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Esa-Pekka Salonen remembers an inimitable Ernest Fleischmann

June 17, 2010 |  2:10 pm
Ep ernest peter
Ernest Fleischmann, who died late Sunday night, left a very large footprint in Los Angeles. Just imagine the Cahuenga Pass as a collection of Playa Vista-like condominiums rather than the home of the Hollywood Bowl (which he saved). Just imagine a still-dowdy downtown sans Walt Disney Concert Hall (which he envisioned and built). Just imagine the Los Angeles Philharmonic without Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The tributes have been, as expected, pouring in for the imperious leader of the L.A. Philharmonic from 1969 to 1998 who revolutionized orchestra life in this country and abroad and who played a major role in the cultural maturation of our city.

“One thing that L.A. really needs to know,” Salonen said over coffee Tuesday in Santa Monica, “is that Disney Hall would not be here without Ernest. During the darkest days, when everyone said the hall was dead in the water, against all logic and probability, he just stubbornly pressed on.”

Salonen said he spoke with Fleischmann over the phone late last week. His 85-year-old former boss was failing and time was short, so Salonen hopped on a plane from London, where he now lives. But he was too late. He learned of Fleischmann’s death when he switched on his iPhone upon landing Monday. “The number of e-mails and texts from all over the world was overwhelming,” Salonen said.

One of those e-mails had been from me, asking for a comment The Times might include in our obituary. He texted back: “Just landed and got the news. So sad. I’ll call you later once I recover a bit.” 

By Tuesday, Salonen, on what he said was his fifth espresso of the morning, was ready to share fond and funny remembrances of a larger-than-life character who had been a mentor and tireless champion.

His first meeting with Fleischmann 27 years ago set the tone. Hearing that a remarkable 25-year-old Finnish composer and conductor would be a last-minute substitute for Michael Tilson Thomas at the Philharmonia in London, Fleischmann immediately flew from L.A. to catch the performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony.

“He came backstage,” Salonen recalled, “and everyone was making this big deal about this Ernest Fleischmann, whom I had never heard of. He walked up to me and didn’t mince words. He offered me the job at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, without authorization from the board or anything. It was incredible.”

Salonen accepted, instead, an offer to make his U.S. debut guest conducting the orchestra the following year in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

When he did finally become the L.A. Philharmonic's music director in 1992, Salonen said, no one but Fleischmann could have more imaginatively guided his career. One way was by putting together the Finnish conductor with the director Peter Sellars right from the start. “He felt that I needed some kind of partner who would be outside the box, somebody who could walk me through this country and translate the culture for me until I could walk for myself. But who had ever heard of an orchestra hiring a dramaturge?”

Even so, Salonen described a turbulent time with the orchestra early on. “There were major personnel changes that needed to be made,” he said, “and I got very drastic feedback.” For one thing, he exercised the music director's prerogative to find a sympathetic concertmaster, and the feedback was both from some members of the orchestra and the press.

Discouraged, Salonen told Fleischmann that maybe he should just pack up and go back home. “ ‘If you go, I go,’ Ernest told me, ‘but maybe we should give it a try.’ 

”Of course, crisis management always brought out the best in Ernest. He was disappointed when things went too smoothly.” 

Managing the completion of Disney Hall was the greatest crisis. Salonen admitted that had the Music Center given up on the hall in the mid-'90s when the city was still recovering from a recession and riots (and when the public and donors were still skeptical about Frank Gehry's design), he would not have been able to remain in Los Angeles. “I would have failed the main objective and felt that someone else should come in and give it a try.”

Fleischmann was never easy, and naturally there were disagreements. “If I did something he didn’t like, he let me know it,” Salonen said, “but I ... had the feeling that no matter what happened there would [never] be anything but total loyalty.”

Except, that is, when it came to restaurants and wine. “He always had to choose,” Salonen said with a big laugh, imitating Fleischmann’s booming voice.

“I might suggest some new place to try, and he would always say no we had to go here or here.”

With the selection of wine, the fights with other opinionated diners at the table practically led to fisticuffs.

After our coffee, Salonen was on his way to visit with Sellars and then see Fleischmann’s three children. As he walked to his car, he found a parking ticket on the windshield. Lost in memories about Fleischmann, Salonen had forgotten about the meter. He shrugged his shoulders.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Esa-Pekka Salonen, left, Ernest Fleischmann and Peter Sellars in Paris in 1996 for a Stravinsky festival with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Credit: David Weiss

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