Appointments / Auditions & Appointments / Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra / Los Angeles Philharmonic / Music News & Info: Classical

Comings and goings at the LA Phil and beyond (Fall 2019 edition): new CEO, harp, and violins; a Principal Oboe update; plus much more

After many requests, I’m very happy to bring back my regular look at the personnel moves within the Los Angeles Philharmonic, plus a couple of noteworthy moves at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. There’s even a link to some fabulous music by the “Los Angeles Philharmonic Wind Quintet” (seriously). Let’s get to it . . .

LA Phil’s new CEO

The biggest – and least surprising news – is that Chad Smith was recently promoted from Chief Operating Officer to Chief Executive Officer. The announcement of his promotion came exactly 15 days after his predecessor, Simon Woods, abruptly announced his resignation from the position.

What to make of this? First, this is good news overall.

  • He can hit the ground running. An extended vacancy in this role would not have been good for the long-term operations and morale of the organization. Filling the gap so quickly eases any concerns that might have arisen had the LA Phil needed/wanted to undergo another prolonged search from scratch. As an insider, Mr. Smith will have a relatively easy learning curve.
  • His main strength – programming – has been one the biggest reason for the LA Phil’s ascent over the past two decades. While former Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen was the primary driving force for inspiring a study diet of innovative programming that led to the orchestra’s rise in public and critical opinion, Mr. Smith is rightly credited with building upon that with ever-bolder ideas and initiatives, particularly during Gustavo Dudamel’s tenure. Having him in the top chair now virtually guarantees that the LA Phil will continue pushing the envelope. (Of course, this assumes that envelope pushing for its own sake is a good thing, which it may or may not be; more on that below)
  • He’s charismatic and well-liked. Peruse the Twitter-verse’s reactions to his promotion, and luminaries such as John Adams, Alex Ross, and Gautier Capuçon are among the many offering plaudits. The Board of Directors clearly was on his side, otherwise they wouldn’t have made this kind of move less than two years after having named someone else to the job. One shouldn’t underestimate the importance of having powerful people on your side.

Is there anything about which people should be concerned? Two things jump to mind:

  1. He’s never been “THE GUY” anywhere. Yes, I know, he’s been in charge of much more than programming lately. Since his promotion in 2015, he’s been responsible for marketing, communications, public relations, productions, orchestra operation, media, and learning initiatives (whew!). But take a look at what’s not on that list: development, finance, administration. It’s unclear whether he can/will oversee those areas with the same level of competency as programming, let alone as deftly as Deborah Borda or Ernest Fleischmann, the two giants who put their stamp on the orchestra during their own tenures as LA Phil chief administrator. Both were fierce defenders of artistic quality and were keen to experiment, yet both were also skilled at balancing artistic needs with fiscal realities. This leads to concern number two . . .
  2. He has no one above him keeping him from going too far or not far enough. By all accounts, Mr. Smith was the person in the LA Phil charged with ensuring the organization was on the artistic leading/bleeding edge. And in the past, if Mr. Smith had an idea that might have been over the top for one reason or another, Ms. Borda was there to say “No.” Now that he sits atop the org chart, there’s no one there to backstop any decision he makes.To that end, for the biggest example of artistic boldness beginning to morph into indulgence, look no further than this recently completed Centenary Season: on one hand, the veritable cornucopia of concert choices allowed the LA Phil to explore the widest possible range of symphonic repertoire past, present, and future; on the other, the sheer quantity and diversity of programs meant that too many concerts were under-rehearsed, with the quality of the music-making coming from the stage suffering noticeably on far too many occasions.  It were as if the Hollywood Bowl season lasted the whole year, with all the good and bad that implies. Musicians were cautious yet game going into the season; by the end, they were exhausted physically and mentally and were glad that it was done.

    On the other hand, there’s also the risk that having the weight of ultimate responsibility as a CEO makes him gun shy. I sincerely doubt that will happen, but it is a risk, and again, given that he’s NEVER held the top job of any organization anywhere within four or five orders of magnitude the size of the US’s largest orchestra, we – indeed, HE – won’t know how he’ll handle things until he gets there.

I hope that the pendulum doesn’t swing too far one way or the other, and that Mr. Smith shows as much concern for maintaining and achieving the highest quality of music making on stage as is possible from our world-class LA Phil musicians as he is for making programmatic splashes, all while maintaining the orchestra’s fantastic financial health. Best of luck to him.

—–

One final question with regards to the change in CEO: why wasn’t Simon Woods the right fit?

The answer to that is tough to know for sure. By all accounts, he seemed to have the right pedigree, demeanor, and track record for the job. He had a winning personality in his own right, and was generally well-regarded. He didn’t present himself any different towards the end of his short tenure than he did upon being named to the job.

That said, it’s reasonable to guess that given Mr. Smith’s rapid investiture, the Board knew that a change was coming, and that compared to Mr. Smith, Mr. Woods was not ______ enough. Fill in the blank with whatever word(s) you see fit; here are some of the options I’ve heard from many in and around the organization: (a) bold, (b) strong, (c) visionary, (d) programming-focused, or (e) inspirational. To paraphrase an exchange I had with one of Mr. Woods’ admirers after news of his resignation came out, he seemed more in awe of the orchestra and the organization than they were of him.

That’s an unfortunate turn of events if it were, in fact, an underlying reason for he and the orchestra to part ways, but upon hearing those opinions, I was reminded of a few statements Mr. Woods made to me during our interview earlier this year:

  • “[Leading the LA Phil] is 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.”
  • “I said to the Board [of Directors] fairly early on, ‘A commitment to continuity is an intentional leadership act.’ ”
  • “We have the best programming people in the business. . . . And they have great people. I am not spending my days stuck deep in programming.”

In the context of statement, those after-the-resignation assessments seem consistent.

Regardless of whatever disagreements or differences may have existed between Mr. Woods and the Board, he seems to be a genuinely good man, with a keen understanding of the classical music business overall, and a passion for music and music making. I have no doubt that he’ll find future success in the near future, and we wish him well both personally and professionally.

A new LA Phil Harp

Emmanuel Ceysson, Principal Harp of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra since 2015, will be the new Harpist of the LA Phil. The native of France won the audition this past week and will take over some time after Lou Anne Neill, an LA Phil veteran who was originally appointed to the position in 1983 by Carlo Maria Giulini, retires.

Prior to joining The Met, Mr. Ceysson had been Principal Harp of the Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris since 2005 when he was named to the position at the tender age of 22. He also has a noteworthy solo career, complete with recital tours and recording releases.

He will be the fourth former member of The Met Orchestra to have joined the LA Phil in the past decade, following Whitney Crockett (Principal Bassoon), Denis Bouriakov (Principal Flute), and Boris Allakhverdyan (Principal Clarinet).

LA Phil Principal Oboe: a new candidate emerges, plus what happened to the last one?

This past May, the orchestra held an open audition to fill its Principal Oboe chair, the same one that Ramon Ortega vacated after a very brief tenure. Four musicians – all American-trained oboists — made it into the final round. Only one – Liam Boisset – made it out of the audition with an invitation to play a trial with the orchestra.

He is, in most ways, the unlikeliest of candidates. The three other finalists currently hold principal positions in other large orchestras, while Mr. Boisset, still in his mid-twenties, doesn’t yet have a full-time orchestra job of any kind and has been splitting time as of late between the Bay Area and New York as a bi-coastal freelancer.

That said, the San Francisco native’s candidacy isn’t a complete surprise. Word on the street is that during the 2017 auditions that resulted in Mr. Ortega being awarded the job, Mr. Boisset was one of the other finalists. Moreover, he has been guest principal with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Calgary Philharmonic, so he knows his way around the first chair of an oboe section. He has also been a guest section player with the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony, and he has appeared as a soloist in the Strauss Oboe Concerto with the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

He played with the LA Phil under Gustavo Dudamel over two weeks this past summer: the first at the Hollywood Bowl in Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, a reprise of John Adams’ new piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (Yuja Wang, soloist), and the Symphony No. 4 of Tchaikovsky; the following week he played the same concerts on the road when the orchestra made its appearance at the Edinburgh Festival.

No decision one way or the other regarding his candidacy was made at that time, though word on the street is that he’ll be returning to play additional concerts with the LA Phil this calendar year. Again, no other candidates are currently being considered for the position.

Best of luck to Mr. Boisset and the orchestra.

—–

As welcome as this news is, the big question about the Principal Oboe chair remains: why did Mr. Ortega leave?

After arriving with much fanfare – and some scoffing among a certain group of American oboe aficionados – the heralded Spaniard returned to Europe less than a year after being named to the top oboe posts at both the LA Phil and the Colburn Conservatory.

His stint as faculty member at Colburn was roughly two-thirds of a year, beginning in earnest when he auditioned players for his oboe studio in May. His official tenure as Principal Oboe with the LA Phil was even shorter, lasting from the end of September 2018 to mid November. Almost a decade ago, some people were incredulous when Mathieu Dufour left his post as Principal Flute in LA at the beginning of the 2009/2010 season after roughly four months; Mr. Ortega’s tenure was less than half that.

Two days after news of his resignation broke, the star oboist posted this diplomatic yet vague explanation to his Facebook account:

Dear everyone,
After hearing so many wrong comments about why I have resigned on my position with the LA Phil, I would like to write that, on my case, there is not only one reason why I have decided this way. Anyone who lives such an experience will understand that.
I would love to thank the LA Phil for a marvelous time these past months. It is an experience I will never forget.
I am specially [sic] grateful to my colleagues on the wind section, maestro Dudamel and all LA Phil staff who have just supported and made me have a great time in LA!
I am very sad that it lasted so short, but that is life. I ask for respect on my personal motives.
I wish the LA Phil the brightest future and all the best on their 100 anniversary season.
They are a fantastic orchestra and I will truly miss them.

Yours,
Ramon

So what could these multiple reasons be?

Only Mr. Ortega knows for sure, and he didn’t respond to requests for additional comments. Here are my own educated guesses as to potential reasons (along with my guesstimations about the likelihood of each one actually contributing to his decision):

  • The workload at the LA Phil was too burdensome (likelihood: high). The LA Phil’s concert and rehearsal schedule was certainly not a secret. Theoretically, Mr. Ortega knew what he was getting himself into. Yet, knowing in theory and knowing in practice are two different things. And while the workload of the LA Phil is certainly heavy in absolute terms, it would feel more burdensome when compared to that at the Bavarian Radio Symphony, especially when combined with how much extra time off he was given to pursue his solo career.
  • The amount of 20th and 21st century repertoire the LA Phil played was not to his liking (likelihood: high). Again, not a secret, and again, simply knowing that you have to learn, practice, and perform a ton of new music is not the same thing as actually doing it. But if you’re used to a diet consisting overwhelmingly of familiar  18th, 19th, and early 20th Century classical and romantic works, LA’s eclectic mix can be hard to digest.
  • The repertoire burden the LA Phil’s Centennial Season was particularly trying (likelihood: very high). The two points above would be true for any typical LA Phil season over the past two decades; however, the Centennial Season doubled down on both of those points by creating week upon week of two – sometimes three – times the number of unique programs squeezed into the same number of overall concerts; the result: even more repertoire in even less amount of time. And let’s not forget the huge number of world premieres offered last season; as much as the LA Phil is rightly lauded for its support of living composers, it’s not easy on the musicians.
  • He wanted to be closer to his family in Europe (likelihood: moderate). It’s a long way between Spain and Los Angeles, and even longer between Germany and Los Angeles.

—–

One final tidbit on matters regarding the LA Phil and oboists: the much-anticipated recital and tour debut of the “Los Angeles Philharmonic Wind Quintet” in Australia went off splendidly by all accounts, with Principal Horn Andrew Bain and Messrs. Bouriakov, Allakhverdyan, and Crockett being joined by Ricardo Barbosa, Principal Oboe of the Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra (despite the press photos for the event still showing Mr. Ortega in the ensemble). The program included:

  • Samuel Barber: Summer Music
  • Benjamin Britten: Movement for Wind Sextet
  • Francis Poulenc: Sextet Op. 100
  • Charles Gounod: Petite symphonie
  • Darius Milhaud: Chamber Symphony No. 5
  • Jean Françaix: 9 Pièces caractéristiques

A recording of the concert is available to be streamed online HERE. I highly recommend that you listen to it. It’s absolutely wonderful and well worth your investment in time.

News in the LA Phil string sections

In addition to the aforementioned auditions for oboe and harp, the LA Phil also held auditions to fill three open violin chairs. Two of them have been filled by:

  • Jordan Koransky, a three-year veteran of the Houston Symphony. He was a prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California where he studied with Alice Schoenfeld, eventually graduating summa cum laude with a Bachelor in Music from the USC Thornton School of Music. He went on to do his graduate work at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music where he was concertmaster of the school’s orchestra on multiple occasions.
  • Justin Woo, a native of Washington State. He did his undergraduate work at the Cleveland Institute of Music before earning his Master’s degree from the USC Thornton School, studying with Bing Wang, the LA Phil’s Associate Concertmaster

There’s also been one departure from the cello section: Tao Ni left the orchestra at the beginning of the summer season. No word on the reasons for his departure, and no indications as to him having joined another orchestra. It’s worth noting that he originally joined the LA Phil as Associate Principal Cello, though after a year, he was only given tenure as a section player (Ben Hong was eventually promoted from Assistant Principal to Associate Principal); perhaps he has ambitions for more of a leadership position within an orchestra or maybe even a non-orchestral career of some sort. In any case, we wish him well in all of his future endeavors.

A growing leadership vacuum at LACO

Over at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, there’s well-deserved enthusiasm over the start of Jaime Martin’s tenure as Music Director (my review of their season-opening concert is coming later this week).

At the same time, the orchestra has major holes to fill in its administrative ranks as its top three executives have left in the past year:

  • Lacey Huszcza, Associate Executive Director, held the number two spot in the organization and was a 13-year veteran of LACO. She left in October of last year to take over as Executive Director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic.
  • Scott Harrison, Executive Director, left the top post earlier this year to concentrate on other philanthropic activities near and dear to his heart; he remains as a consultant to the orchestra with the title of Senior Advisor. He came to the orchestra from the Detroit Symphony where he was in charge of Advancement and External Relations.
  • Kate Kammeyer, General Manager and Artistic Administrator, left in August to become Assistant Dean of Artistic Planning at the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Boston. She previously held positions at Carnegie Hall and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Those are three major positions to have to fill, especially in the midst of having a new Music Director whose never led an American orchestra learning the ropes. Things will undoubtedly be challenging until they can add some horsepower back to their team.

Fortunately for LACO, they have Ruth Eliel and Leslie Lassiter stepping into the breach — at least temporarily — as co-Interim Executive Directors. Ms. Eliel was LACO’s Executive Director from 1997 to 2008, and her 11-year tenure has been rightly hailed as a triumph, helping bring the organization back from the brink of disaster and putting it back to artistic and fiscal health. Ms. Lassiter is Chair of LACO’s Board, and has a long career as a successful banker to go along with many years in philanthropy.

Here’s hoping that LACO finds some great arts administrators quickly and that they can maintain the positive momentum that LACO has had since Ms. Eliel’s original tenure.

—————

Photo credits:

  • Chad Smith: Mathew Imaging care of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
  • Simon Woods (with Gustavo Dudamel and Deborah Borda): courtesy of Mr. Woods’ Instagram page
  • Emmanuel Ceysson: Dario Acosta
  • Liam Boisset: courtesy of the artist’s Instagram page

 

3 thoughts on “Comings and goings at the LA Phil and beyond (Fall 2019 edition): new CEO, harp, and violins; a Principal Oboe update; plus much more

  1. I attended Ramón Ortega’s recital at the Colburn School last spring after his accession to the woodwind throne was announced. Two things were immediately clear: this was musicianship of the very highest caliber (to say nothing of the fact that you’ve never heard better oboe playing); and that there was no way he’d be embraced by his new colleagues. Not only was this obvious even to a witless cellist, but the wind players on hand—all of them knocked out—were all but forming a betting pool to see how long he’d last.

    Like

  2. Welcome, Mr. Lebow! It’s great to have you here.

    I was at the same Colburn recital and, um, well . . . yes, yes, and yes, though actually I understand that the section was polite to him in person — perhaps no more and no less — even if some were outright hostile to the idea of him being hired. The other wind principals bent over backwards to make him feel welcome, but alas, it didn’t make a difference in the end.

    I remember one other time where the orchestra hired a fantastic new principal over the objections of at least one section player. In that case, the section player left and the 1st chair player remained, all the better for LA Music fans.

    Like

  3. Pingback: REVIEW: Dudamel, Bullock, Thibaudet, and LA Phil revel in unabashed Americana for season opener | All is Yar

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