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Obituary: LA Philharmonic's Ernest Fleischmann (1924-2010)

[Ernest Fleischmann, the former head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, died last Sunday at 85.]

"The U.S. is the only country in the world today where the fortunes of most symphony orchestras depend on the generosity, the wisdom, the enthusiasm, indeed the musical tastes and policies of bankers, oil men, meatpackers, merchants and housewives."

-- Ernest Fleischmann in High Fidelity, 1969

Former L.A. Philharmonic director Ernest Fleischmann has passed on at the age of 85. This is the death of a giant, a towering figure in our midst who almost singlehandedly created a credible classical music scene in Los Angeles.

Born in Frankfurt, with his late childhood spent in South Africa, Fleischmann had been the general manager of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) from 1959 to 1967, as well as director of CBS Masterworks for Europe, the classical section of CBS Records. He'd accrued broad experience as a musician, conductor, journalist, broadcaster, accountant and festival director. His above-quoted rant about the dire state of symphony orchestras helped get him the job of executive director of the L.A. Phil in 1969, an era when our little town's classical and opera organizations were richly endowed with sparkling new cultural spaces such as the Music Center and its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but sorely in need of a broader, deeper artistic vision -- and the business brawn to make it flourish.

Fleischmann more than competently fulfilled his duties as executive director of the L.A. Phil, in short order adding General Director of the Hollywood Bowl to his titles, and then becoming executive vice-president and managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. At the Hollywood Bowl, he instituted new series including Jazz at the Bowl and the Sunday Sunset Concerts, and founded Chamber Music at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. In 1991, he helped form the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

Fleischmann's farsighted vision had by 1970 vastly boosted the ranks of quality players for the L.A. Phil, and he'd had the knowledge and good taste to bring in gifted conductors in to lead the orchestras. His choices for that role included Carlo Maria Giulini and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and he was also active in Gustavo Dudamel's appointment as conductor in 2009. His admirable respect for contemporary music boosted the founding of the Philharmonic New Music Group in 1981; Fleischmann also established the Philharmonic's Chamber Music Society as well as the Philharmonic's free Neighborhood Concerts. He was a central figure in the design and construction of Walt Disney Concert Hall. Fleischmann retired from his Philharmonic position in 1998, acting as the Philharmonic's artistic consultant until 2000.

He was an educator, a business wiz, an ideas man and rather a star. To some, memorably former LA Times classical critic Martin Bernheimer, Fleischmann was a tyrant with a stranglehold on cultural life in our city. Bernheimer conceded, as did conductor Andre Previn -- who, he claimed, had been maneuvered by Fleischmann out of the conductorship of the L.A. Phil -- that nobody could be boss man of a symphony orchestra quite like Ernest Fleischmann.


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