The following is a conversation between Simon Woods, CEO of the LA Philharmonic, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in WNYM New York City.
Denver: It was an incredible declaration by the New York Times when it stated, and I quote, “The LA Philharmonic is the most important orchestra in America.” It’s also the orchestra that will be celebrating its centennial anniversary this year and doing so in a way that is befitting of that well-earned reputation, as above. It’s a pleasure to have with us tonight, the CEO of the LA Philharmonic, Simon Woods. Good evening, Simon, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Simon: Good evening, Denver. Great pleasure to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Denver: I can’t easily imagine Los Angeles having a philharmonic orchestra back in 1919, but it did. So, on this occasion of your centennial, share with us some of the history of the LA Phil.
Simon: The LA Phil was founded back a hundred years ago by William Andrews Clark, who was a remarkable philanthropist who loved music and felt that it was high time that LA had a great orchestra. The very early days of the LA Phil were interesting. There was the first performance in downtown LA, but then there were some very famous performances out at the Hollywood Bowl. You see right from the very beginning of this organization this inextricable link between the Hollywood Bowl and downtown LA, and this desire to make a huge, public impact. There’s a famous, famous picture from the 1920s of what’s called the Easter morning service, where William Andrews Clark brought together the LA Phil for this public Easter service in the Hollywood Bowl to start to play with and explore the beautiful, natural acoustics of this wonderful, special place, which has gone on to be a place that’s deep in the heart of Angelenos. The history, it’s a beautiful thing, looking back right to the very beginning of the orchestra and watching the way it’s evolved over the last hundred years.
… but there’s some different air that you breathe. There’s an air of that freedom to be who you are, to be unencumbered by tradition. I think the LA Phil, through its history, has really capitalized on that to think differently about what it means to be an orchestra, what it means to be an orchestra in the twenty-first century. It is an organization which has always blended a great sense of continuity and tradition with a great sense of looking forward.
Denver: It sure is. I think it also had the freedom, being out West like that. It was not held captive to the institutions and the strictures of those eastern orchestras. As a result of that, you’ve always been in the forefront of innovation. What are some of the firsts that the orchestra can lay claim to?
Simon: In general, yes, I think on the West Coast, over the past couple of decades especially, there has been the sense that this is where the most exciting work in the American orchestra is going on, which isn’t any way to say anything negative about the many great orchestras in the East; but there’s some different air that you breathe. There’s an air of that freedom to be who you are, to be unencumbered by tradition. I think the LA Phil, through its history, has really capitalized on that to think differently about what it means to be an orchestra, what it means to be an orchestra in the twenty-first century. It is an organization which has always blended a great sense of continuity and tradition with a great sense of looking forward.
I’ll give you one small example. If you go back to the 1970s, you find some really interesting things going on. You find that, for instance, the LA Phil was one of the very first orchestras ever to start a program to encourage minority musicians to find their way into music. Today, many orchestras have that. We have our own program around building a pathway for musicians to communities who don’t normally find their way into classical music. But the LA Phil was doing that back in the 1970s. The LA Phil was playing church concerts in African-American communities in Los Angeles back in the 1970s. It’s always, to me, had a sense of being a few steps ahead of everybody else, and I think you can find that if you look back in its history.
One of the most amazing things about orchestras is the way that they sound different with a different conductor. When a conductor walks in… one conductor can stand in front of the orchestra, and the orchestra will sound one way; and then purely because of their gestures, another conductor will step up, and the orchestra will sound different.
… the conductor plays this extraordinary role in molding the sound of the orchestra.
Denver: No doubt about it. It was really baked into the DNA of the organization. You hired the first African-American musician back in 1948. You invited the first woman to conduct in 1925. Just this long history that continues. I think for a lot of people around the country, they may know the LA Phil the most from your dynamic and gifted conductor, Gustavo Dudamel. You’ve been around a lot of orchestras. You’ve led a lot of orchestras both in this country and abroad. What would you say makes Dudamel special?
Simon: My whole career… I’ve been a professional conductor watcher. Maybe it’s because I’m a failed conductor myself. I’ve trained as a conductor, so I’ve always loved and been fascinated by the art of conducting. It is a very, very mysterious thing. There’s magic that a great conductor can generate with an orchestra which is unique to who that person is. One of the most amazing things about orchestras is the way that they sound different with a different conductor. When a conductor walks in… one conductor can stand in front of the orchestra, and the orchestra will sound one way; and then purely because of their gestures, another conductor will step up, and the orchestra will sound different. I’ve, over the years, quizzed many musicians about this. It’s not entirely clear. There are things you can point to to do, whether the gestures are hard, are soft, or how the conductor presents himself or how they talk. But the fact is, the conductor plays this extraordinary role in molding the sound of the orchestra.
This is a very, very long answer to your question about Gustavo Dudamel because he is– in my experience 30 years in this business– he is one of the most remarkable individuals that I have ever seen stand in front of an orchestra because he literally does have that kind of almost magic presence that enables him to conjure things and produce things from an orchestra that maybe they even themselves didn’t think were possible. It is greatness. It is partly to do with just who he as a human being and his gracious, but determined way of working together with musicians… not at them, but with them. It’s partly to do with… he is technically supreme. He has an amazing technique and an amazing memory, so he conducts a lot… a lot of what he conducts, he conducts from memory… no score in front of him. So, he’s very free to communicate emotionally and instinctively with the orchestra. It’s also partly to do with the discipline of great training. He not only has those special, magical skills that make him magnetic as an audience member to watch. There is this bedrock of absolutely superb musicianship which gives him this freedom, which is remarkable.
Denver: He does all that in two extraordinary venues. We mentioned the Hollywood Bowl. Tell us about that, a little bit more… also your other venue.
Simon: Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, I really feel like it’s one of the great music venues of the world. In my just over a year in this organization, one of the things that’s been wonderful for me has been that I’ve heard… virtually every concert I’ve heard there, I felt like I was hearing the piece of music for the first time. Because Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry, with this amazing partnership between Frank and this incredible acoustician, Yasu Toyota. Between them, Frank and Yasu created this space which has an amazing combination of properties that you don’t always find in concert halls. It’s warm, it’s engaging, and it’s detailed. It’s not only a very warm… it’s not only a beautiful, warm bath of wonderful sound, very sensuous sound. But you really hear the detail in the music. You are able to listen inside the music.
It makes a really compelling place to listen to music, and I have absolutely no doubt that this factor, the sheer quality of the Hall, is like the third strand of artistic success – the other two being Gustavo Dudamel, of course, and the extraordinary quality of the orchestra. And I really see the Hall as the third instrument. Our sales are remarkable. We’re still, 15, 16 years after the opening of the Hall, 10 years into Gustavo Dudamel’s tenure, we’re still selling 90% of the tickets across the season. Gustavo’s concerts are pretty much entirely sold out. So, I think it’s this combination of great qualities that we have all together; it’s like a perfect package.
I didn’t talk about the Hollywood Bowl, and the Hollywood Bowl, of course, is the alter ego of the LA Phil. One of the things about the Hollywood Bowl that I’ve learned is just how beloved it is by our community. To go to the Hollywood Bowl, the number of times that people have said to me, “My grandma used to bring me there on picnics.” “My dad brought me there as a kid.” “Our family used to go there.” “Yes, that’s where I had my first date with my wife.” People have had many, many significant experiences there. It has tremendous affection in the hearts of the people of the whole region of Los Angeles County.
Denver: That’s your summer home, right?
Simon: That’s our summer home. We’re there all the way through the summer. By the way, it’s not only about the orchestra concerts we present there. It’s about all the other concerts. It’s about jazz, world music, Mariachi, the KPop evening… all the other amazing things that happen during the course of the summer.
Denver: Let me pick up on that a little bit because the LA Phil is quite unlike any other orchestra in that you have this uncanny knack to blend genres and styles, and then come up with something completely new and distinctive, a new art form almost. Give us some examples where you’ve seen that work at its very best.
Simon: I think one of the things that we’ve done which has been so extraordinarily successful over the years, is we’ve really explored Walt Disney Concert Hall as a performance space. Many times a year in Walt Disney, the concerts we’ll put on – it might be an opera, it might be a big piece of contemporary music. You will see things beyond just straight concert performances. We did some wonderful concerts with Esa-Pekka Salonen a couple of weeks ago– sacred music of Stravinsky, which used the Hall in just an unusual way… moving around the stage, creating atmospheric lighting in the building, using different parts of the stage for different kinds of music. It was relatively simple, but very beautifully effective. It almost turned the Hall into a church where different sacraments were happening at different places in the church.
Then you can then look at all the dramatic productions we’ve done in the Hall. The Mozart Da Ponte operas which were designed by Frank Gehry. You can look at the things we’ve done this year. We did an amazing performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in conjunction with a Chilean-based cinema theater company called Teatrocinema where the actors acted inside almost a movie screen. It turned the performance of Mahler’s dramatic work into almost like you were sitting in a movie theater watching the singers inside a screen. There’s been this tremendous willingness to try things that are on the edge. The thing I love about the organization is the organization has a very high tolerance for doing things that don’t work. High tolerance for risk. Most of it works. Some of it doesn’t. This is great because what it really tells you is, it’s an organization which really culturally embraces learning and thinking differently.
Denver: It really does. In taking that risk too, it has very high standards. People sometimes think you’re just taking risk because: to be able to take that risk, you have to meet a certain set of standards, but if it fails, you get up, you dust yourself off, and you go on to the next thing.
You’ve also been a leader in melding the artistic with social justice and education and other contemporary issues of concern. How do you embed that into these performances?
Simon: We’re in a very interesting time in the arts right now where I think that we are challenged beyond how we’ve ever been challenged before to think about what is our impact on… what is our social impact? And how can we play a role in social justice? For me, as I’ve thought long and hard about this over the years…for me, one of the worst things you can do is create false choices. I constantly describe myself as a kind of conservative-progressive in the sense that I’m absolutely not willing to talk down our extraordinary, centuries-long tradition of a beautiful art form which people find inspiring year after year. Every year, somebody new in our concert hall hears a Beethoven symphony for the first time. Many people do. That music in our tradition will go on reinvigorating and talking to audiences in new ways for centuries. I’ve no doubt about that, no interest in apologizing for that.
That said, I think that we are in a moment where we can and must think differently about how we bring our art form to the broadest audience, how we change some of the dynamics of exclusivity which unfortunately permeated classical music particularly over the years. When you look at the most obvious example of that are conductors. Look at conducting as a profession was an almost entirely male profession until 20 years ago. Still, you have orchestras today producing seasons with all-male conductors. It is changing, and the LA Phil is at the front of that changing. We make a very, very big attempt, to the greatest extent we can, to create gender parity in our conductor roster.
We commissioned 50 new works for the centennial. About one-third of them were by composers of color. This is a major commitment on our part to think about who are those composers who can bring different voices. I think it’s worth saying there’s one kind of way of looking at it, which is a moral imperative. And there’s another way of looking at it, which is just thinking about how it enriches our world and our lives. The truth of the matter is, the great thing about racial equity and diversity… when you get inside it in the arts… is how profoundly enriching it is for all of us.
Denver: And racial equity as well, and a lot of that’s reflected in your centennial season. Give us an example of how that shows up there.
Simon: We commissioned 50 new works for the centennial. About one-third of them were by composers of color. This is a major commitment on our part to think about who are those composers who can bring different voices. I think it’s worth saying, there’s one kind of way of looking at it, which is a moral imperative. And there’s another way of looking at it, which is just thinking about how it enriches our world and our lives. The truth of the matter is, the great thing about racial equity and diversity… when you get inside it in the arts… is how profoundly enriching it is for all of us. How profoundly enriched we are by hearing composers who come from a different background than a traditional, white European background… and what they can say to us, how they can inform the way we think, and how they can give us different experiences. I regard it as a very joyous aspect of the work we do, not as a moralistic aspect.
Denver: You’re absolutely right. I think so many organizations sometimes think that they’re required to do it, trying to hit some kind of quota or some kind of standard. But it really is the ones who believe: this will make us that much better – that embrace it and really succeed.
Simon: We think it makes us much better if we have diverse staff, and we have diverse boards, and we have a diverse orchestra. Those things are all very important to us, especially in Los Angeles. Los Angeles County is only about 30% white. The impetus to really think hard about these issues is stronger there than maybe anywhere.
Denver: You’re absolutely right. A lot of that plays out in a program of yours that was inspired by El Sistema, which is a famous youth orchestra program in Venezuela. Yours is called YOLA, which is the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles. Tell us about YOLA, its significance to the LA community and the significance of it to your institution.
Simon: I’ll start with the last part of that. YOLA is, unlike some education programs and community programs and other arts organizations which are somewhat ancillary and off to the side, YOLA truly is part of the core, and the heart and soul of our organization. You talk to anybody in our organization, any board member, any staff member – they’re going to tell you that. It is something that matters deeply to us. It came 10 years ago when Gustavo came to the LA Phil. As you say, it’s based on the El Sistema model that he grew up in in Venezuela. It’s an after-school model, after-school training and performance model. It really has as its goal, I would say, a social goal.
It creates great musicians. If you go back to the roots of El Sistema, it’s really fundamentally about healthy families and communities. So, we never lose sight of that. The program is about training young musicians. We have four different sites within LA so far. We’re just about to open our fifth site, which is the new YOLA center in Inglewood, which is a new building designed by Frank Gehry with acoustics by Yasu Toyota.
Denver: That’s pretty impressive.
Simon: That’ll open in 2020.
Denver: These kids do great. 100% of them graduate high school, 90% go on to college, 50% continue to study music. The numbers are fantastic.
Simon: The numbers are fantastic, and it’s gratifying beyond belief. We were on tour with the orchestra in Korea and Japan. When we go on tour these days – this is a sign of how core YOLA is to the way we think– when we go on tour these days, we take YOLA kids with us on tour. These are some young people who probably have never been outside; many of them have never been outside the US. This year, we had 18 YOLA students with us in Korea. During that period, they were learning about which colleges they were going to get into. So, they were, day by day, sharing their experiences. They are going on to great things.
What’s interesting about it now is the program is 10 years old – the program is now coming into that mature moment where kids who started in elementary school are now going into college. You’re beginning to now, just at the beginning of the point where we’ll start to make an impact on the profession. I’m looking forward to the moment where the kids come out of Oberlin and Juilliard and UCLA and all the other places they are, and actually find their way into major American orchestras. Then that will be a sign that the program has come to full maturity.
… one of the most distressing things for me has been STEM. I see people talking about STEM, and I understand the significance about it. I understand the journey that it leads directly into jobs. But the fact is, STEM for me means marginalization of the humanities.
Denver: Let me ask you a little bit more about that in terms of the arts and music in the tapestry of the US right now in schools, in education. You and I know it’s usually the first thing to go. How do you think about that? Do you see that changing? Or is it still going to be jettisoned when budgets get tight?
Simon: I have no doubt about the power of arts in a portfolio of educational subjects in curriculum. I think it is one of the most distressing things that I’ve seen happen in recent years is the – there will be many people who don’t like me saying, this but – one of the most distressing things for me has been STEM. I see people talking about STEM, and I understand the significance about it. I understand the journey that it leads directly into jobs. But the fact is, STEM for me means marginalization of the Humanities. I think that we do that as a civilization at our very, very great risk.
We’ve seen it happening in schools. We’ve seen the marginalization of all Humanities, not just about the arts, but all Humanities being marginalized in schools. We’ve seen how difficult it is for universities to keep Humanities programs open against the influx of pressure and funding coming in for STEM programs. I think we have to fight against it. Part of what we’re doing with YOLA, which is I think is really interesting is, we have an amazing research program going on with the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. What is actually coming through this research program is not only about the kind of… the way in which arts education informs you as a human being, informs your richness of experiences as you go out to the job world. But it actually, concretely impacts the way young people’s brains develop, and the way the neurons connect in the brain, the way they come out wired or not depending on whether they’ve had arts education. For me, it’s a double argument about the sheer neurological impact of arts education, side by side with this humanistic benefit of arts education on kids as they go into the workplace. Those two, we have to just get much sharper about the way we talk about those things because this really matters for us as a society.
It is an organization with high trust, high trust among its internal constituencies, between the musicians and the management and the board. That produces a certain kind of alignment.
Denver: I can’t agree with you more, and you’ve got the goods. You’ve got the data. It’s not just soft; it’s really hard data, and it’s not a one-off study. It’s been just a series of things that have shown that. I had the great pleasure to go out and visit your offices in February when I was in Los Angeles. I have to say that one of my biggest takeaways was how collaborative everybody was. By that, I don’t just mean internally. That collaboration really extended beyond your four walls and out into the community. What makes this culture such a collaborative one?
Simon: I think the LA Phil has long had a culture of thinking about itself as a family. Many organizations talk about that, but very few actually deliver on it. It is an organization with high trust, high trust among its internal constituencies, between the musicians and the management and the board. That produces a certain kind of alignment. Everybody knows what the organization stands for and where it’s going. For me, since I came a year ago, I’ve been particularly interested in opening up some of the processes internally to get us thinking more about how we really do allow everybody’s creativity to develop and to grow…
…we’re replacing power with empowerment. I’m much more interested in people having the freedom to develop their own professional journeys than I am in a very rigid, hierarchical environment and decision making.
Denver: You’re known for your open-door policy.
Simon: Absolutely, I have an open-door policy absolutely for the organization and for the community, and I think it’s not only about that. It’s about also making sure that we are, wherever possible, we’re replacing power with empowerment. I’m much more interested in people having the freedom to develop their own professional journeys than I am in a very rigid, hierarchical environment and decision making. So, I’ve tried to promote that over the last year, and I think people like the freedom that comes with that because there’s one thing we know about happy workplaces; it’s not only about benefits and pay. It’s about whether people really feel that they are contributing in a meaningful way to the whole. I think that that’s something at the LA Phil people really do feel.
Denver: They all feel they have voice, and that is so important.
As part of the centennial, as with most centennials, there is a big fundraising campaign attached to it. Yours is seeking $500 million. How is it going, Simon? And where are you at?
Simon: It’s going tremendously well. We’re at about $380 million on the $500 million total, and we expect in due course to blow through that $500 million. I think that there’s no question that we will end up with a bigger number than that. It’s due to lots of things. We do have, I will say, whenever you look at any campaign, you have to look at the professionalism of the staff. We do have a tremendous Development department… One of the most skilled Development departments I’ve worked in. But really, it comes down to the generosity of the community, and I’m talking here about board members who still at this stage in the campaign – a few years into the campaign – we’re still getting multimillion-dollar gifts from board members. In some cases, second and third gifts.
We have a board that is dedicated to the most extraordinary degree to this organization. I’ve rarely met a board which is so passionate about the organization. They just love and deeply care for the LA Phil, for what it stands for, and for its people. The generosity has been remarkable. Of course, if goes outside the board. Los Angeles is a very, very big community. It is a place where you can go big. It’s interesting because LA always had a reputation for being – people always said, “LA is philanthropically, well,… It’s not New York!” I heard a lot of people say that. It may not be New York, but it’s still pretty amazing. It’s a pretty amazingly generous community. I’ve been blown away by the level of philanthropy there.
I’m always concerned to make sure that while we do sit on that pinnacle of artistic institutions, it matters to me greatly also that we are accessible. As we’re coming into the last phase of the campaign, I never want to minimize the importance of the person who makes the $50 gift, or the person who makes the $100 gift, because some of those grassroots supporters are some of the most passionate music lovers in our community. It takes a village. As an organization, we have to have not only great pride in our status, but also the humility to be able to recognize and say, “Thank you!” to the huge number of people who make it possible.
Denver: It also helps that you’re part of the community. You’re not an institution just sitting up on a hill. You’re really embedded in that community.
Simon: We are, and we’re an organization, I think, for which people have immense respect. We really are regarded as really a symbol of what is great about the arts in LA. As we think about that, I’m always concerned to make sure that while we do sit on that pinnacle of artistic institutions, it matters to me greatly also that we are accessible. As we’re coming into the last phase of the campaign, I never want to minimize the importance of the person who makes the $50 gift, or the person who makes the $100 gift, because some of those grassroots supporters are some of the most passionate music lovers in our community. It takes a village. As an organization, we have to have not only great pride in our status, but also the humility to be able to recognize and say, “Thank you!” to the huge number of people who make it possible.
Denver: The actual centennial day is October 24th of this year, which also happens to be UN Day. It’s the same day that the United Nations was founded. Is there anything special that you have planned for that day?
Simon: On that day, we have a big centennial gala. We bookended the centennial in two galas. One in the fall of 2018… There were two actually. One with Katy Perry which was at the Hollywood Bowl. Then there was a downtown gala celebrating the spirit of California which was in Walt Disney Concert Hall. Then other end of the bookend is, yes, it’s the gala on October 24th where we have our three music directors who are still around: Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Solanen, and Zubin Mehta. Very sadly, we don’t have Andre Previn who passed away just this year. But those three conductors will be there. They’ll all be conducting music which is dear to their hearts and most interestingly, they will be all conducting together in a piece for three conductors by Icelandic composer, Daníel Bjarnason. You’ll probably ask me: What are the three conductors going to do on the stage? And my answer is, “I have no idea. We will find out.” But there will be three conductors, and they will be conducting the same piece.
Denver: Well, you have to leave us with a little bit of suspense.
Denver: Let me close with this, Simon. There’s always discussion of what a twenty-first century orchestra is going to look like. And we’re still pretty early in the century, and I think that’s still a work- in-process. But the LA Philharmonic is probably further along than anyone else in defining it. At this moment, what do you believe the twenty-first century orchestra is going to look like?
Simon: As I said earlier, first and foremost, we will always play Beethoven and Mahler and Shostakovich and Bach and Mozart. Changing that is what it isn’t going to look like. You’re never going to find me wanting to stray from that extraordinary legacy.
Denver: You’re a traditionalist when it comes to the art form.
Simon: Yeah, I am a traditionalist in the sense that I think sometimes in our world, we can be a bit disparaging about those works. You hear people talking about Beethoven symphonies as “war horses,” the “old chestnuts.” Okay, but I don’t go into the Metropolitan Museum and go staggering into the room of Rembrandts and say, “It’s all the war horses, those old Rembrandts again.”
The classical music business has uniquely found a way over the years to become blasé and sometimes disparage its traditions. I think it’s worth saying, “No, we’re not going to do that.” Those works are always going to be at the heart of what we do. But I think it is a completely false choice to think that we cannot, as we do that, as we nurture this beautiful history, really make sure that we are there for all the community. Make sure that we are there for young people. Make sure that we are thinking progressively about how people can come to the music we play in whatever way is appropriate to them; about how we reflect the diversity of our society, about how we reflect the diversity of race, about how we celebrate sexual orientation, how we celebrate race, how we celebrate difference. And I think as we build on these great traditions celebrating difference and celebrating humanity and its vast richness that we see in twenty-first century society, that to me is one of the great things that the arts can do which almost nothing else can do.
Denver: Sounds like an exciting future.
Simon Woods, the chief executive officer of the LA Philharmonic, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening.
For people outside of the Los Angeles area, is there any way that they can experience some of the activities that will be occurring this centennial year?
Simon: One of the things we did during the centennial, which has been tremendous, we have a beautiful book which is called “ Past/forward: The LA Phil at 100” which you can purchase, which is a history of the orchestra. And also a look at the future, what the future looks like. We have a 32-CD set which has come about as a result of our partnership with Deutsche Grammophon records. It’s a fantastic box set including some real treasures. The first recording at the Hollywood Bowl back in the 1920s, some archived things that have never been released before. That’s absolutely a treasure. Then of course, it’s all available for streaming. There’s an Apple Music homepage where you can listen to a lot of LA Phil recordings. Finally, we’re on the road. This year, we’ve already been in Seoul and Tokyo. Next stop in the summer is Edinburgh, which is fun for me because that’s where I worked in Scotland for six years. It’s going to be great being in Scotland with the orchestra. Then in the Fall– Mexico City, London, Boston, and Lincoln Center here in New York; it’s many opportunities to hear this great orchestra.
Denver: You can count on me being up in Lincoln Center when you arrive. Thank you, Simon. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Simon: Thanks, Denver. Great pleasure to talk with you. Thanks.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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