During Its Centennial Season, the L.A. Phil Has Its Eyes on the Horizon

By Megan Westberg

After spending a weekend attending the 2018–19 season’s opening gala; an eight-mile-long musical street fair organized in concert with CicLAvia, a group that transforms Los Angeles city streets into bicycle and foot-traffic-only avenues; a free concert at the Hollywood Bowl featuring Katy Perry, Herbie Hancock, and a surprise performance with John Williams; and numerous press events, I can tell you this: No one at the Los Angeles Philharmonic is interested in talking about the past. Even though this season represents its centennial. Even though its past is well worth celebrating. In a city where all eyes are on the orchestra’s charismatic leader Gustavo Dudamel, his eyes are fixed almost entirely on the future, with the present serving as a pleasant periphery.

The season itself reinforces this notion. Though it does include a nod to the past, with former music directors conducting music to which they are closely connected, the focus on the new or the next is well represented with the premieres of more than 50 new commissions from composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Julia Adolphe, whose stunning, atmospheric piece Beneath the Sheen figured into the season’s opening gala concert. The L.A. Phil has also brought in a group of “Creative Collaborators,” including Herbie Hancock, John Adams, Yuval Sharon, and principal guest conductor Susanna Mälkki, to add another shot of star power and artistic muscle into the program. And in addition to all of its commissions and a long thread of glittering guest artists, the season also features L.A. Fest, dedicated to the music of its home region; several multi-disciplinary performances with American Ballet Theatre, L.A. Dance Project, and Old Globe; and evenings devoted to celebrating Stanley Kubrick, John Williams, and William Grant Still.

But nowhere is its focus on the future more apparent than in its commitment to its youth programs, especially Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which provides free, high-quality music training to 1,200 students from underserved neighborhoods. YOLA was founded in 2007, and is clearly Dudamel’s pet project. It’s been announced, as a part of the L.A. Phil 100 celebrations, that YOLA is to receive its own home, the Judith and Thomas L. Beckman YOLA Center @ Inglewood. Designed by Frank Gehry, who also built the L.A. Phil’s home at Walt Disney Hall, the $14.5-million facility will provide rehearsal, class, and performance space for YOLA and serve as a springboard for L.A. Phil community-engagement efforts.

So it’s fair to say that the season is ambitious—ambitious in the way only a financially stable organization can be. And that stability is at least partly owed to the L.A. Phil’s departed president and CEO Deborah Borda, who decamped for the New York Philharmonic at last season’s end. The organization is now in the hands of new CEO Simon Woods, wooed away from the same role at the Seattle Symphony. Woods, for his part, is already an able champion of his new artistic home. “We have the most extraordinarily effective organization,” he says. “We’re not only visionary but we’re great at executing. So that I’m in awe of—the way in which we execute anything that we dream up is pretty amazing.”


Woods describes his leadership style as a kind of “servant leader: somebody who’s here to help oil the wheels so that everything can happen,” and that kind of approach feels right for an organization whose music and artistic director, Dudamel, is widely regarded as a maestro who coaxes, rather than browbeats, the best from his musicians. Woods is pleased to have found “this very pervasive spirit of family—the spirit of common ambitions and goals.”

“I think the orchestra has to go to the community and embrace them—with the music, with all of what we do, with the community feeling that they own this.”

—Gustavo Dudamel

One of these common ambitions is undoubtedly to embed this orchestra firmly into the everyday cultural life of its city. At an organization where everyone is constantly talking about the future, almost every conversation is peppered with mentions of the importance of community engagement. “I think the orchestra has to go to the community and embrace them—with the music, with all of what we do, with the community feeling that they own this,” says Dudamel, who is conducting his tenth season with the L.A. Phil. Changing are the days when an orchestra could perform onstage and assume the world would come to them, according to Dudamel. In the new model, the orchestra would bring music to the community. “It is a transformation of the concept of art as a symbol and as the soul of the community,” he says.

Woods agrees that a key element of the L.A. Phil’s future direction relies on finding new ways to engage with audiences. “How do we open the doors of our institution and make that kind of inspiration available to ordinary people? That’s particularly resonant to me because I’m deeply committed to those areas of inclusion and equity and making sure that we are truly giving back to our community in a new way,” he says.


But how does an organization like the L.A. Phil embed itself into its broader community? “It’s about values,” asserts Woods, “and I think it’s about understanding what the city stands for.” Los Angeles has a reputation for being on the cutting edge, making it a perfect conduit for artistic innovation. COO Chad Smith, who has served in his role for the past 17 years, has noticed about his adopted home, “that L.A. [is] a place where things are made, and it’s a place where people kind of experiment and there’s an embrace of this messy process of creating work.” Dudamel concurs. “This place has a tradition of the new—new things. . . It’s open to creativity, you know? . . . It’s a city of inspiration.”

“At an organization where everyone is constantly talking about the future, almost every conversation is peppered with mentions of the importance of community engagement.”

This kind of artistic openness has made programming a season with 50 new commissions a realistic endeavor. But according to Smith, the L.A. Phil’s deepening connection to its city is all due to the values of its music director. “We, after ten years, are a reflection of the values of Gustavo. We’re a reflection of his commitment to the community. We’re a reflection of his wide embrace of music from many different backgrounds,” he says. Going forward, he says, “We’re listening, we’re watching, we’re talking to people, we’re reading, and we’re trying to see where our world is and to continue to find ways where our art form has an important role to play in that dialogue.”


Dudamel is pulled in a million directions during the season’s opening festivities, from performances with the L.A. Phil to patron dinners to YOLA performances to rehearsals to CicLAvia to answering questions from a host of reporters. Through it all, his smile never wavers. He never seems tired. He never seems overwhelmed. He is calm. Engaged. Even joyful with 15 microphones hovering an inch from his face. Through it all, he never stops talking about the future. “Artistically you can see this season is insane, amazing, ambitious, you know, with all the commissions, with all of that,” he says, “but. . . it is only the beginning, because this makes us challenge ourselves. More wonderful things are coming in the near future, and in the long future also.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Strings magazine.