Interviews / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

A chat with Simon Woods: the LA Phil’s CEO talks about his first 18 months in the job and how he’s helping the orchestra succeed in the next 100 years

When Simon Woods arrived in Los Angeles, he had a very tough act to follow.

Deborah Borda announced in March of 2017 that she would leave her position as CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to return to her previous post as head of the New York Philharmonic, and speculation began immediately about who would take her place – whether or not that person could do the job as well.

By all relevant measures, Ms. Borda’s tenure was a triumph.  She enabled Esa-Pekka Salonen’s forward-looking artistic vision to finally reach its full potential, serving up large helpings of contemporary composers while also managing the seemingly contradictory feat of shoring up the orchestra’s finances.  When Mr. Salonen signaled his intent to step down as Music Director, she convinced the young Gustavo Dudamel to replace him, outmaneuvering other orchestras, including those with longer pedigrees (cough, Chicago Symphony, cough cough) in the process.  She maintained and enhanced the strong relationship between the management and the musicians, an increasingly rare feat.  And she shepherded the once-troubled Walt Disney Concert Hall to completion, then ensured its ongoing success even after the new car – er, new architectural icon – smell wore off.

Into the breach charged Mr. Woods, winning the job over well-regarded internal candidates Gail Samuel and Chad Smith.  The UK native turned American citizen was head of the Seattle Symphony at the time, having previously held senior leadership positions at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  He also spent ten years as a record producer at EMI Classics at Abbey Road Studios.

Most wondered out loud about a whole host of things:

  • Would he – could he – be a worthy successor to Ms. Borda and to impresario Ernest Fleischmann, the LA Phil’s legendary Executive Director from the 1960’s to the 1990’s who oversaw a prior era of the orchestra’s growth in stature?
  • How would he build upon his predecessors’ successes while putting his own imprint on the organization?
  • How quickly would he be able to adapt to the unique strengths and challenges of this orchestra and this part of the world?
  • I even heard at least one identity-politics-focused individual cynically lament, “Why did the world’s most progressive orchestra hire a heterosexual white man to lead it?” (To which I thought, “Ugh.”)

Well, it’s been about 18 months since Simon Woods took over as CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the buzz I’ve heard – both public and private – about Mr. Woods’ tenure so far has been nothing but variations on a theme of positive.

Yes, it’s still early.  At the same time, one only has to look at the aborted tenure of former Executive Director Willem Wijnbergen to realize that one can wreak havoc in less time than Mr. Woods has been in town.

Moreover, Mr. Woods has been doing it in his own way.  While Mr. Fleischmann and Ms. Borda were often referred to as “imperious,” Mr. Woods has been repeatedly called “approachable.”  Whereas Ms. Borda crafted her statements with surgical precision and was always meticulously put-together in appearance, Mr. Woods is much more casual in both conversation and attire (he’s often seen wearing a sports coat, open-collared shirt, and slacks instead of suit and tie).  To really highlight the differences between regimes, styles, and personas, let me point this out:  Mr. Woods frequently posts photos and thoughts on his personal Instagram page; Ms. Borda doesn’t even have an account (or at least a public one).

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Day One

A post shared by Simon Woods (@simon_los_angeles) on

 

“A breath of fresh air,” one LA Phil musician told me when I asked about Mr. Woods. “Deborah was great and she deserves all the credit she gets for how she led this orchestra.  That said, it’s been great since Simon took over.  He listens to things differently than Deborah and is open to things she wouldn’t consider.  I’m happy that we have him here.”

I had the very good privilege to sit down with Mr. Woods at his office in Walt Disney Concert Hall to ask him about his LA Phil tenure so far, his approach to his job, and his plans for the orchestra’s future.  We also talked a little bit about this summer’s Hollywood Bowl season. Here is much of that conversation.

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CK Dexter Haven:  Before we talk about the Bowl, I would love to hear about how this past year-and-a-half has been for you.

Simon Woods:  Oh, it’s been amazing!

It’s a somewhat unusual experience for me because I’ve tended to go into leadership positions in organizations where they were going through difficult periods and needed a lot of help rethinking how they function and what their role in the world was. So coming to the LA Phil is really interesting because it’s a highly functional organization, and it’s very clear about what it commits to and what it believes in. It’s got a great platform of financial stability. It’s got great people top to bottom.

And all of that is – well, it’s due to many people, but Deborah Borda definitely played an absolute leading role in that. I take on, with quite a bit of humility, an organization that is in great shape.

I said to the Board [of Directors] fairly early on, “A commitment to continuity is an intentional leadership act.”  The last thing you want to do in a situation like this is change stuff that isn’t broken. So for me it’s been a golden opportunity to get to know the organization, especially through the Centennial because it’s such a kind of pivotal important point for the organization. The way the Centennial has been built about looking backwards and looking forward, so it’s been exciting to be involved in that.

CKDH:  One of the aspects about this particular industry and your job is that the decisions about the Centennial were largely made well before you came.

SW:  Sure.

CKDH:  And what were the things that you were able to put your stamp on or at least influence a little bit regarding the Centennial, the Bowl Season, and with the 2019/2020 season? What are those things that are more representative of your hand?

SW:  Well, the truth of the matter is – with the Centennial – none at all. I didn’t really touch or influence much about it because it was already pretty much all packaged, tied with a bow, and ready to go. It was in great shape. We have the best programming people in the business between Chad Smith and Meghan Martineu on the classical side and Laura Connelly and her colleagues on the presentation side. And they have great people. I am not spending my days stuck deep in programming.

What I have been spending a lot of time thinking about is the next ten years. That’s been my focus.

We’re doing a strategic planning project right now. It’s a process of trying to lead the organization through thinking what our environment looks like, what the world looks like and how the world is changing, and what are the things we might need to do to respond to that as we look at the next decade. I have been very much immersed in the longer-term view, much more so than even the next couple of years.

CKDH:  It’s early in that process, I know, but is there anything you want to share about what you’ve learned so far?

SW:  Well, I think the whole music business – let’s say the whole orchestra business – is going through big, substantial rethinking, right? And it’s particularly around the areas of:

  • How do we reach the largest number of people?
  • What does that say about our approach towards relevance?
  • What does it say about our approach towards equity?
  • What does it say about our approach towards social impact?

Those are big things that are running through our business right now. And rightly so, because I think the classical music business has been viewed as a relatively stationary and unchanging business.

So I think finally we – the business – have been kind of yanked into the 21st Century now as the world is changing around us, having to think very hard about what we do to ensure that the art form survives and thrives for the next few decades.

For me it’s fascinating. I mean, I’ll connect it to the Centennial. The thing about the Centennial here, when they went through the Centennial planning process, they made a very conscious decision that the Centennial would not only celebrate the past – and this organization was incredible – but it would also contain the DNA for the future.  And so you see in the Centennial that all of these things that I mentioned are all picked up.  For example:

  • You see the way in which the expansion of YOLA – the building of the new YOLA center down in Inglewood – is a kind of statement about the ongoing expansion of YOLA and real commitment to making a difference in people’s lives, particularly young people’s lives; also families, thinking about what a difference it can make in that community in Inglewood.
  • You can see our Resident Fellows program: we’re bringing through a whole new generation of musicians of fellow through that program, which is just a beautiful thing to watch.
  • You saw in Celebrate LA how we were out on the streets of LA, reaching the widest possible audience.

So for me the interesting thing is how do we take those things and run with them and make them even bigger for the future.

You can also tie it to Gustavo’s phrase that he likes to say: “Music is a human right.” I share that kind of very high-level conviction that we have a kind of moral obligation to let our art be available – and accessible – to the widest possible audience.

CKDH:  You talk about the challenges in the classical music industry in the 21st Century. Something that the LA Phil has been known for has been its great relationship with the management and the musicians.

SW:  Yeah.

CKDH:  I thought it was noteworthy that when you had joined Seattle that they had just voted to do the strike and then they never actually went on strike. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that you were a large portion of that, that there were no concerts lost.

SW:  (Laughs)

CKDH:  So in light of what went on there, and is going on now in Chicago and Baltimore, can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve approached that relationship?

SW:  Sure. In fact, I’ll go even bigger. I’ll say one of the most remarkable things about the LA Phil is it truly does have this collaborative culture between the different constituencies – which I have never seen anything quite like it in another orchestra.

I have seen examples of relationships that work, but here there is truly a highly, highly respectful, trusting relationship between the three constituencies:  musicians, staff and board. And there is a high sense of alignment; it’s a highly aligned organization. I think people know what the organization believes in and what its trajectory is. I trace it back to the relationship of the musicians to a series of managers – both Ernest [Fleischmann] and Deborah and now me – who really are all music-first people, right?

When I think about the organization and the future, I often describe myself as a kind of conservative progressive, because I’m very, very deeply attached to this artform. I have been a devotee of orchestral music since I was a teenager. It has been my life’s passion. For me, the notion of a hundred people on stage playing together is one of the great miracles of mankind’s creativity. It’s an extraordinary thing.

We are blessed with this few centuries of extraordinary orchestral repertoire, and I take our role as stewards of that very seriously. I don’t think it’s a contradiction to be passionate about the notion of curating and stewarding and nurturing a very rich art form, and to look for the biggest possible social footprint that you can for it, right?

But I think this idea of the fundamental conviction and belief in the musician and in the artform is one thing that the musicians have always felt here. Musicians in this orchestra have always had managers who love music. And they see us back stage – they see me back stage – I like to talk about music. I think there’s deep roots here around that relationship. I think they feel appreciated.

CKDH:  One area that you have made some changes – and it’s not shocking given your background – is on recording. Tell me your thoughts about your approach and what you’re looking for as far as recording this orchestra in this hall. And maybe some of the challenges even.

SW:  First of all, during the time I spent 10 years in the recording business – from the late ‘80s to the late ‘90s – I became totally fascinated with this notion of how do you capture the sound of an orchestra through a bunch of microphones and stereo. As went through this sort of CD era, the quality of sound was a real issue. People were paying attention to it.

As we’ve moved now into streaming and having mobile applications which enable you to take music wherever you are – and the vast majority of people listening on earbuds – the interest in that kind of sound has diminished, sadly.

But I am a bit old-fashioned in that regard because I love the idea of how to create recordings which sound genuinely beautiful, embracing and immersive, and which reflect the actuality of hearing the orchestra in this hall. I really love that. So we’ve definitely been working on that. And you hear it already in the John Williams’ recording that came out. And you’ll hear it more in other things coming up. So that’s one aspect of it.

In terms of the way that business is going, look, I think we’re in a hugely transitional moment. We still have a small core of audience which is buying CDs. A legacy audience – a legacy market for CDs in Japan and Korea, Austria, Germany, a few other countries. But most places now it’s only about streaming.

And so I think long-term what that means for us is not yet clear. At the Seattle Symphony, we formed our own label. It was hugely successful. We won a bunch of Grammys, [developed an] amazing profile for the orchestra. That was 2011/12 we did that. So I think even seven years later the world’s completely changed. So do I think our own label is the approach now? Who knows? I think labels [like that] will increasingly not be the dominant part of the branding, although, we are very happy to have a great relationship with Deutsche Grammophon for the next few years.

CKDH:  Hi-Res Audio? Any thoughts? I would be remiss if I didn’t ask that.

SW:  Oh, I love it! I’m a big fan of Hi-Res Audio. To me there’s a quantifiable difference in sound stage and in sense of presence and depth and reality between 96 kHz/24-bit and regular CD sound. But unfortunately, the sales of downloads in Hi-Res are very low. I do think as bandwidth increases, we will see the major steaming companies moving increasingly towards it.  One hopes so, because it’s much better.

CKDH:  From the visual media side, of course everyone cares about quality:  4K isn’t enough anymore on your TV, it’s 8k. From the steaming standpoint for video, obviously it takes more bandwidth to push that than on audio. So I keep waiting for that tipping point where all of a sudden people start caring about Hi-Res Audio enough and the business starts caring.

SW:  Let’s hope so. I’m stubborn. I’m not giving up my kind of fondness for great sounding audio.

CKDH:  Let’s talk about the Bowl a little bit

SW:  Sure.

CKDH:  Another, dare I say, fantastic season! Any time when you can do the breadth of stuff that this orchestra does at the Bowl, it’s great.  Having Yuja Wang come back to do the new Adams piece, my favorite Adams works since Naïve and Sentimental Music, is particularly awesome.

SW:  Oh, yes, a terrific piece.

CKDH:  So you’ve got that. You’ve got some of the more well-known Germanic works. And then you’ve got the usual smattering of jazz, popular music, world music, Into the Woods this year, and more.  Tell me what are the things that you’re particularly proud of or happy about.

SW:  I am not sure I want to pull out individual numbers. (Laughter)

CKDH:  Maybe themes?

SW:  I’ll just make a more general comment about the Bowl:  as I’ve been getting to know this organization, one of the things that has really fascinated me is learning just how deeply the Hollywood Bowl is embedded both in the orchestra’s identity and also in LA’s identity.

The affection that people in LA have for the Bowl is extraordinary. It’s where people went with their families as kids. It’s where people had dates with their partners and went and took their children and had picnics and heard orchestral music for the first time. There’s so much personal meaning attached to the Bowl. And there’s so much meaning to the LA Phil because I guess what I hadn’t realized – until I came here – was just how uniquely the Bowl is part of the LA Phil’s culture. You go back to the famous Easter sunrise concert of 1921.

So the Bowl has always been part of the LA Phil’s identity. It’s such a beautiful thing because it really does uniquely bridge audiences in a way that I can’t think of many other venues that do that really. I mean, if you look at the range as you say between jazz and Broadway, flamenco, pure classical – it’s just extraordinary. There’s literary something for everybody.

 

CKDH:  It wasn’t always the case that you would expect to hear a new John Adams’ work at the Bowl or things like that. You talk about those areas – relevance, equity, social impact – it’s easy to do that in the Bowl because of the democratization that you get from the population.

SW:  Totally.

CKDH:  But the criticism always used to be – and even in some recent years, it still is – that it’s limited pop concerts in the broadest sense. Playing new John Adams’ work at the Bowl isn’t common by any means.

SW:  You mean its pop concerts from the orchestra?

CKDH:  Yes, from the LA Phil.

SW:  So first of all, even if it is, I don’t personally have an issue with that.

CKDH:  Okay.

SW:  To me, philosophically, just because we’ve heard Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony ten-thousand times does not mean that it doesn’t still have something to say to the many, many, many thousands of people who would come to hear it at the Hollywood Bowl, who had never heard it before and who will walk away thinking, “Wow! What an incredible piece of music!”

CKDH:  Sure.

SW:  You know what I mean? I think there’s a great risk that we’ve become sort of too insular, and I love that populist aspect of what we do at the Bowl – and by the way, so does Gustavo. Gustavo loves the Hollywood Bowl for the precise reason that it’s a stage to bring works that are very familiar to [some of us] to the widest possible audience. So I don’t apologize for that at all.

That said, I think it is interesting that as you say we do sprinkle the classical season with a few more kind of spicy items that people might not otherwise hear. And I think that’s part of who we are.

For the LA Phil, music of our time is not an add-on, right? It’s just part of what we play. And that sort of leveling of the playing field between the music of the past and the music of the present is one of the things that I really love about this organization. So it should be reflected at the Bowl – and is.

CKDH:  It’s noteworthy that you mention Tchaikovsky’s 5th and Gustavo because the response by everyone – audience, critics, even, dare I say, some of the jaded musicians on stage – when he did that piece with his 2005 debut with the orchestra at the Bowl was definitely not typical.  That concert is obviously what raised everybody’s attention to take certain works that can be ho-hum when done by most unknown conductor very short rehearsal and make it interesting.

I think one of the interesting aspects for long-time audience members is that the Bowl always seems to be this chance to see new conductors and [other young musicians]. With the Centennial, there have been a lot of friends of the orchestra that obviously you wanted to bring in which didn’t leave room for other guest conductors.

So whether it’s young conductors appearing at the Bowl or other people that just haven’t been as frequent here in LA – maybe some people that you had other relationships with through your past orchestras – are there any new artists that you’re anxious for LA audiences to see, whether it’s in the Bowl or in Walt Disney Concert Hall?

SW:  (Smiles) I’m going to stay out of the specific drawing attention to any particular one artist or another.

CKDH:  Fair enough. Fair enough.

SW:  First of all, one of the amazing things about the LA Phil is that we have this incredible stable of conductors, this family. When you look at the weeks we have with Gustavo, Esa-Pekka, Zubin, John Adams, Susana Mälkki – I mean, that’s a pretty amazing.

By the time you cast those weeks, we have fewer subscription weeks for guest conductors than some others do. So I guess one of the things that I think that we try really hard to do is use those weeks to see who’s coming next.

I will say that one of the great joys about our world right now is finally we’re seeing an amazing group of young women conductors coming through. This is vastly overdue. And it’s really fantastic. It should be perfectly obvious by looking at the [2019/2020] season that we’re really committed to. So that’s exciting to me in general.

CKDH:  Do you make a point of going to any of the leased concerts at the Bowl?

SW:  Oh, yes, I absolutely do.

One of the things that’s great about the LA Phil is that I really do love all kinds of music. So for me, it’s very nice to be able to go to the Paul Simon concert and shake him by the hand afterwards.

The leased concerts are a very important part of what we do as well. We have a great partnership with Live Nation Hewitt Silva.  They do amazing events, they bring in a completely different audience. It’s completely complementary to the work that we do. And again, it really is part of making the Hollywood Bowl a place where whatever your musical taste there’s something for you there, you know? Without them, I don’t think we would be able to cover the whole spectrum, but I think with them, we pretty much do.

CKDH:  If you could time travel and go back to December 2017 or January 2018, that you could tell yourself back then that you know now to make your life even easier? Because you have a pretty great job, it seems like you have been enjoying it, and everyone has responded very well to your tenure. But is there anything you could —?

SW:  I think I would tell myself just not to rush. When you come into a job like this, it’s interesting.

Deborah was here for 18 years. And I think that people had this idea that they would have a new CEO who would sort of arrive and come bursting fully formed out of the egg as a full-fledged chicken. The truth of the matter is you have to grow into a job like this. You have to grow into a community, and it takes time.

So part of my journey has been to remind people that we’re not in a hurry. We are lucky enough to have an extraordinary functional, extraordinary stable organization. We have time to reflect, to think about what’s working and what we can do better — and we have time to sort of build our own muscles around collaboration and giving everybody a voice as well, which is something that matters a lot to me. I am on a journey of not wanting to rush at making any decision. Just letting things evolve in a smart way, because it’s a great organization, and it has its own special energy.

CKDH:  Wonderful. Thank you so much for your time.

SW:  You’re very welcome!  And thank you for your interest.

CKDH:  Can we talk again in a year or so to see how things are going and to get an update on the strategic planning process?

SW:  That’d be great!  I look forward to it.

View this post on Instagram

No caption needed.

A post shared by Simon Woods (@simon_los_angeles) on

—————

Photo credits:

  • portrait:  Craig T. Mathew and Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging
  • Instagram photos:  Simon Woods

 

One thought on “A chat with Simon Woods: the LA Phil’s CEO talks about his first 18 months in the job and how he’s helping the orchestra succeed in the next 100 years

  1. Pingback: Comings and goings at the LA Phil and beyond (Fall 2019 edition): new CEO, harp, and violins; a Principal Oboe update; plus much more | All is Yar

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