By Brian Wise

When the Los Angeles Philharmonic announced plans for its 100th anniversary season, which begins in September, it became evident that this would be a consummately, only-in-L.A. undertaking. There would be more than 50 commissions of new works, a plan to distribute 10,000 free tickets to underserved audiences, lots of cross-disciplinary programming (film, dance), and an appearance, led by music director Gustavo Dudamel, at the 2019 Academy Awards.

The plans were a sign that the Philharmonic recognized its hard-won reputation as “the most important orchestra in America,” as the New York Times declared in 2017. But they also came months after the Philharmonic’s president and CEO, Deborah Borda, decamped for the New York Philharmonic, and has since been succeeded by Simon Woods, who held the same post at the Seattle Symphony. Dudamel, who will enter his tenth season as the Philharmonic’s music director, has not signaled his plans for after 2022, when his current contract expires.

“When you talk about Los Angeles, you think immediately about the movie world and all of that,” says Dudamel, who studied violin in his native Venezuela. “That is wonderful. But also, L.A. is a reference right now in art and in classical music. We are very proud of that.”

Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel exits the stage

Gustavo Dudamel. Photo by Sam Comen

Dudamel says he is particularly excited by programs with a visual, interdisciplinary flair, whether a cycle of Mozart operas that featured sets by noted architects (Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid), or a production last month of Mahler’s Das Lied von Der Erde with video effects by Teatrocinema, a Chilean theater company. Even pops programming, Dudamel says, can span Tony Bennett, Moby, and singer-violinist Andrew Bird. “It is a dynamic I’m very proud we have achieved,” he says, “because it has been years of working and finding our own way of doing things, and how we see our future in the world.”

Initial reactions to Woods’ arrival have been cautiously optimistic. “I think everyone’s just waiting and seeing,” says Elizabeth Cline, a librettist and the executive director of the Industry, a company that has worked with the Philharmonic on massive, site-specific music-theater pieces including 2017’s War of the Worlds. “Deborah was able to make such a huge impact and set such an incredible framework for the institution to go outside of its comfort zone in every single aspect of the organization.”

Along with the Industry, the past decade has seen the rise of plucky young L.A. ensembles such as wild Up, wasteLAnd, Southland Ensemble, and Kaleidoscope, which join established organizations including the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Camerata Pacifica. The Philharmonic last November hosted some 20 young contemporary music groups at Disney Hall, as part of a Noon to Midnight marathon (complete with a line of taco trucks on Grand Avenue). Its underlying premise: that a rising tide lifts all ensembles.

Nate Bachhuber, who until February was the Philharmonic’s artistic administrator, says the orchestra’s financial growth—its $130-million budget is the largest of any US orchestra—has given its programmers greater license to push boundaries. “L.A. has an obsession with the new and the Philharmonic has been able to continually provide the fodder for that curiosity that exists in the city,” he says.

Bachhuber recalls how meetings with local composers, producers, and artists would spark ideas that evolved into festivals, such as those in 2017 devoted to Iceland and Mexico City. And he says that while Dudamel is widely recognized for his charisma and energy, his versatility makes that experimentation possible. “His skills are so ridiculously in tune that he can conduct anything.” (Bachhuber in March became the director of artistic administration at the Cincinnati Symphony; he says his decision to leave was not linked to Borda’s departure.)


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Martin Chalifour, the Philharmonic’s concertmaster since 1995, says that the move to the Frank Gehry–designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 marked the start of a larger transformation. “The blend and refinement of the sound has really happened because of Disney Hall and also because of exploring more traditional and mainstream repertoire with Gustavo,” he says. Under Dudamel’s predecessor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, “we may have been tipping the scale more toward contemporary music and Stravinsky but not doing that much Mozart and Schubert. Now, there’s a sense of chamber-music playing, of listening to one another.”

But Chalifour also credits audiences and donors that support riskier fare. “The amount of thinking that goes on behind the scenes in our planning department is really staggering,” he says. “We can see programs that are not compromised and have strong concepts consistently.” Philharmonic violist Meredith Snow admits that she was “petrified” when she saw a long list of premieres planned for next season. “As a violist, I’m thinking, ‘When am I going to have time to learn all of these pieces?’” But she says that modern music is essential to the orchestra’s mission and believes that Dudamel has increasingly embraced it. “He was a little intimidated at first but he has certainly blossomed in that respect.”

“L.A. is a reference right now in art and in classical music. We are very proud of that.”

—Gustavo Dudamel, music director, L.A. Philharmonic

When Snow joined the Philharmonic in 1986, the orchestra was a decidedly second-tier ensemble, and as much as half of its members moonlighted for Hollywood studios to supplement their incomes. Tours drew mixed reviews. Assessing a performance of Mendelssohn in 1988, the New York Times said that “everything sounded thick and clotted,” and the string playing “seemed gritty and ill-tuned.” In 1989, André Previn abruptly resigned as music director after feuding with then-CEO Ernest Fleischmann.

But after Salonen arrived in 1992, followed by Borda in 2000, larger, city-wide shifts were taking place. For one, the region’s higher-education system grew in stature. The Colburn School opened a downtown conservatory in 2003 and the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts doubled in size that same decade. Art schools, meanwhile, were producing graduates interested in mixed media work. “You have this huge number here trying to make their way out of a graduate program,” says Cline of the Industry. “There are a lot of artist-run spaces here where artists can experiment.”

Additionally, the commercial and nonprofit music scenes intersected more fluidly. “The new music scene and the Hollywood studio scene are overlapped. I feel as if that is a new thing,” says Christopher Rountree, artistic director of wild Up, which presents concerts at Disney Hall and other venues. Rountree points to composers (though not all West Coast–based) who write music for wild Up as well as for film studios, among them, Daniel Wohl, Dustin J. O’Halloran, and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson.

And a third shift inevitably concerns real estate, and the emergence of the cultural district around Disney Hall. This spring, the Colburn School announced plans for a new 1,000-seat concert hall on a downtown lot. Colburn president and CEO Sel Kardan believes it fills a need for a venue that exists between Disney Hall’s 2,265 seats and the 420 seats of the school’s own Zipper Concert Hall. Though offering few details, Kardan says he hopes to lure professional outfits like the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

“One of the things that’s happened is the resurgence of downtown as a cultural destination, a culinary destination, and as a place to live,” says Kardan. “There’s a real enthusiasm about investing in what will make this city grow and become an international cultural destination.”

But some musicians and arts leaders believe that a tradition of arts philanthropy comparable to established East Coast cities continues to be lacking in Los Angeles (it ranked 14th in charitable giving in 2017, according to Charity Navigator). “Philanthropy in Los Angeles is not that old,” says Cline. “There’s not that history of giving. I feel we’re constantly making the case for why it’s important to support arts organizations.”

Rountree echoes this point, noting that funding for contemporary music in particular is not as plentiful. “There are more granting institutions for new music both in Chicago and New York,” he says. “I am unaware of a grant that is for Los Angeles new music.” (Perhaps also lacking: a professional early-music ensemble.)

But support for music education and social justice initiatives appears to be healthier. And in Los Angeles County—which stretches from the ocean to the desert and includes some 88 economically diverse cities—the arts can at best provide a unifying force.

One of Dudamel’s proudest achievements has been the creation of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which provides free instruments and musical training to 1,000 students in underserved neighborhoods. In 2022, it is expected to open the YOLA Center in Inglewood, a dedicated facility designed by Gehry. “Without the support of our board, that would not be possible,” says Dudamel. “They see that the things we do are essential for the soul of the community and for the idea of what Los Angeles is.” 


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This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strings magazine.

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