable and showing continuity--and we will still put on great music."

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