The Los Angeles Philharmonic faces up to a daunting future

By Jeffrey Fleishman


On a serene summer evening, Deborah Borda, chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, settled into her box seat at the Hollywood Bowl. As the musicians took the stage, a woman yelled in Borda's direction: “We can't keep doing Mahler if we want to get the 20-year-olds.”

The comment about the late Romantic composer, a staple of the orchestra's repertoire, crystallized the challenges the L.A. Phil faces if it is to remain one of the nation's most innovative and financially strong orchestras. In coming years, the Phil will have to expand its audience beyond the older, well-to-do season-ticket holders who have been its foundation for nearly a century.

Orchestras across the country have been shaken by the loss of subscribers, aging audiences, declining corporate donations, labor strife and the struggle of remaining relevant in an era when technology is redefining how people spend their leisure hours. Younger generations, in particular, are demanding more diverse programming and freedom to choose their concerts a la carte instead of buying season tickets. The L.A. Phil's success — it has the largest budget of any U.S. orchestra — has kept it from feeling the full force of these problems. But its leaders recognize it must change if it is to remain on top.

Guests enjoy socializing in the Founders Room at Walt Disney Concert Hall, top. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's season-opening concert on Sept. 30, 2014, featured music from "Star Wars." (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The Phil also has additional burdens intrinsic to the region: The orchestra has yet to draw in much of a Latino community that accounts for about half of the county's population. Los Angeles' traffic congestion can discourage potential concertgoers from venturing downtown. And the orchestra's board of directors will at some point have to face a future without two of the people most responsible for its recent success — Borda, 65, and music director Gustavo Dudamel, 34, a coveted conductor whose contract expires in four years.

“The Phil will not be immune. There are challenges ahead,” said Steven Stucky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and former resident composer for the Phil. “How you take a program to the next level, I don't know.... The demographics will eventually catch up with you.”

Like other orchestras, the Phil must find ways to reach new generations of ticket buyers, many of whom complain of high prices. Tickets for next month's performance of Mahler's Sixth Symphony range from $64 to $212. Most of the Phil's subscribers and major donors are over 60. It will be crucial in coming years for the orchestra to further expand its repertoire of contemporary composers while luring in more subscribers who might prefer a bit of hip-hop or salsa music with their Brahms and Beethoven.

“Our audience is segmenting. There isn't such a thing as a classical music audience. There are dozens of classical music audiences,” said Chad Smith, the Phil's vice president of artistic planning. “We want to be seen as relevant to what's happening in our world. L.A. is the most contemporary city. You miss a beat and you are forgotten.”

Or worse. In recent years, the acclaimed Philadelphia Orchestra and symphonies in Kentucky, New Mexico and other states have filed for bankruptcy. Battles over benefits and salaries led to a musician lockout at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in September. The Minnesota Orchestra's union swallowed steep pay and benefits cuts last year to end a bitter 15-month dispute. Singers and musicians in New York's Metropolitan Opera, which reported an estimated $22-million deficit, agreed to a pay cut in August to avert a lockout.

Bonds between communities and their orchestras have been weakened by decades of cutbacks in arts and music programs in public schools. Corporate donations to orchestras are off sharply, and the National Endowment for the Arts noted that the largest decline in classical music attendance between 2008 and 2012 was among people ages 35 to 54.

“It's a radically evolving environment,” said Thomas Morris, former CEO of the Cleveland Orchestra. “There's a total blurring going on among musical elements and genres. Classical music is changing, and organizations need to get out of the rut.”

As it deals with these challenges, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has a budget of about $115 million, relies on three formidable resources: the charisma of Dudamel, the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Hall, one of the most stunning concert halls in the world.

"Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II" was held at the Hollywood Bowl in 2013. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times) Walt Disney Concert Hall, which opened in 2003, is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times) Gustavo Dudamel leads the orchestra during a concert in San Francisco, the Philharmonic's opening performance of a national tour in 2010. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The Hollywood Bowl may be the least obvious but most important asset. Most orchestras don't have such a prominent second venue. The Bowl is owned by Los Angeles County, but the Phil has run the nearly 18,000-seat complex for decades, scheduling its own summer season of classical music and also booking the facility's rental to promoters for pop acts such as Bruno Mars and Billy Joel.

A 30-year lease signed in 2004 guarantees the orchestra a steady income — $50 million for its most recent fiscal year. The Bowl generates most of the Phil's ticket sales, which in recent years have accounted for more than a third of the orchestra's revenue. For that, the Phil pays the county about $2.5 million annually to cover operating, maintenance and other costs — clearly a bargain for what is considered by many the best outdoor venue in America. Since 1992, the county spent $70 million renovating the site, including constructing a new band shell.

“How is the L.A. Phil doing so well when other orchestras in the nation are in such trouble? I'd say the Hollywood Bowl,” said former County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “The Bowl puts them in the black and gives them a cushion.”

The Hollywood Bowl sound system includes hanging vertical speaker columns. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Yaroslavsky acknowledged that the lease agreement is a windfall for the orchestra but says it ensures that two of the region's cultural gems — the Hollywood Bowl and the L.A. Phil — remain viable and affordable. He also said it's good business.

“Culture and arts in Los Angeles is a huge economic engine that make the county a tourist destination,” he said. “Manufacturing is gone. Culture and arts employ more than the defense industry.”

The Phil's gratitude earned Yaroslavsky a stately legacy — it named the Bowl's main entrance gate after him in advance of his retirement as supervisor last year.

The Bowl, which this year will add new box seats and increase its movie-themed programming, including a screening of “Back to the Future,” attracts audiences that are more diverse than those who attend the more formal concerts in Disney Hall. That's a big plus at a time when orchestras nationwide are looking to broaden their cachet beyond the tuxedo set. Many are navigating demographic and cultural changes in odd and thrilling ways.

As part of a new music series featuring popular musicians, the Seattle Symphony performed in June with rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, who called women in the audience up to the stage to “shake that big ol' butt.” The show went viral, racking up more than 3 million hits on YouTube.

The Rochester Philharmonic played a concert in November that featured images and music from popular video games. A new $450-million concert hall at the edge of Paris aims to bring in immigrant communities neglected by French cultural institutions. Classical companies in Detroit, Vienna, Berlin and other cities are Web-streaming live performances, and some are holding late-night concert parties. Last Halloween, the Phil featured an organist who played in Disney Hall while the audience watched the 1922 silent vampire film “Nosferatu.”

The orchestra has also introduced Concert Master, a Web questionnaire to guide ticket buyers in tailoring programs — there are about 30 subscription packages, ranging from jazz to classical to world music — to their tastes.

“We have to set a tone and excitement around classical music that it's not just for an elite group of people who want to get dressed up on Thursday nights,” said Diane B. Paul, chairman of the Phil's board of directors. She and her husband, M. David Paul, a commercial real estate developer, donate more than $200,000 a year to the orchestra. “People are experiencing classical music in different ways. You can't stay still.”

But the Phil's most committed subscribers and many longtime wealthy donors prefer more narrowly focused programming with favorites such as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. Giving concertgoers more freedom, including picking programs a la carte, upends the conventional subscription model and erodes Dudamel's power to curate a season. The conductor's contract expires in 2019, and there are whispers that Dudamel, a dynamic crowd-pleaser, might be tapped to succeed Simon Rattle as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, considered by many the best orchestra in the world.

Rodas Hailu rehearses at the Expo Center as part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's YOLA outreach. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The L.A. Phil started a model of El Sistema — Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA — in 2007 as part of its courtship of Dudamel, who became music director two years later. Serving hundreds of lower-income children, many of them from immigrant families, the program is the Phil's most visible effort to reach out to Latinos. Most of the children will likely not become professional musicians, but the goal is provide discipline and music appreciation that will shape their lives.

Borda said YOLA is central to “the artistic imperative and the social imperative” that she and Dudamel have set as one of the orchestra's major goals. The Phil is also planning more concerts aimed at appealing to Latino audiences at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, and the orchestra is working on a ballet with flamenco dancer Siudy Garrido scheduled for May.

That diversity, however, has not reached the Phil's board of directors, which is predominantly white and rich. Of its 52 members, the board has just two Latinos and no African Americans or Asians. The orchestra, like many of its peers, is dominated by white musicians and to a less extent Asian Americans. It has just four African Americans and two Latinos, including Dudamel.

“The board realizes it should always be looking at who will bring diversity,” said Cecilia Aguilera Glassman, executive director of the Los Angeles Police Foundation who has been on the Phil board for nine years. Board members pay $60,000 in annual dues and are expected to contribute to galas and other events that can cost tens of thousands of dollars more. “The financial commitment is the reason you don't have more diversity.... It is a considerable deterrent.”

Bringing more cultural balance to the Phil “will be critical,” said Borda. “Right now we're building toward that. I think in 20 years the board … will look different. At some point we'll have a kid who was in YOLA on the board.”

How far back does your L.A. Phil history go?

From its earliest days, the Phil has been a point of pride for Los Angeles. Nearly 100 years ago, the orchestra's founder, William Andrews Clark Jr., a copper baron's son who played violin, envisioned a nationally recognized symphony. The Phil's recent run of creativity was forged by Ernest Fleischmann, a brusque German-born impresario with a prodigious artistic vision who took over the orchestra in 1969. He ran it with a firm grip for nearly 30 years, hiring Esa-Pekka Salonen, a handsome, incisive Finn and a gifted composer, who became conductor in 1992.

The Phil has advanced Fleischmann's vision and strengthened its inventive power. This March, the Phil will travel to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo and Seoul to perform works including “City Noir,” a tone-poem to a Bogart-esque L.A. by composer John Adams that it commissioned.

The intensity and thrill of the orchestra could be glimpsed in the moments backstage before a recent concert. Bows slid across violins; an oboe trilled. A few musicians walked past stacks of instrument cases and hurried past a 1953 Disney cartoon sketch about an orchestra titled “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom.”

In his office, Dudamel stood shirtless, studying his score. An assistant held his trousers. Borda popped her head in and wished him luck.

She then followed the faint sound of a piano around the corner to a room where soloist Emanuel Ax was rehearsing on a Steinway.

“Are you ready?” she asked him.

Ax said nothing. Borda had predicted that Ax, like he often did, would confess pre-concert jitters. She nudged him, “Manny, don't f— up.” The pianist calmly stood and smiled. “No, now I say, ‘It's not brain surgery, no one will die,’ “ he replied.

Musicians tuned their instruments, each one a distinct voice, like members of a family kibitzing in the moments before a meal. The timpanist tightened the calfskins of his kettle drums.

It would be an evening of Brahms.

The house lights flickered, and the last of the patrons took their seats. Dudamel, dressed in black, left his office and crossed into the light, shoulders back in a tiny march, his curls shining. Applause. Silence.

He faced the orchestra. He held the quiet a moment longer. The baton rose. French horns called as if from a distant field. Violins swelled and clarinets bloomed to life.

Gustavo Dudamel, 34, is a major selling point for the L.A. Philharmonic, but his contract is up in four years. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Video Credits: Creative Director: Myung J. Chun.

Additional Credits: Digital Producer and Developer: Evan Wagstaff. Digital Design Director: Stephanie Ferrell. Armand Emamdjomeh and Lily Mihalik contributed to this project. Lead photos of Dudamel conducting: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.