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

How and why Jaime Martin became LA Chamber Orchestra’s next Music Director: an in-depth look behind the scenes

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra begins its 2018-19 season in earnest with performances at the Alex Theatre on Saturday and UCLA’s Royce Hall on Sunday featuring violinist Hillary Hahn.  While guest conductor Gemma New will be on the podium this weekend, these concerts represent the first full season of a new era.

LACO announced earlier this year that Jaime Martin will be its sixth-ever Music Director. The Spanish musician will hold the title of Music Director Designate through this season, officially taking the reins at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season.

How did Mr. Martin go from the Principal Flute chair of the London Philharmonic to landing the top job at one of the America’s most venerable and respected chamber orchestras in a little over five years?  Why would LACO — an orchestra whose prior Music Directors included Sir Neville Marriner, Gerard Schwartz, Iona Brown, Christophe Perick, and for the last twenty years, Jeffrey Kahane — trust its future to a man who was virtually unknown in the US?

To answer these questions and more, All is Yar was given the opportunity to chat with four people at LACO who would know:  Scott Harrison (Executive Director), Wade Culbreath (Principal Percussion and a member of the search committee), Leslie Lassiter (President and Board Chair), and Mr. Martin himself.

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“I didn’t even know they were still looking.”  — Jaime Martin

In September 2017, Mr. Martin (pronounced like “Martinez” but minus the “ez,” with accent on the second syllable) stepped in front of LACO for the first time.  On the program that week:  Mozart’s Overture to The Abduction at the Seraglio, Bernstein’s Serenade, after Plato’s “Symposium” featuring violinist Joshua Bell, and the Brahms Serenade No. 1 in D.

“The Bernstein Serenade is an extremely tricky piece to pull off,” explains Mr. Culbreath, ” and I thought it was a good piece to do with Jaime because it would really show his ability. So we really would be able to see him – put him to the test so to speak.”

If it were a test, Mr. Martin didn’t know it. “I think my agent said that they had been looking for a chief conductor for some time,” he tells me.  “And they already had a short list.  I really honestly thought that the machinery was already moving and that I was just too late.  Which in a way is good, because you don’t have the pressure.”

By all accounts, the concerts were a huge success.  On the way to the parking lot that Sunday night, I crossed paths with many LACO musicians, all of whom looked notably energized and happy.  One musician had a glint in their eye, a combination of surprise, excitement, and hopefulness.  “That went well. Really well.  Makes you think,” they said with a wry smile.

Mr. Culbreath echoed that sentiment.  “All I can remember is that I never had to worry.  It was just very comfortable and there was never a moment where I thought, ‘Uh-oh, this is not – I’m not so sure what’s going to happen next!’ I always felt very comfortable with him,” he says.  “And after the performance and after that week, I spoke to a lot of people in the orchestra who had been playing that week. And everyone seemed to have a feeling that it was one of the most enjoyable weeks they’d ever had at LACO. . . . Musically and technically what he achieved, he was able to pull off a difficult piece and still make us feel really confident.”

For Mr. Martin, the feeling was definitely mutual.  “I felt it from the first time I came to conduct, from the very first chord they played in rehearsal,” he says.  “I just came to do a week of work, and it was lovely.  It felt very special — like a very quick connection.”

From her seat in the audience, Ms. Lassiter could sense something unexpected, something special, was happening.  “I went the first night at the Alex, and then I went back the second night,” she said.  “I felt that the orchestra had that sense that they had with Jeff. They just exuded enthusiasm, excitement for the music. It just came through. And it’s so funny, because it’s so hard to describe.”

“Every time we have a concert LACO gets on the stage and they’re professionals and they do a really good job,” she emphasises. “But there are those days where it’s just extra special. And the musicianship, the sense of them all playing together as a team, it’s just – it was one of those weeks.”

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“You might have someone that the press adores and that the musicians are not happy with. Or you may have the opposite where the musicians love this conductor and then the press gives them a bad review.”  — Wade Culbreath

Mr. Kahane announced in 2014 that he’d step down as Music Director in 2017, ending a 20-year tenure.  At the time of the announcement, Mr. Martin had only been conducting full-time for less than a year.  No one would have bet that the search for a new person to take the helm at LACO would have led to him, and particularly that it would’ve happened so quickly after his first concerts.

As it turns out, the selection process was purposely designed to be slow and deliberate.  Some wanted to have a Music Director in place by the beginning of the 2017-18 season to avoid an interregnum and ensure a seamless transition from one leader to another.  Not Mr. Culbreath.

Wade Culbreath, LACO Principal Percussion

“I always advocated for taking the time, because I felt that after [two decades] – especially in a situation where you’ve had a Music Director for that long – it’s nice to not feel rushed and to be able to have a good amount of time to really experience what it’s like to have the orchestra led by a pretty good number of candidates,” he states.   “So that the orchestra gets a feel for a lot of different interpretations of works that we perform a lot.   Or just different personalities and just getting to play the field in a way . . . it’s not necessarily bad to have a couple of seasons of guest conductors in my opinion because it kind of makes the orchestra play differently.”

“After 20 years, it’s been a long time since LACO had done a search. And so we kind of had to regroup and think about what that meant,” Ms. Lassiter says.  “We had to start to build a schedule that allowed guest conductors to come in so that everybody could see them and the musicians could work with them. So, with a season like ours, that meant it probably was going to take a few years,” she says before laughing.  “If it took longer than we thought, that was OK. But we wanted to find the right person for us.”

A critical part of that process that was made public early on:  no one would be offered the position unless they had conducted the orchestra in at least two separate weeks of concerts.  This led to an easy way for the public and press to begin to handicap candidates.  When a conductor appeared on the schedule a second time, they were assumed to be in the running.

Once Mr. Martin’s name showed up on the LACO calendar for an April 2019 concert, he cleared that hurdle. Some interesting names also fit that description:

  • Karina Canellakis:  The thirty-something had been Jaap van Zweden’s Assistant Conductor at the Dallas Symphony for two years to go with podium stints in Bergen and Berlin, among other European cities.  Her debut with LACO with both baton and violin in hand was well received, leading Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times to suggest that LACO take the plunge and appoint her as Music Director.
  • Thomas Dausgaard:  Word was that the Swedish conductor was one of the favored candidates — perhaps the favored candidate — for the position.  Then the Seattle Symphony promoted him from their Principal Guest Conductor to Music Director, and all bets were off, but given the part-time nature of LACO, there was speculation that he could still be in the mix.
  • Peter Oundjian:  The former first violinist with the famed Tokyo String Quartet was stepping down from both of his Music Directorships with the Toronto Symphony and Royal Scottish National Orchestra, so both resume and timing seemed right.  His two most recent appearances with LACO were solid, and a third was announced for the 2018-19 season.
  • Matthias Pintscher:  The conductor/composer has been building connections with Southern California musical institutions.  He was scheduled to  conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic at both Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, had been named Music Director of the 2020 Ojai Festival, and was on tap to make his second LACO appearance in 2019 with a typically eclectic program.

Did that mean that everybody conducting the orchestra twice was, in fact, a candidate?  Yes.  Maybe.  Kind of.  Not really.  It depends on who you talk to.

From the musician’s standpoint, every guest conductor was a potential candidate.  “In fact, we knew that we had to only hire people who would be candidates – or potential candidates. So we didn’t really want to fill the schedule with people we weren’t interested in,” Mr. Culbreath reveals.  “We knew that we couldn’t waste any time with having anyone that came through that wasn’t a potential candidate for that reason. ”

Mr. Harrison has a more nuanced take.  “I guess in one sense everyone’s a potential candidate in the sense that anything is possible. But I think that what’s fair to say is there was certainly heightened interest in everybody these past few years.  We were looking at and evaluating and comprehending those performances, knowing in the back of our minds that among these conductors could be the next Music Director or the candidate to be the next Music Director.”

“But the reality is that not everyone was a candidate,” he says. “Not everyone wanted to be a candidate. Some people just wanted to guest conduct LACO, and we wanted that to happen because they were some great musicians and conductors to work with.”

Ms. Lassiter is more forthright, albeit amiably.  “No, no. Not everyone was because you know how far out you have to program these things,” she explains.  “It’s not like when we knew Jeffery was going, we didn’t have people already in place. And there were people that we know – are people we want to continue to get to know. And we didn’t feel like we should ignore them, even though they weren’t really a candidate at that point. So not everybody was a candidate.”

She adds, laughing.  “And certainly, I’ll never tell you who was and who wasn’t!”

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“It was just palpable – the energy and the connection. [So] we actually arranged a special semi-private concert for him to come back because we were so excited and we didn’t want to keep waiting.” — Scott Harrison

Mr. Martin’s September 2017 debut with the orchestra wasn’t just successful musically.  There was chemistry between him and the musicians — and him and the audience.

“I felt that he really connected on an emotional level with the orchestra,” Mr. Culbreath says.  “The performance itself felt like it was on a different level. And I felt – everyone just felt really kind of elated after that week. So I think he also connected with the audience and is an extremely likeable personality. A lot of that just kind of happened.”

“The musical and personal outcomes were so great in September,” Mr. Harrison says. “The concert was electric, the audience was on the edge of its seat. Orchestra was tuned in. [Jaime] had the most amazing interactions with our board and donors. And we just saw ourselves – we saw that this could be it.”

Buzz was growing rapidly.  There was a feeling that the orchestra should not — could not — wait until Mr. Martin’s scheduled April 2019 return to assess whether or not to offer him the Music Directorship.

Mr. Culbreath explains:  “Judging from the reaction that the orchestra had in September, it seemed like a good idea to speed that process up because we had already been three years into this and we were – so many people were feeling so impressed with [Jaime] from September. It just seemed like a good idea to kind of help that along, speed that process up, because  the conductors you want to see are booked up. And it takes forever to find just the right time. And not only that, with your orchestra but with their schedule. And that’s part of the process that can be excruciating, is that, ‘OK, we like this guy, but he’s not available for another year. OK, this is ridiculous! How long are we going to do this?’! ”

“It just seemed so far away before we would be able to see him again, that we decided, ‘You know what? Let’s go ahead and figure out when we can do another concert with him, a special concert,’ ” says Ms. Lassiter.

They reached out to Mr. Martin about a week after his September concerts.  “It was very nice, very special,” he recalls.  “I think they felt that too, that’s why suddenly they got in touch to say that they wanted to create another concert, to have me revisit on the same season rather than wait for one more year.”

Scott Harrison, LACO Executive Director

“So we had him come back in January for a semi-private concert at The Soraya in Northridge.” says Mr. Harrison.  “We talked it through and said, ‘OK, let’s have him back. Let’s schedule this special concert and let’s see if this is real. We think it is. But of course, there have been stories in this industry where something feels right the first time – it’s like any other interview process. You want that second interview to really be sure and to really make sure that it wasn’t just a happenstance or that’s all there was in the tank so to speak. And again, the second visit just verified that this is real. That the energy is real, the connection is real. That the chemistry with both the orchestra and with the larger community is real.”

“When we had an opportunity to see him again, most of the people I spoke with felt the same way,” Mr. Culbreath remembers.  “I think he just really connected with the orchestra on an emotional level and musically as well.”

Mr. Martin even played the flute as encore during that January concert.

“That was his idea,” explains Mr. Harrison. “He’s a fun guy and he’s a creative guy. He hasn’t played professionally in a number of years, so we didn’t want to — in a very important concert — say to him, ‘Oh, by the way, take out your flute.’ And all of a sudden, he’s worrying about this extra preparation when he’s got a really major concert to conduct. But no, he came right out and said, ‘I’d love to play flute. It would be such a fun way to end the program and the Bach is something that’s very close to me and something that’s in my fingers. And let’s just do that. Let’s have fun. And it will just add a great spirit to the end of the concert.’ ”

That concert sealed the deal.  Mr. Harrison describes what happened next.  “The [search] committee issued its recommendation to the board and the board said, ‘All right now. We’re excited and let’s go forward.’ And so I reached out to Jaime and he said, ‘Oh, my gosh! I’m so enthusiastic too.’ ”

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“After 20 years of anybody – I mean, it’s like a marriage, right? You’re just used to that person and it’s gone well and you’re happy. And I think starting out with anybody new it’s natural to have thoughts about, ‘Hmm, how is this going to be different? Is this going to work the same way?’ ” — Leslie Lassiter

Jeffrey Kahane’s tenure at of LACO was an undeniable triumph.  When he joined the orchestra, it was barely breathing, mired in financial disarray and artistic uncertainty.  Two decades later, he was leaving an orchestra on a stable financial footing, with a stellar musical reputation, and expanded programming that embraced living composers while remaining grounded in the core chamber music repertoire.

The job requirements for a Music Director of an American orchestra are broader than those of Chief Conductor of a European orchestra.  In addition to leading rehearsals and concerts, that person is involved in fundraising, educational outreach, and programming.  Even the role of filling open seats in European orchestras is often controlled by the musicians themselves.

By all accounts, Mr. Kahane excelled and embraced it all.  He enjoyed engaging with the audience in pre-concert talks from the stage.  He was determined to connect LACO with the communities in which it performed in new and interesting ways, for artistic, educational, and humanitarian reasons.

Leslie Lassiter, LACO Board Chair

“Jeffrey built LACO for the first years of this millennium. And we really wanted somebody who was also going to think about, ‘OK, what does LACO need to be for the next 20 years,’ ” says Ms. Lassiter.

Regardless of how good Mr. Martin’s conducting chemistry was with LACO, did he have what it took to handle the rest of the responsibilities?  A flutist with his background — only five years worth of conducting experience of any kind, podium appearances in the US that you could count on one hand, and no Music Directorships — does not exactly have the administrative resume that screams out as someone you’d trust to build upon Mr. Kahane’s past successes.

Yet Mr. Harrison is quick to point out that he actually is not deficient in these areas.  “Although most of his career has been in Europe, two of his assignments have actually been a little bit closer to the American model of a Music Director.”

“One is that he started an orchestra near his hometown in Spain called the Orchestra de Cadaqués,” Mr. Harrison says. “This is something he — with some of his colleagues and friends — started from the ground up and built into something really quite spectacular where he and Gianandrea Noseda [Music Director of the National Symphony in Washington, D. C.] are now co-principal conductors.”

“And the other is that he’s the artistic director of the Santander Festival in Spain,” he continues, “which is one of Europe’s most prestigious international festivals. Invites top orchestras and chamber ensembles and soloists from around the world to perform every year. And that’s a role that requires a lot of planning and programing, and also requires him to be involved in a lot of fundraising and other activities. So in some sense, it’s almost like a little bit closer to a general director in an opera in terms of the breadth of what he has to do.”

It also helps that Mr. Martin has experience as a member of a prominent chamber orchestra, the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, where he was Principal Flute.  And even though Mr. Martin had never conducted in LA before, he and LACO shared an important common connection:  Sir Neville Marriner, former Music Director of both LACO and ASMF.

“He he used to tell us lots of stories about the orchestra,” Mr. Martin remembers fondly.  “I always had the idea that it was a very similar orchestra to the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields. In the sense that the Academy was a chamber orchestra, not a full-time orchestra, made with the best players in London.  Each encounter was like a festival because we were not playing every day together. Each time we worked was fresh and everybody was happy to see each other. ”

“The personality of the Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra – they seem very similar,” he continues. “It is like that here too.  It’s always fresh somehow.  You see people in the first rehearsal, how they are all greeting each other:  hugging, kissing and saying hello. They’re all so happy to see each other. It feels like a group of friends that enjoy making music at a very high level. And I hope we can keep that, because I think this is a good starting point to make something interesting with music.”

I ask Mr. Martin how much the differences between American and European orchestras excite him and how much of that is scary.  “Fifty-fifty!” he quickly responds with a big laugh.

“Yes, because I am used to a system in which the orchestras are reluctant to give too much power to conductors in Europe, which I do believe in that also in a way.  I am used to that in the sense that the orchestra organizes itself somehow, especially in the hiring of new players and this. But this is something different. I will have to see how it works, but I feel very supported in every way.  I hope with the artistic decisions, we can make them together. Not just me. Not because I don’t have confidence in doing it myself, but I think it’s very important that what the orchestra does and the decisions [made] – it doesn’t have to represent only me, it has to represent us.”

“Yes, I am the Music Director, but it has to be us. And I do believe in that,” he says earnestly. “Maybe because I have been an orchestra player, I do feel that more strongly. And of course, I’m the leader and I have to do it, but I would like to be able to make the decisions after I know how people feel about it.”

Mr. Harrison is confident he’ll be a success.  “Every ounce of him is about spreading the joy of music. And he naturally just wants to share, wants to open up. Wants to get people excited. And he knows how to do that in different ways,” he says.  “He has all of the tools and all the attributes that will make him an amazing advocate and ambassador for the institution.”

“He has a bunch of passion for opening the doors or music institutions to welcome more people in, to increase diversity and representation,” Mr. Harrison emphasizes. “To make us the most inclusive and welcoming environment possible. And all of that is so critical for any orchestra right now, but it’s part of who we are at LACO, so there’s a connection and alignment there.”

Mr. Culbreath concurs.  “There aren’t a lot of barriers to just getting to know him. He was extremely easy to talk to and very approachable. Super friendly, nice person, and he also was very interested in Los Angeles, just connecting locally with the people here.  He really just wanted to experience LA. So he took the Metro and went through some kind of sketchy parts of town all the way to the beach, just really got to know the local flavor of the place. So I think he will definitely connect with Los Angeles for that reason.”

Ms. Lassiter reiterates how important that simple act was.  “He took the Metro all the way to Santa Monica, then walked down to Venice Beach.  I think that really impressed us because it was we wanted somebody who wanted to understand LA and really figure out what our place is here.”

While he will continue to be based in London, Mr. Martin will visit LA frequently and not just to conduct.  He is enthusiastic about the past, present, and future of his adopted second home.  We discuss how famous former Angelenos Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and George Gershwin all lived near each other.  “That is the amazing thing about this city, that all of these people were here.  The other day, I made my last recording with my Swedish orchestra, the Brahms Piano Quartet orchestrated by Schoenberg.  That actually was premiered here in LA! (Laughs)”

“When I think about that and the connections that Los Angeles has and [that the city] has been such a good champion of modern composers, I think it’s very interesting. Of course, I don’t know LA well enough yet. But I want to learn.  It is an amazing heritage you have. And in music, a very important heritage,” he states. “I was looking at the next season and the number of premiers, new pieces – I think this is great. I like this combination of the old masters and the new music. I think this orchestra believes in it . . . And I think that’s great!”

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Throughout our conversations, everyone is very open, and almost no topics are avoided.  Mr. Martin in particular is especially forthcoming.  He is easy-going and friendly, thoughtful and intellectual yet exceedingly down to earth.  Despite a long flight and what is undoubtedly some jet lag, he remains affable and energetic.

As our conversation is wrapping up, Mr. Martin makes a point of offering special praise for Margaret Batjer, LACO’s Concertmaster originally appointed by Mr. Kahane.  The relationship between conductor and concertmaster is a critical one, and he’s effusive in his admiration for her.  “She is such a respected figure and somebody I really admire so much. Her musical ideas and the way she deals with bringing the orchestra together, which is so important to have that. To feel supported by a leader like her.”

He freely acknowledges the challenges in front of both him and his new orchestra.  “I know it is difficult for the orchestra to suddenly have the idea of working with somebody that is not Jeff, after 20 years. They are so much used to that. They are like one, like part of the DNA. So I know that for them it has to be difficult to suddenly imagine that life – how can life be without him? You know? I am very aware of that.”

At the same time, he’s happy to embrace the challenges and thrilled that the LACO has chosen him to be their next leader.  “I’m very grateful the way they have made this possible.  And the fact that they had a long time to make that decision encourages me more . . . obviously it’s a connection which we’ll have to cherish that. Because that’s very important. And it’s been both sides.”

“I’m very excited about this. It’s going to be really interesting and I think it’s going to be fun really to get to know the orchestra and to get to know the city.”

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Photo credits:

  • Jaime Martin:  all photos by CK Dexter Haven exclusively for All is Yar
  • Wade Culbreath:  photo by Michael Burke
  • Scott Harrison:  photo by CK Dexter Haven exclusively for All is Yar
  • Leslie Lassiter:  courtesy of Ms. Lassiter
  • Jaime Martin with Gail Eichenthal:  all photos by CK Dexter Haven exclusively for All is Yar
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