A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Ernest Fleischmann was honored by the LA Phil with a tribute concert on March 27.

Music celebrities from around the globe gathered at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 27 to celebrate and honor Ernest Fleischmann as a champion of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Fleischmann, the former executive vice president and managing director of the LA Phil whose history with the organization actually dates back to 1969, passed away June 13, 2010, at the age of 85.

In a pre-concert discussion, composer Steven Stucky and LA Phil Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen joined Deborah Borda, president and CEO of the LA Phil, to share their personal memories of Fleischmann’s nearly 30 years managing the orchestra.  Borda applauded his visionary spirit and elegant taste, and in her notes described him as “a giant upon whose shoulders we all stand.”  All agreed that he had an uncanny ability to recognize talent, a keen ability to discern that special quality that separates genius from the ordinary.

Fleischmann was not simply ahead of his time; he was a defining character in the history of music in Los Angeles.  He was instrumental in the realization of our fabulous Walt Disney Concert Hall and its sublime architecture and acoustical design.  He recruited and mentored great talent, and convinced them to call our city home.  The “Big 5” symphony orchestras are now the “Big 6” thanks to his brilliant management and shrewd judgment of music and musicians.  He reached out to the masses to make the Orchestra accessible and vibrant in the eyes and ears of the public, and he strongly supported education.  And thank Fleischmann for the signature fireworks and classical music at the Hollywood Bowl.  The list goes on.

Perhaps most significantly, Fleischmann was also a discerning enthusiast of new music, and built the reputation of the LA Phil and its ancillary organizations to new heights.  How fitting it was to couch this tribute in a Green Umbrella concert, a concept that he vigorously developed against the odds, for which he endured the singular loneliness of being an innovator and prophet.

Borda joined Music Director Gustavo Dudamel onstage to open the concert with a touching cinematic memorial.  Dudamel, a Fleischmann recruit, explained that his conducting duties that day were preempted by the impending birth of his son.

From the podium, Maestro Pierre Boulez, now 86 years old, described his friend Fleischmann as “courageous and daring,” and then began the concert with his 1998 composition Sur Incises. The ensemble was exceptionally comfortable with the music, having performed it together with Boulez in Fleischmann’s Ojai Festival days.

Three pianos, three harps, and three percussionists were arranged in three clusters left, right, and center on stage.  The composition played with ephemeral melodic primitives that passed from instrument to instrument in their development, picking up momentum along the way.  Contagious ideas emerged and interacted to build large sonic structures that infused the entire hall with a complex affective music.

Boulez’s conducting was deliberate as he oriented each entry with finely tuned gestures.  At times he would jab and point; at other times, a gentle wave signaled the sound into motion.  With his homage to Fleischmann protruding from his side pocket, his purpose was evident.  The energy waxed and waned, sometimes punctuated with dramatic pauses, as wooden and metallic timbres emanated from hammers and touches.  I enjoyed watching him effect a Messiaen-like climax that gave way to a final pianissimo gasp and an emphatic silence.

The U.S. premiere of Salonen’s Dona Nobis Pacem with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus was conducted by Anne Tomlinson.  Her expressive and fluid direction connected with the Chorus and the audience. Fleischmann faithfully supported youth programs in Los Angeles, and the Chorus gave the program a special exuberance, in dedication to his contributions as a supporter of education in the arts.  Salonen’s music itself was superb; its ethnic European melody was beautifully crafted, and the Children’s Chorus was extraordinary in its abilities under Tomlinson.

Associate Conductor Lionel Bringuier, also recruited by Fleischmann, directed six members of the New Music Group in Franco Donatoni’s colorful Arpèges, written in 1986.  Flutist Catherine Ransom Karoly caught my attention in several moments in the piece, as did cellist Jason Lippmann.

Stravinsky’s burlesque Renard was fantastic; in so many ways it was the perfect selection to close the event.  Salonen regaled the audience with an amusing story about a road trip with Fleischmann that ended with an unscripted encounter with a garage door and an abandoned BMW.  He said that the constantly shifting meters reminded him of that wild ride, and that he chose the work because Fleischmann loved Renard himself, and because he loved his dear friend.  Then he conducted a most magnificent performance that brought an extended standing ovation from an obviously affected audience.

Renard featured the LA Phil New Music Group and tenors Daniel Chaney and Grant Gershon, baritone Abdiel González, and bass Reid Bruton.  The singers each expressed unique anthropomorphisms.  Chaney was boisterous and showy from his crowing opening statements, and Gershon sang marvelously (I enjoyed his glissandos) as the unctuous fox Renard.

The next time you venture to Walt Disney Concert Hall, step out to the corner of First Street and Grand Avenue, now dedicated as Ernest Fleischmann Square, and share in the pride of Los Angeles as a brilliant beacon in the world of music.

~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA