In 1919, a copper scion, arts enthusiast, and amateur violinist by the name of William Andrews Clark Jr. founded the first permanent symphony orchestra in the City of Angels and named it the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His statement, “We want to be the best orchestra in America,” perhaps reflective of the optimistic 1920s era, was nonetheless a commitment he took on personally by becoming the LA Phil’s sole financial resource. (Rumor has it that he also played in the second violins on occasion). He originally asked Sergei Rachmaninoff to be the Philharmonic’s first music director, however Rachmaninoff had only recently moved to New York, and he did not wish to move again. Clark then selected Walter Henry Rothwell, former assistant to Gustav Mahler, as music director, and hired away several principal musicians from orchestras back east, as well as others from the competing and soon-to-be defunct Los Angeles Symphony. The orchestra played its first concert in the Trinity Auditorium in the same year.
At its official opening in 1922, the Hollywood Bowl became the summer venue for the LA Phil. As one the world’s largest natural amphitheaters with a nearly 18,000-seat capacity, the Hollywood Bowl became a primary part of the financial success of the orchestra. With its versatility as a venue capable of hosting music of nearly any genre, the Hollywood Bowl became an icon nearly worldwide. From Bugs Bunny to the Beatles, and from Puccini to Penderecki, the Hollywood Bowl provided the means—especially in the lean years of the early 1930s—for the LA Phil to go from surviving to thriving. (In February 2017, the Hollywood Bowl was named Best Major Outdoor Concert Venue for the 13th year in a row at the 28th Annual Pollstar Awards).
Walter Henry Rothwell served as Music Director until 1927 and was succeeded by the following ten Music Directors: Georg Schnéevoigt (1927–1929); Artur Rodzinski (1929–1933); Otto Klemperer (1933–1939); Alfred Wallenstein (1943–1956); Eduard van Beinum (1956–1959); Zubin Mehta (1962–1978); Carlo Maria Giulini (1978–1984); André Previn (1985–1989); Esa-Pekka Salonen (1992–2009); and Gustavo Dudamel (2009–present). Sir Georg Solti served as a guest conductor on several occasions and might have been on this list, as he was named Music Director in 1961, but alas, he never served in that capacity. Ms. Dorothy Chandler, the Board chair, hired a young upcoming conductor as assistant (Zubin Mehta) without previously consulting Maestro Solti. That slight was enough to send him to regions elsewhere without ever having conducted a note as Music Director in Los Angeles. In addition to these names the LA Phil has had a list of distinguished Principal Guest Conductors as well: Michael Tilson Thomas (1981–1985); Simon Rattle (1981–1994); Leonard Slatkin (Hollywood Bowl, 2005–2007); Bramwell Tovey (Hollywood Bowl, 2008–2010); and Susanna Mälkki (2017–present).
Ms. Chandler began raising money for a permanent home for the LA Philharmonic in 1955. Having raised $20 million in cash, the rest was financed by a $14 million bond-revenue-financed mortgage. The result was the construction of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a part of the Music Center in downtown LA. It opened in December of 1964 with a program featuring Jascha Heifitz conducted by Zubin Mehta. The Chandler Pavilion served as the home of the LA Phil until October 2003, when the LA Phil moved into its present home, the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
A major part of the success of the LA Phil came from individuals within our LA Phil family. Amongst these people were leaders on the podium, world-class musicians in the orchestra, and visionary representatives on the staff. Retired members Ron Leonard (Principal Cello), Tom Stevens (Principal Trumpet), and Ralph Sauer (Principal Trombone) deserve special mention, with apologies to those I’ve omitted. Among our former Executive Directors, perhaps no better example of visionary leadership was Ernest Fleischmann. His commitment to new music was legendary and became a signature feature of each LA Phil season. His courageous resolve to go in directions where others feared to go was renowned throughout our profession. The ability of recently-departed President Deborah Borda to solve the most difficult challenges was masterful as well. We owe all of those aforementioned people a great deal of gratitude.
Since the arrival of Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra has created Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA), which is patterned after El Sistema in Venezuela. The LA Phil and its community partners provide free instruments, intensive music training, and leadership training to nearly 1,000 students from underserved neighborhoods. On November 9, 2017, the LA Phil announced the purchase of a building in Inglewood dedicated to the YOLA program. (The renovation will be a Frank Gehry design.) In addition to this, the Centennial will also be the first season for the LA Phil Resident Fellows Program (Note: See “Newslets” in the December 2017 issue). This is more than a community outreach program. It gives talented young musicians an opportunity to experience life as an everyday musician in the LA Phil and hone their skills—so they can successfully compete for positions in our orchestras and help those orchestras to better serve their communities.
Next season, as part of our Centennial celebration, the LA Phil will commission 55 new works, go on two tours, perform a concert featuring our present and former Music Directors, and put on a movable concert, which will begin at Walt Disney Concert Hall and end at the Hollywood Bowl, with a few stops in between. (This season we did something similar with War of the Worlds. [Note: See “War of the Worlds” in the December 2017 issue.]) I don’t know if I can imagine how Gustavo Dudamel, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Zubin Mehta might make music magic sharing one stage together, but it’ll be an interesting ride nonetheless. The Centennial became too much to put into one season, so the celebration will continue into the 2019-20 season as well.
We hope to continue to meet the challenges of our community and our industry. We also hope that our efforts today are a worthy homage to those who’ve come before us, and, finally, that these endeavors leave us in good shape for the next 100 years.