Soap and Symphony
Willem Wijnbergen can't wait to get back into music. His job description, after all - as executive vice president and managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic - demands at least as much attention to musical matters as to fund-raising, community relations, labor relations, the well-being of two full-scale orchestras and the planning of new concert halls. Since moving into his Music Center office last March, he has, by his own estimate, been able to deal with musical matters - planning programs alongside music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, checking out promising new soloists, fighting the good fight for new music - for only about 5 percent of his time.
On a Sunday night last month, Wijnbergen, his wife, Noelle, 8-year-old Hector and the 7-year-old twins, Eva and Merel, are coping with some newly arrived chaos, the large boxes from Amsterdam laden with all the family's household goods. "I am no longer a resident of Amsterdam," boasts the just-turned-40 Papa Wijnbergen. "I am a firm believer in burning bridges." Barefoot, in shorts and a shirt with the Polo logo, he takes time out for coffee and a good Dutch cigar, and to look down the road for distant shadows. I try to visualize the imperial Ernest Fleischmann, 29 years in the job Wijnbergen has now inherited, doing an interview barefoot and in shorts. I cannot.
"I'm not ready yet for any major statements about my plans for the Philharmonic," says Wijn(VINE)bergen, in that elegantly modulated English that Northern Europeans master so beautifully and Americans never will. "I still have to learn how people work here, and about audiences here. Just think of the Hollywood Bowl, those thousands of people listening to Beethoven and Mahler and Gershwin. I tried that once, but Dutch audiences are much too snobbish to accept that kind of informal atmosphere - even if it didn't rain so much in the summer, which it does."
A year ago, the Philharmonic's search committee was operating in secrecy and in some desperation, trying to find someone reckless enough to take on Fleischmann's well-worn mantle, with its built-in hazard of Fleischmann's magnanimous offer to stay on as "consultant." Suddenly there was Wijnbergen, reportedly at the ardent recommendation of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and he seemed almost too good to be true.
In six years as managing director of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, he had pulled that renowned ensemble out of financial doldrums - brought on by drastic cutbacks in government funding and a somewhat stodgy public image - and had wiped out the orchestra's deficit two years ahead of his own target date. Not only that: His credentials include a respectable career as conductor and pianist, studies in business and arts management at Southern Methodist, and a two-year stint as brand manager at Procter & Gamble's Rotterdam office. Soap and symphony, the market and the muse: You couldn't patent a better design for someone to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic into a new millennium and a new concert hall.
Crossing those thresholds are, of course, his major concern. Deep down, Wijnbergen shares the widely held (but surreptitiously voiced) belief that the downtown location of the Music Center is all wrong, in ways that adding the new Disney Hall will not correct. Whatever the Chandler family's hopes were in 1964 - for the creation of a magnetic cultural enclave comparable to New York's Lincoln Center or London's South Bank, surrounded by restaurants, book and music stores, small and delightful gathering places - they have not materialized; the barren Music Center is surrounded by more barrenness. It's not very likely, however, that its buildings will anytime soon be loaded onto trucks and moved somewhere else. "What we have to concentrate on instead," says Wijnbergen, "is to develop many kinds of venues all over the city, where we can attract diverse audiences with diverse programs. I don't mean only concert halls, although I'd love to find some use for Ambassador Auditorium, which just sits there sad and empty. I mean churches, small theaters, outdoor settings, a network of places with the Music Center as the nucleus.
"The biggest job, as I see it, is to become important to the broadest segment of the audience. We have to take a long and hard look at programming. I don't mean that we have to turn everything upside down; there's nothing basically wrong with playing Brahms symphonies, and audiences will be moved by this music into the 21st century and even beyond. But there are ways of making programs that are more imaginative than just doing a Brahms and following that by a Tchaikovsky. For example, we could do a series of programs built around Russian music, or baroque music, or Hispanic, and then schedule other events that would expand on those concerts, make them a more meaningful part of the audience's experience - chamber music by the same composers on the main program, or a lecture, or a free outdoor event. If we can suggest to an audience that we take seriously the music we present week to week, perhaps we can convince the audience to take it seriously as well."
Symphony orchestras do most of their programming two or three years in advance, to fit in with the schedules of touring soloists and visiting conductors; thus, most of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's 1998-99 season, which begins this weekend, was already set in place during the last two years of Fleischmann's leadership. There are exceptions, of course, due to inevitable dropouts of one kind or another. This weekend's program, for example, was to have included the second of the "Film-Harmonic" projects: short new films with scores played by the orchestra, commissioned for inclusion on the orchestra's regular concerts. But Renny Harlin, the scheduled director, took on another assignment and had to postpone his Philharmonic stint; it was Wijnbergen, then, who had to marshal his local forces to come up with a substitute. The result: a film not new but old - Victor Seastrom's silent classic The Wind - with music also old, chosen by Salonen from some of Jean Sibelius' windswept tone poems, with additional brainstorming by director Peter Sellars. Thus, this weekend's concerts, which inaugurate Wijnbergen's first season as the Philharmonic's managing director, inaugurate his prowess as a musical planner as well.
Already there are reports of other innovations on Wijnbergen's drawing board. Upon arrival last March, he immediately waded into musical matters at the Bowl, reorganizing the management of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, installing himself at the head, tearing up plans for a scheduled complete performance of Puccini's Turandot as being outside that orchestra's rightful territory, tromping on a few toes in the process, which have since healed. Now the reports point to a considerable expansion of Bowl fare starting next summer, with increased attention to jazz and the addition of world music to the summer fare. "I had the feeling," Wijnbergen explains, "that the Bowl needed my attention at first even more than the Philharmonic. For one thing, the Bowl programs are usually planned only a year in advance, not three. What little time I've had for musical programming up to now, therefore, has gone into the immediate problem of next summer at the Bowl. We need to book more conductors and more soloists, and, frankly, we haven't always made the best choices along those lines."
Leaving Amsterdam's orchestra, recognized as one of the world's half-dozen greatest, to take on America's Wild West: Does that suggest a bravery verging on the foolhardy? "What attracts me the most about coming here," says Wijnbergen, "is the scope of the possibilities. I know this can sound like public-relations bullshit, but I mean it seriously. My biggest problem? It's the same as nearly every orchestra manager's biggest problem right now. It's to renew our relevance - to the musical world, and to our own community. Three orchestras in the world can exist beyond concerns about relevance: the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, and the orchestra I left in Amsterdam; they are the fact of life in their cities, like every stone monument. The rest of us face the daily need to lead the musical life of our cities, and to prove to more audiences every day why that life is important."
Willem Wijnbergen pours another cup of coffee, and looks straight ahead into the next century. "It can be done," he says.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.