Interviews / Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra / Music News & Info: Classical

A chat with Scott Harrison (part 1 of 2): LACO’s top exec describes transition from Detroit to LA, challenges and opportunities once here

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra is celebrating its 50th Anniversary season, and normally, such occasions see Music Directors standing front and center to lead the festivities.  But not this year.  LACO has no Music Director, Jeffrey Kahane having stepped down last year after 20 years in the post.

During LACO’s season-opening weekend, it was Scott Harrison, the orchestra’s Executive Director, stepping on stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall to say a few words to commemorate the occasion and introducing  James Arkatov, one of the orchestra’s founders.

This is the third season the New York native has been at LACO’s helm.  He came to the orchestra in 2015 after five years as VP of Advancement and External Relations at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  During that time, the DSO descended into a bitter orchestra strike, one of many orchestras across the country to endure labor troubles between its management and musicians.  Among those organizations, the DSO emerged as well as one could expect and quickly found itself back in a surprising degree of normalcy, even approaching health.  Mr. Harrison was in the middle of all of it.

Meanwhile, LACO entered 2015 knowing that Mr. Kahane would be leaving at the end of the 2016-17 season.  Less than three weeks later, they announced that they’d also lose Rachel Fine, their Executive Director at the time.  By March of 2015, they found themselves without an administrative head, an artistic head on the way out, and senior players  on the verge of retirement.  It wasn’t exactly a crisis, but it wasn’t exactly business as usual either.

In August of 2015, the LACO Board of Directors tapped Mr. Harrison to be their lead administrator.  In the two ensuing years, LACO has, by all accounts, thrived.  Sure, Mr. Kahane was still in the house, leading and inspiring the orchestra and organization while taking a musical victory lap.  But Mr. Harrison still deserves much credit.   Concert revenue is up, donations are up, and community engagement is up.

Perhaps the clearest vote of confidence on the future of LACO, even while the Music Director chair is vacant and Mr. Harrison serves as the sole head of the organization, was the announcement last month that philanthropists Carol and Warner Henry would donate $1.5 Million, the largest single gift in the orchestra’s history, to endow the Principal Oboe chair in honor of its former occupant, the legendary Allan Vogel.  Whoever becomes the next orchestra’s Music Director, he or she will be joining an institution that is thriving artistically, financially, and in its engagement with the community.

I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Harrison in his Downtown L.A. office.  He was jovial and easy to talk with, despite often talking rather quickly.  He managed to pack more information into an hour than many could say in half the time, but he was consistently thoughtful and insightful, never feeling rushed.

For the first half of my visit, we talked about his journey to the orchestra, how he approached his new job when he first arrived, and some of the initiatives he worked on in the early stages of his still-young tenure.  Most of that conversation is below.  (In Part 2, we discuss his relationship with LACO musicians and the orchestra’s approach to its search for a new Music Director.)

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CK Dexter HavenHow familiar were you with LACO before you took the job?

Scott Harrison:  I had a good with passing familiarity with LACO.  I certainly knew Jeff and his reputation, which definitely preceded him.  I’d seen him perform, he came to the Detroit Symphony.  I knew that LACO had a particular skill in new music and had done a lot of premieres.  I also knew that  doing Baroque music on modern instruments was a real specialty of the band.  I hadn’t heard them live, but I had listened to the Hilary Hahn CD that was really fantastic and really popular.

But I can’t say that I was too aware in a larger extent to the scope of what LACO was or how it fit into the community or what the other parts of the organization were.

CKDH:  So what was the appeal of the job then?  Was it the opportunity to head the organization, was it that you wouldn’t have to live in snow, you’d just get to drive to it when you wanted to have fun on the weekends and then drive home?

SH:  [Laughs].  Well, there were a couple of things that made this a really appealing place to be.  As I said, I knew that artistically, it was a great institution.  It would be an exciting, fulfilling, meaningful place to work because the art of the music was being made at such a high level.  That was always a base requirement for anywhere I wanted to work.

As I dug a little further, the things that appealed to me:

  • I learned about the versatility and flexibility of the organization, and with some of my past work and interests, that has always appealed to me:  an organization that reached different audiences, that could present itself in different ways, that can have a really expansive sense of how it can present its music and serve its constituents and wider community.
  • L.A. as a whole and how this city was exploding from a music, culture, arts, and beyond standpoint. Knowing that so much was happening here, that great composers were relocating here, that organizations were collaborating in all sorts of new ways whether it was music or visual art or architecture or the food scene.  Whatever it might be, there was a lot going on in LA, so that sounded like a very fertile and exciting place to be running a major arts organization
  • And then I realized, when I started to meet people in the organization as part of the interview process, about the commitment of the board, about the real strength of the relationships between the board and the orchestra and the staff, and about the real commitment people had with the institution and the specialness with which the audience held LACO and thought about the orchestra. All those things were really important because it seemed like a supportive place to do things that mattered.
  • L.A. was just appealing to me and my wife personally. It’s such an amazing place to live.  You can be at the beach or the mountains or the city or a small town.  Whatever you want, you can have it in a 45-minute drive on the weekend.
  • Then there was the timing of it: 50th Anniversary, a new Music Director search, just this sort of sense that LACO was about to enter this new chapter of its future.  There were even some notable new musicians starting with longtime members – Allan Vogel, David Shostac, among others – retiring.  With new people and milestones and a changing landscape, it meant that the future was in front of us.  It’d be an exciting chance to continue the traditions and legacy that made LACO what it is today, but also to find the new things that could be part of, as we say, the next 50 years of LACO.

All of that was coming together to make it an exciting place to be.

CKDH:  Did you speak with Leonard Slatkin [DSO Music Director and native Angeleno] about the opportunity?

SH:  I did talk to Leonard about it a little bit, and he was very supportive of the opportunity and how great it was.  He has a lot of love for LA.  He feels a real connection to the city, not just from growing up here but also because of his relationship with the LA Phil.  He really reiterated that he thought something really amazing was going on in the overall arts scene of the city.

He of course knows LACO, knows the musicians.  He said it’s a fantastic band, the level of musicianship and the range and scope of what the musicians were capable of, were amazing.  He understood exactly why I’d want to be here.

CKDH:  Being a New Yorker, how much of the traditional Woody Allen stereotype of LA did you believe or assume was a lie before you came here?

SH: [Laughing] I thought there were going to be “barriers to entry,” so to speak.  Before my first interview, I spent maybe six days total in Southern California:  I went to a wedding in Pasadena, and a wedding in Dana Point.  I knew really nothing about L.A., and I had this Hollywood stereotype that it’d be hard to talk to people, they’d have barriers up, the metaphorical sunglasses keeping you out.  I was girding for that.

I actually found the exact opposite, at least in the arts and culture world and the folks I deal with.  It’s actually a warm, open, and inclusive mentality, and people were happy to welcome you and spend time with you.  At the same time, it can be a big city with lots of small town sensibility because people are in their neighborhoods, their networks, and constituencies.  That was a little surprising.

CKDH:  You talk a lot about all the opportunities, and it makes a lot of sense. On a fundamental level, there are two differences between your previous job and this one:  first, it was a move from being a high-level executive in Detroit to being the top guy here in L.A.; secondly, it was a change from the DSO, being the big traditional fish in a smaller arts pond of Detroit, to a chamber orchestra with a non-traditional approach, as you said, of finding creative ways to reach audiences but at the same time being founded in the shadow of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Tell me about those two differences, especially how you’ve dealt with them since you’ve made the move from Detroit to here.

SH:  It was an interesting transition in a lot of ways.  In the one sense, I was going from an important but smaller city and market to the second largest market in the country and this huge city that exists on one of the biggest global stages.  So your sense of scope for how you were connecting to the environment, both in what the challenges could be and what the capabilities could be.

It’s interesting:  in the major Midwestern cities – Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati – they’re older cities and they have a deeply ingrained sense of philanthropic support that go back generations with family foundations.  L.A., on the other hand, really has significantly more wealth and capital as a city, but is a younger city in terms of its relationship with starting and funding its arts organizations.

The challenge is that you don’t have the built-in, “My family has been donating to the symphony for 50-, 75-, 100-years or whatever it may be.”  On the other hand, you have a real opportunity to creatively court and bring in new supporters and donors who aren’t locked into “This is how it always was or this is what I always did.”

The DSO, I believe, is the largest performing arts organization in the state of Michigan, and maybe the only other big arts organization besides them is the Detroit Institute of Arts.  So we had a very prominent perch over the cultural landscape of the state.  And then you come to LACO which is a really important organization but in a much more crowded marketplace.

You’re right, obviously there are the LA Phil, LACMA, LA Opera, the Master Chorale, and others here. It’s not that they’re competitors.  They aren’t.  It’s just that they are other organizations with a larger platform or bigger visibility than we have.

The funny thing is that there are some lessons that I learned in Detroit and took here that were already happening at LACO.  While Detroit had this visibility, this perch, and this size as the biggest arts organization in the state, it had to deal with the fact that priorities and focus were changing because of some of the larger socioeconomic issues with which Detroit was dealing.  The place of a traditional arts organization didn’t always seem as important.

So we had to think a lot of time, “How do we ensure that we’re a vital and important part of the community, and that it doesn’t just feel like a stuffy experience for small group of people inside a fancy concert hall?  How do you make sure that a lot of the community can engage with and connect with the institution?  How do you reach children or other communities that felt that they were excluded from the concert hall or didn’t have the same access to it?”  We were doing a lot of things in Detroit to get out of the concert hall and be more present in the community through education, through outreach, through chamber music – all sorts of things that hadn’t necessarily been part of the organization previously.

Translating that to LACO, they’ve been like that from the beginning by design and by necessity.  Because of all the small, medium, and large organizations in L.A. vying for attention and occupying different spaces, LACO’s always had to be creative and clever about how do we carve out our niche, reach people, and cut through the noise, so to speak.

So the organization is good at turning its challenges into assets.  Some people would say, “Oh, it’d be great for LACO to have its own concert hall,” and in some sense, it might be.  But it’s also great that we don’t have a concert hall because our flexibility is now our greatest asset.  We can go anywhere where there’s an opportunity where we can reach people with music.  So we can have orchestral, chamber, baroque, new music, and all sorts of concerts happening in different kinds of spaces.  Then you have the layer below where we can visit schools, do community outreach, do pop ups like we’re doing downtown in office buildings.  You lose the benefits that come with being at the top of the mountain, and you gain the flexibility of not being encumbered with the constraints of being at the top of the mountain.

CKDH:  When you first got here, there’s usually some transition for any leader from arriving, listening, and absorbing, to putting their stamp onto the organization.  What was the transition like for you?  How long was it before you said, “You know, we haven’t done this before” or, “Maybe we should do this differently,” when did that happen and what were those things?

SH:  That’s a great question, one that I struggled with to a degree and maybe something that every new leader struggles with.  The balance between listening and learning but also wanting to enact change – presumably, you were brought in because there was something the organization thought you could bring to them – and how to make the switch is challenging.  There’s part of me that wants to listen forever, and there’s part of me that wants to change on Day One.  You’ve gotta find a spot in the middle.

What happened with me is that you find some spots where you do listen and listen for a long time, and others where you make change quickly.  It’s not all or none, not just a one-size fits all approach.  For example, one of the changes we made immediately was our approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, really making sure we were an organization that did a better job of connecting with the diverse communities of L.A. and starting to be more representative of the city we serve.

Now the good news was that some of that was already happening in the institution.  It was core in Jeffrey’s spirit and who he was, his sense of musical programming, and his sense of egalitarian spirit and how he wanted to share his music.  At the board level and the staff level, some of those conversations and connections were already going on, so it wasn’t like I was starting on Ground Zero.

But literally on my first day on the job, my first meeting outside the office was with Chuck Dickerson, the founder and conductor of the Inner-City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA).  It’s a nine-year old institution that works primarily with black and Latino youth.  There are 300 families participating.  Some of the first conversations I had were, as an institution that is looking to improve, how do we do a better job at listening and learning from the people in communities we’re trying to serve, and how do we do start to enact change that will be successful and embraced and not feel token, mismatched, or otherwise crash and burn because we just go too fast and too heavy into something that isn’t ripe yet.

Even in that realm, there were some things we did fast and some things we did slowly.  One of the things we did quickly was from Day One to invite the students of ICYOLA to all LACO concerts:  free tickets, access backstage to meet the musicians.  Small and simple thing to do, and it starts to build the relationship between the institutions.  We then started to have sectionals and visit their rehearsals.  We planned a side-by-side concert last season, and we have another one this coming November.  I actually refer to them as “reverse side-by-sides:”  usually you bring them to your home, and in this case, we’ve gone to their series, their venues, and reached their audience and community.  And there are other topics and possibilities that we’re exploring that I can tell you about in the not-too-distant future.

Even when you look at the scope of who we’re working with – particularly the conductors, composers, and guest artists – we’re trying to be more representative and reflective of the audiences in L.A. that we serve and hope to serve.  Not just diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender, but also diversity in the kind of musical experience and musical background we can offer.

CKDH:  You mention the differences in development, outreach, and support between Detroit and L.A.  You have some great support with the other people on your staff, but that’s still probably the biggest part of your job.  I’d love to hear more about how you approach that, especially since most of the big corporations that Buffy Chandler hit up to build the Music Center are all gone.  All these big corporate giants in L.A. that tried to be the support have been bought out or moved, and even today, big corporations like Toyota are moving to Texas.  So please tell me more about that part of your role and how you go about achieving LACO’s needs.

SH:  Corporate fundraising is hard across the country these days because, in some sense, the mechanism of corporate fundraising has changed.  A lot of corporations that used to give through a foundation or had more of a generally philanthropic mindset have moved towards one of two models: either a corporate social responsibility group, pushing to more social causes or education and meaning that donations are more specific to those areas; or towards marketing and branding where the choices are made based on visibility and return, which means they gravitate towards the largest, most visible arts organizations so that they can get some of the same experiences and benefits of sponsoring a Rams game or something similar.

Corporations now have very well-defined philanthropic missions, which I think is a positive thing, but that’s also narrowed who they serve.  In the past, corporations would say, “Okay, a little bit for you, and for you, and for you.”  Now they’ll say, “Our mission philanthropically is that we support ‘X,’ and if what you do doesn’t come close to aligning with that, there just isn’t space for you here.”  L.A.’s particularly difficult because there just aren’t a lot of corporate headquarters here.  Even the studios, which people think of as being based here, are smaller as corporate entities than people realize, Disney being the exception of course.  San Francisco, on the other hand, has lots of corporate HQs, and their profile mirrors more of East Coast cities.  So it’s a tough environment here, but it’s down nationwide.

What that means is that individual donations are so much more critical now.  That’s why it’s so important that we build relationships with donors of all levels, putting them first, thinking about them, being responsive to them, and really making them feel ownership and connection to the institution. At the end of the day, they’re our investors, they’re the ones who make it possible.  The largest donations are absolutely critical, but the $10, $25, $100 gifts are really important too.  Those all can add up in a significant way . . . .

I think the one thing you’ll notice that’s particularly great about LACO is the personal connection, not just to our staff but to our musicians.  I think we’ve done a great job of connecting our musicians to our audience, making them available, and breaking down the fourth wall.  That’s really given audiences a love and affinity for our musicians.  People want to support them.  As they get to know Margaret Batjer, Andrew Shulman, Claire Brazeau or Allan Vogel before her, and various other people in the orchestra, it becomes not just a love for the institution and the music but an actual love for the people who make the music, and you just become more inclined to want to support them.

[To be continued . . . HERE]

RELATED POSTS:

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Photo credits:

  • Scott Harrison portraits:  CK Dexter Haven exclusively for All is Yar
  • Scott Harrison at the Austrian Consulate in Los Angeles:  Annie Lesser, courtesy of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
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