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

A chat with Scott Harrison (part 2 of 2): on his relationship with LACO musicians and the search for the next Music Director

Yesterday, I shared part 1 of my conversation with Scott Harrison, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

In part 2 below, we discuss how he built a relationship with the LACO musicians, what makes them unique in the orchestra world, and they are all looking for as the search for their next Music Director.

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CK Dexter Haven:  You mention the musicians of LACO.  You were at the DSO when they went through labor strife and came out of it, arguably in a successful way at least relatively speaking with some of their newer initiatives like the online broadcasts that didn’t exist before.  Please talk to me about the relationship between “management” and the musicians and their union, and how you approach that dynamic.  Whenever a new boss comes in, that’s a question mark that goes through the musicians’ minds.

Scott Harrison:  Yeah, inevitably it is, and it goes in both directions.  No organization is ultimately going to be successful if it doesn’t have a healthy, transparent relationship between the three constituencies of the board, the management, and the musicians.  If it gets misaligned in any of those categories, you might amble along for a while and patch over some things here or there, but there’s something that’s not right at the core that’s going to catch up with you.  Therefore I’ve always put an exceptionally high premium on having good relationships with the orchestra and the musicians.

You know, it’s interesting, my first day in Detroit was the first day of the strike, so I know very well what that whole experience was and I know the whole trip out of that.  The strike was ugly, painful, and difficult, and I certainly wouldn’t wish that on anyone.  But as you mention, the trip out of that and all the initiatives were important, and the reason they were successful in Detroit  because we rebuilt the culture of how the relationships functions within the institutions, how management and the orchestra talked to each other and began trusting each other again, and how they rebuilt that ability to be a cohesive organization.

For me, then, it’s a lot about dialogue.  I don’t shy away from engaging with the orchestra.  I want to hear what people’s ideas and concerns are.  I want to share what we’re thinking and get their input and opinion early.  That doesn’t mean that it’s a democracy; in the end, decisions need to be made, and the organization has to decide if we’re doing X or doing Y.  You can learn a lot about if you should be doing X or Y, or if you’re doing X, how to do it in a way that’ll be successful, and you learn that by listening to your staff and especially your musicians.  They’re the face and heart of the orchestra, and in many cases, they’ve been here longer than anyone else, so they have a lot of wisdom to offer.

For me, it’s about letting them know that their voice is important, that it matters, and when good ideas come from the orchestra that you help them accomplish those.  I think one of the things that can really sour a relationship between orchestra and management is that you have people who suggest something and want to try it out, and the answer is, “No,” specifically because it came from the orchestra, or that it’s, “No,” because people are too busy and lame and don’t want to think about it.

If you open up and realize that good ideas come from everywhere, then it opens up a lot of possibilities. It’s a little tougher at LACO because we’re not a full-time orchestra and they’re not here every week rehearsing, so we don’t see each other as regularly.  It takes a little more work to get to know them and nurture those relationships, but we absolutely have to because it’s important.

You know, I was a musician.  I studied bassoon, and many of my classmates and friends play in professional orchestras, so I have a good sense and understand what it means to be a professional musician and what their needs and their pressures are.  We both have different pressures put on us on the orchestra side and the management side, and you sort of realize that that’s where people are coming from, then you can find the common ground.

CKDH:  You mention the unique relationship LACO has with its musicians.  “Unique” is such an overused word, but I think it legitimately applies here.  It would seem – and this is perhaps a softball of a question – that there are some great advantages of that too.  Because it’s not a traditional 52-week orchestra, you’ve got flexibility in the services so that when you give them ideas, perhaps you’re going to get a ready reaction than you would at a traditional symphony orchestra.  Is that true?

SH:  Definitely, our musicians are incredibly open, and their lives and careers are as varied as any orchestral musician in the country.  This is unique.

Now, I’m biased, but I’ve also been to a lot of places:  our musicians are among the best in the country, and I’ll put them up against anybody.  The reason is because their lives are so varied:  they’re orchestral musicians, chamber musicians, studio and session musicians, jazz musicians, they’re every sort of musician you can imagine.  You can put any chart in front of them from all over the world for any purpose, and they’ll get the style, read it, and sound fantastic.

I think that sort of musical creativity filters back into their openness to try new things, to be involved in different sort of projects and activities.  So, yeah, I think that LACO being uniquely structured, that we do different projects as an organization, and that our musicians do different kinds of projects in their life, creates an open-minded culture internally that’s tough to match at a big 52-week or even 45-week orchestra and the rigid schedule they have.

(L to R) Scott Harrison, Ruth Eliel (retired LACO Executive Director), and Jeffrey Kahane

CKDH:  So then when you started, what conversations did the musicians have with you knowing that Jeff was on his way out and that you were going to be spearheading the search for a new Music Director?

SH:  Obviously, the search was very much high on their minds and making sure that they could trust the new Executive Director would be a good steward of that process. The decision to choose a new Music Director lies with the board.  That, along with choosing the Executive Director, are their two most important priorities because those two people have to run the organization from the artistic and the business side.

But I think the musicians also wanted a sense of how LACO would be artistically during the transition period:  were we still going to move forward or would we stall?  So that was top of mind as well, rightfully so.  They wanted to know – with the milestones comings, the changes coming, and with some of their colleagues retiring – that there was a commitment to filling open positions, running great auditions, and to ensure that the best musicians were showing up to take those auditions.  A lot of them, rightfully so, had questions about what was going to be our future involvement in educational community work and how we were going to tap into those opportunities.  They obviously wanted to know where I thought there were opportunities for growth and what things weren’t working well that needed to be addressed.  They wanted to understand how I’d approach my relationship with them.  Those sorts of things.

At the end of the day, they have immense pride in the exceptionally high artistry of LACO.  Back to that overused word “unique:” there aren’t places that are this small – and I’m purposely using air quotes for “small” – in terms of budget size or the amount of weeks we play that manage to operate artistically at such a high level.  We’re a truly unique organization in that realm, and it’s a testament to the circumstance of L.A. and the life these musicians have artistically outside of LACO that isn’t available in most other cities of the world.   It’s a testament to the real pride and passion they put into LACO and the ownership they have of LACO.  They wanted to make sure the new Executive Director got that, that I knew that making art that mattered was critical, and that I was committed to making an impact and maintaining the vitality of LACO.

CKDH:  Let’s talk about what you’re looking for in the next Music Director.  Start with what are almost certainly the requirements of a Music Director:  they’ve gotta be an excellent musician; they have to have an understanding of the repertoire, in this case, particularly that of a chamber orchestra; that they’ll respect the traditions of the orchestra but push it into the future . . .

SH:  And they’ve gotta own a baton because we don’t provide that [laughing] . . .

CKDH: [laughs] Oh yes, I forgot to mention that one . . . So setting aside those things that every orchestra is going to say in every Music Director search.  What specifically, besides those truisms, is LACO looking for in your next Music Director?

SH:  And I’ll add one more truism:  chemistry has to exist between conductor, orchestra, and audience.  That’s the hardest thing to define, yet it’s the most important thing.  There’s no shortage of great conductors who come into a certain place and don’t have the right chemistry.  It doesn’t mean they’re not a great musician or conductor, it’s not a disrespectful thing, it just clicks or it doesn’t.  That’s the most important thing that we’re looking for and it’s the hardest to find, and I can’t describe it other than to say you know it when you see it.

I do think there are some other things we have in mind and it alludes to something we discussed earlier:  we want someone who is excited about what is happening in L.A. right now, whether that is the explosion of all the young new composers in this city or the opportunities for collaboration within the musical sphere and beyond – as theatre, opera, and dance companies at all levels and of all stripes are also growing in L.A. and doing new things, how can LACO think in that broad way and connect to that larger arts scene.  I think that’s something that really excites us that we hope excites candidates is that we can do projects that push us beyond our boundaries to connect us to new sorts of audiences, new sorts of experiences.

I think we want someone who really believes in the spirit of discovery.  That’s a real important part of LACO, that it’s not just about the music happening at a high level, but that you feel connected to it in ways that goes beyond that, you learn something, you engage in some way.  The spirit of discovery can include how the Music Director and/or the musicians get to know and connect with the audience, and that that continues to exist.  How we make music exist in relation to existing society.  There’s a lot of ways you can go with that, but having that spirit of discovery continue to be part of the institution is something we’re looking for and are interested in.

We want someone who is excited about the range of what LACO is capable of:  that this is a fantastic Baroque orchestra, that can excel in the early Romantic works, that it can do some of the great intimate works of the 20th Century like the neo-classical era and Shostakovich’s smaller works, and that we do new music well.  Even the other stuff LACO is great at like the movie nights that we do.  We want someone who understand that range as who we are and what we can be.

I think we want someone – and, again, this is hard to define – who has a point of view and stands for something.  Maybe this sounds a little contrary to what I just said, but we want them to really have a musical aesthetic and personality and say, “This is the stamp I want to make.  I want to push LACO into this area.  I want to explore this repertoire and this type of sound.”  It’s not necessary that those things be expressly, it’s not even necessary that they’re always perceivable on a concert-to-concert or day-to-day basis.  But I think that the orchestra will continue to get more amazing and that concerts will continue to get that much more visceral and exciting if there’s a real point of view driving that Music Director’s approach to the institution and the ensemble.  Again, I can’t define it because there isn’t one particular point of view that’s required, it’s that you have a point of view that is compelling to us and gives us the confidence that you’re really going to be driving this orchestra to goals and markers.

CKDH:  The guess, the deduction perhaps, is that you’re bringing people back as guest conductors who were also guests in the recent past since Jeffrey announced he was stepping down.  I can say that none of the LACO musicians or staff members have said, on the record or off, any names.  But at least one of them have said on the record that you’re not going to hire someone who hasn’t at least conducted the orchestra twice.

Given that, and that people can do the math of who’d be on that list and I’ve previously done that math and written about who fits that profile, that’s still a pretty broad list.  You’ve got people who are, um, “experienced” – we’ll use that word – and you also have people who are on the younger side.  You’ve got people who have foundations in traditional 17th– and 18th– Century chamber music repertoire who are perhaps most comfortable in that area, and others with more obvious diversity in their repertoire.

They’re all great musicians, they seem to be able to cross over into all the areas of music you mentioned previously, but they all have different strengths.  Does that make it easier or harder?

SH:  I think it makes it easier in that you get much clearer choices.  If we had conductors who are more similar or who are cut from the same cloth, maybe it’d be impossible because then how would you decide between A and B?  I think because there are clearer choices, that there are more clearly delineated choices in who these people are and what their strengths, aesthetics, experiences, and backgrounds will make it a bit easier.

As you said, they’re all amazing musicians who’ve had amazing careers and will continue to have amazing careers.  We’ll see which profile really locks in with LACO.

CKDH:  How much time do you want the new Music Director to spend in L.A.?  You talk about the importance of being excited about L.A.; Jeffrey didn’t live here, but he was a native Angeleno and lived much of the time in Northern California, so he had an understanding of the region.  There are organizations that contractually obligate their Music Director to spend a minimum amount of time in their city beyond the concert weeks.  Is that something that’s important to the LACO board and you?

SH:  I think what’s important is the quality of time they spend in L.A.  I’m much more focused on that than in the quantity of time.  I think it’s about how do we as an institution deploy the Music Director when they’re here to really make the most of that time.  In addition to the concerts, they’ll be connecting with the audience, the community, their board, and their donor base, and they’re helping to push the institution forward.

Someone could be here 25 weeks per year and just stay in their apartment and not accomplish anything.  Someone could be here ten weeks per year and make the most of every moment that they’re here and really have a presence.  Again, it’s about the quality of time they’re in town, not the time in town.

We also have to be realistic.  Like we said earlier, LACO has a shorter season.  We have eight orchestral weeks, we generally have three Baroque orchestral weeks, and we have some special events here and there, and the Music Director doesn’t conduct everything.  So you can do the math and realize that there’s a natural cap to how long they’d be here anyway, and they’re going to be then building their career and doing everything else they do.  We can’t say we expect them to be here 20 weeks per year when there’s only X weeks in the year for them to do stuff with LACO.

I am actually less concerned about it.  If we choose the right person, if we have really good conversation and clarity about what the role is, why they’re taking it, and how they’re going to approach it, and then if we as an organization are working with them to maximize their time in town, it becomes a moot point whether they’re here X weeks or X+1 weeks.

CKDH:  When can people expect a new Music Director for LACO?

SH:  As soon as we find the right person!

[We both laugh]

SH:  What I’ve been saying all along is, “With all deliberate urgency.”

We don’t want to drag.  We want to move to make this decision, but we don’t want to make the wrong decision or rush into it.  This person is going to be our leader, our next visionary, and will set the tone for the next era.  So if it means taking a little more time now to get it right, I’d rather do that than make the wrong decision.

Again, we’re not going to drag because you can do that too.  You can say, “Let’s talk about one more person, let’s see one more person, let’s have one more guest.”  You’ve gotta feel confident and make the decision.

The other thing is there is so much this orchestra is capable of and so much we’re achieving in the interim.  I’m very excited I am about the 2017-18 season, about the line-up we have, and what we’re accomplishing.  It’s not like the organization stops growing, stops having impact, stops reaching our audiences because we’re in the midst of the transition.  It actually opens up some opportunities to work with different partners that you wouldn’t have in the schedule when you have your Music Director there.

Then once that person comes, we’ll be really excited to have them lead us into the future.

RELATED POSTS:

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Photo Credits:

  • portraits of Scott Harrison:  photos by CK Dexter Haven exclusively for All is Yar
  • Scott Harrison, Ruth Eliel, and Jeffrey Kahane:  photo by Jamie Pham
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