In the realm of symphony-orchestra management there was some delicious double talk last week. On Friday, The New York Times broke the story that Kurt Masur, who has led the New York Philharmonic since 1991 and brought it out of the morass of irrelevance of the Zubin Mehta years, had begun to rub some of the orchestra’s management the wrong way, including honcho Deborah Borda. They haven’t exactly fired him, and he hasn’t exactly resigned, but he now has an oddly worded contract that might, or might not, keep him on the job a specific number of years, then will enlist his aid in finding a successor; the paperwork as much as states that if he wants to leave earlier, or to reduce his activities even further, that will be all right, too. (Where were those masters of contractual gobbledygook when the Mehta depression needed this kind of escape hatch?) Next day, The Times ran interviews with the new management team at the Vienna Philharmonic (which happened to be visiting New York), younger than that orchestra’s traditional board of Professoren and locked in the struggle to update a glorious but stifling history, seeking ways to make the orchestra meaningful once again after last year’s Schrecklichkeit over (Himmel!) the hiring of a woman.
Against those far-flung goings-on, the tremendous news right here in Los Angeles – that for the first time in the mature lives of most people still able to walk unassisted, Ernest Fleischmann no longer controls the destiny of the Philharmonic – conjures visions of sweetness and light, which may actually be true. Fleischmann’s successor, Willem Wijnbergen, is holding his first press conference the day this page comes off the press, so judgment must be withheld for the moment.
Fleischmann may be gone from the Philharmonic’s top job in corporeal essence, but he remains in both mind and spirit. Symphony orchestras must plan their programs at least three years ahead, which means that the Fleischmann hand will cast its shadow – alongside, of course, the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen and others on the planning staff – at least through the century’s end, including a massive end-of-century festival whose planning is well along. Since Salonen plans to take the year 2000 as sabbatical – to compose an opera, as he announced at a New York press conference last week – the full impact of his interaction with the new management won’t be felt until at least 2001.
Nine years ago, Martin Bernheimer’s Fleischmann profile in the Los Angeles Times bore the title “The Tyrant of the Philharmonic.” Mark Swed’s valedictorian piece two weeks ago dubbed him “A Force of Nature.” Farewell, then, to both Attila and El Nino and, perhaps – closer to the point – Prince Metternich, Austria’s master of wily political game playing in the aftermath of Napoleon’s overthrow.
Fleischmann and the Philharmonic merged their destinies in 1969. The orchestra had been settled into its new home at the Music Center for five years; Mehta had been in charge for seven, much adored by some, much deplored by others. “I came at a time,” Fleischmann told me recently, “when anyone new would have made some inroads into the orchestra’s problems. Zubin had developed a rapport with the players; everybody was everybody’s pal. But he desperately wanted the orchestra to be better, and had no idea how to go about it.”
Fleischmann had an idea, however. He urged Mehta to abdicate as the orchestra’s music director – which involved programming, scanning horizons for new guest artists and better orchestral players, speaking convincingly to doubting supporters, all that and conducting as well – and concentrate on the latter. He, Fleischmann, took the other duties upon himself. Nine years later, Mehta was gone and – for reasons of image restoration no less than musical integrity – Fleischmann was determined to lure the eloquent but diffident Carlo Maria Giulini to the Philharmonic podium. He did so by promising the noble Italian that he, too, would only have to concentrate on conducting while Fleischmann continued as front man. As the Giulini presence drastically raised the Philharmonic’s worldwide reputation, Fleischmann himself became a bastion of power unchallenged anywhere in the world.
It made for an unholy alliance, however: management as dictator of both artistic and economic matters; conductors as hired stick wavers and not much else. Not even the most sanguine soothsayer could believe that the pattern would hold when Giulini left the post and Andre Previn came in. Previn, battle-scarred from management fights in London and Pittsburgh, spent a large part of his five-year tenure at the Music Center attempting in vain to earn his own latchkey as music director in both name and fact. Previn resigned in 1990 over Fleischmann’s signing of Salonen as principal guest conductor without consultation, just as Georg Solti, 28 years before, had resigned over the board’s hiring of Mehta as assistant conductor. Plus ca change . . .
Fleischmann’s hold on the duties of music director was open to challenge – they have now been returned to Salonen’s rightful ownership – but nobody can contest his role as kingmaker. His appetite for new, young conductors is, and always has been, voracious; like a pig after truffles, he knows where to dig. If the Philharmonic earns no other place in history, it will do so as the American launching pad for the likes of Salonen, Simon Rattle, Franz Welser-Moest, and the latest wonder-child as of last week’s concert, the phenomenal, 22-year-old Daniel Harding. The story of Fleischmann’s just happening to be in London in 1983, when the 25-year-old Salonen was called in by the Philharmonia as replacement for the ailing Michael Tilson Thomas, is one of those Music Center legends that everybody tells differently. It was also Fleischmann’s brilliant idea to bring in the aged but incandescent Kurt Sanderling as frequent guest conductor in the 1980s, to remind the orchestra of eloquence and probity as antidote to Previn’s disconnectedness.
It’s easy to tick off Fleischmann’s accomplishments, from the reinvention of the Hollywood Bowl as a musical venue of consequence, to the development of chamber-music and new-music concerts away from the Music Center as an extension of the orchestra’s identity. (It’s worth noting that Pierre Boulez, in his time with the New York Philharmonic, also tried the same kinds of off-site projects, without anything like the success of Los Angeles ventures.) Fleischmann’s capture of Salonen was one of his triumphs; so was the subtle cajoling that brought us Giulini. When I did some backstage interviews last summer for a Philharmonic cover story, several other American orchestras were out on strike, or had recently been so. Everyone I asked pointed to Fleischmann as the bulwark against labor instability at the Music Center. Why? “Because he’s one of us,” the answer usually ran, “a manager but also a musician.”
Out of diverse elements – show biz, the purity of music’s supreme classics, a sense of youthful innovation – Fleischmann has constructed an orchestra that stands alone, apart from and above the competition. Under whatever title he may choose, he will continue to leave his mark on the Philharmonic and, for that matter, on the future (if any) of the institution of the symphony orchestra as an entity worth any and all efforts to preserve.