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Good Vibes in L.A.

Behind the scenes at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chad Smith is on a mission to keep concert music new

One look at these kids, clutching flutes and clarinets almost as big as they are, and your first reaction might be that children should be seen and not heard. They’re an adorable group of minority fourth-graders in Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA, an educational program sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They’ve been on their instruments for all of five months, so it’s easy to expect the worst. And yet when they launch into the fourth movement theme from Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, their rendition is confident and credible.

Afterward, Chad Smith, A95, is the first to applaud. “You know,” Smith tells the group with a smile, “Gustavo is going to conduct that with the L.A. Philharmonic next month. I can’t wait to tell him you’re working on it.” The mention of Gustavo Dudamel, the Philharmonic’s new music director and a rising star in the classical world, brings a chorus of low oohs from the kids. Dudamel emerged in his native Venezuela through El Sistema, the music education program on which YOLA is based. Underscoring his regard for this wholesome alternative to gang membership, Dudamel conducts the YOLA kids once a quarter.

“Are you a conductor, too?” asks an Asian boy with a flute.

“No, I’m not,” says Smith, who is the orchestra’s vice president of artistic planning. “But I work with Gustavo, deciding what the orchestra is going to play.”

A young Latina on clarinet asks Smith which instrument he plays.

“Trumpet,” Smith says. “I picked one up at the fair when I was a kid and just liked the look of it, so that’s what I chose to play. But then I went on to voice. I was a singer. I’d have to practice trumpet very hard to be able to play with you guys. It’s been a long time.”

After another demonstration—part of Ravel’s “Bolero,” solidly played by the young Asian flutist—Smith heads back to his office downtown at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Overseeing outreach programs like YOLA is just part of his job for the L.A. Philharmonic, the largest orchestral organization in the country and one of the most dynamic.

If Dudamel is the orchestra’s rock-star-like public face—its Lennon/McCartney figure—then Smith and Deborah Borda, the L.A. Phil’s president and CEO, combine to make up its George Martin figure. Smith and Borda work as Dudamel’s collaborators and confidants (Dudamel calls Smith “a very special person in my life”). Together they determine the symphony’s programming repertoire, commissions, and education programs. Besides presenting concerts at the Disney Concert Hall—one of the most impressive musical venues on earth—the Philharmonic also books the 18,000-seat Hollywood Bowl. Add up the schedules of both spaces, and the concert season easily comes to two hundred performances. And Smith has a lot to do with what the public sees and hears there.

“At our core, we’re an orchestra,” Smith says. “But we’re also a big presenting organization. Recitals, new music, visiting orchestras, pops concerts, jazz, world music. We might be doing some indie-rock band from Brooklyn one night, Herbie Hancock the next, then Yo-Yo Ma, Dolly Parton, a classical show with Gustavo conducting. We do video projects, too, working with dance and theater companies. We’re constantly staying at the edge of where music is. I hope the audience has enough bandwidth to take in all that we offer, and I try to program that way.”

The main agenda is artistic, of course, meshing Dudamel’s vision with the orchestra—and that’s not as simple as it sounds. Though only thirty, Dudamel came out of a traditional Romantic-era musical background through El Sistema, while the L.A. Philharmonic has been at the forefront of new music throughout its ninety-plus years. “Gustavo has a long-term plan for what he wants the orchestra to sound like, a unique sound,” Smith says. “The L.A. Philharmonic has always had a clarity from focusing on contemporary music, a crystalline specificity. Gustavo wants to keep that and add a depth of richness.” Some late Romanticism in the diet—five weeks of Brahms this past season, five weeks of Mahler in the new season—ought to help. “That allows him to work from week to week within a similar sound world.”

Along with artistry, the orchestra’s other major mission is surviving hard times. Even though the economy is slowly improving, the public-money crisis triggered by the Great Recession has been brutal for symphonies across the country. Orchestras in Philadelphia, Syracuse, Louisville, and Honolulu are all dealing with various stages of bankruptcy.

By contrast, the L.A. Philharmonic is about as robust as any symphony in America. Its endowment is estimated at $180 million, with a total annual budget of $100 million, by far the largest in the country. The symphony’s classical concerts play to 95 percent capacity at the 2,265-seat Disney Concert Hall.

Part of the L.A. Phil’s secret, according to Smith, is realizing there’s not just “the audience” but many audiences. “You have to be aware of them and make choices,” he says. “This is Los Angeles in 2011, and I hope our programming addresses that. Where arts organizations fall down is if they somehow cease to reflect their community at the time they’re serving it. We’re responsible for Beethoven and Mahler and Bach. But we also want to make sure you’re hearing the most important new voices. So we’re committed to new music and composers, artists, different disciplines, young artists, community education programs. That way we’ll still be here and still be a part of it all.”

The next morning, Smith is in early to greet a visiting conductor, Vassily Sinaisky, who is here to rehearse an upcoming program of Tchaikovsky. Smith knocks on the backstage dressing-room door and enters.

“Maestro,” he says, “how are you? Gustavo can’t be here. He left for Vienna this morning.”

“Yes, it is like ships in the night passing,” Sinaisky says. “Except when we do meet, it’s usually in an airport.”

They make dinner plans, and Sinaisky asks if Smith can make sure his scores for “Tchaik Four” have arrived. Smith puts an assistant on it to check and then strides out onto the Disney Concert Hall stage as the Philharmonic’s musicians warm up. He paces a bit as they go through the familiar tuning-up ritual before stepping to the podium to briefly address the players.

“I want to thank all of you for the last two weeks,” Smith says. “The Adès festival”—with music curated or composed by the renowned British composer Thomas Adès—“was amazing, just amazing. I can’t think of another orchestra in the world who can do what you did. Tom was thrilled.” Smith then yields to Sinaisky, who fires up the orchestra with the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, which even in rehearsal is almost overwhelming.

Of course, it helps that they’re in one of the finest-sounding rooms in the world. The orchestra’s home since 2003, Disney Concert Hall is a $275 million masterpiece designed by Frank Gehry. The hall’s acoustics, by Yasuhisa Toyota, are so bell-clear that even halfway back you can imagine you are sitting onstage with the musicians. And the building’s exterior, with its billows of stainless steel that give the impression of an alien vessel on the verge of lifting off, can take your breath away.

Smith loves showing off the hall to visitors, and coming to work here every day. A job like his is all-consuming, and he lives it rather than simply works it. In his rare free time, he surfs—a hobby he calls “incredibly restorative” because it’s impossible to multitask on a surfboard. Otherwise, Smith is forever jetting off in search of talent for future collaborations. “Who are the young composers—the twenty-two-year-old Yale graduate I heard something good about, or the Icelandic composer working on monodrones the last six months? It’s my job to find them.”

Such a job demands a mastery of both logistics and the art of living well. Smith excels at both, and at merging the two. “Chad has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and a highly attuned sense of adventure and aesthetics,” says the Philharmonic’s top administrator, Deborah Borda. “Artists all know and respect him, as he creates a very special sense of welcome and ongoing friendship for all those who work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Yet in spite of all the ‘art’ part, he is a supremely pragmatic fellow. In our fast-paced, high-stakes world, that is an unusual asset. He can make things happen.”

The composer John Adams, one of the Philharmonic’s regular collaborators, is not shy in his praise, either, calling Smith “one of the most brilliantly imaginative people working in the classical music world.” He adds: “There’s no young composer, indie band, electronica group, obscure maverick composer living in a shack in the mountains, or crazy Brooklyn performance artist that Chad doesn’t already know, and most likely on a first-name basis. I can’t think of anyone who gives me greater pleasure to brainstorm with for provocative concert programming.”

Smith grew up in Pennsylvania and entered the double degree program at Tufts and New England Conservatory, from which he also earned a master’s in 1998. Music was his focus from a very young age, and yet the European history Smith studied at Tufts turned out to be just as important to his career. “It took me ten years to fully appreciate how much I’d been influenced by the liberal arts part of my education, which helped my ability in programming,” Smith says. “Thinking about how an orchestra can remain contemporary and ask big questions, engage the community and other cultural institutions, I realized that those questions were really informed by my strong foundation in liberal arts.”

After graduation, Smith spent a year and a half as a freelance musician. But even during his performing days, he wanted to go behind the scenes and make his work “creating the environment for great art to happen.” Smith was on tour with Harry Belafonte (as tenor for a duet of “Try to Remember”) when he got a call that the conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas needed an assistant at the New World Symphony, in Florida. Smith took the job, a junior position that got him into program planning.

He came to the L.A. Philharmonic in 2002 and spent two years doing classical and pops programming at the Hollywood Bowl before taking an artistic administrator job with the New York Philharmonic. He’d been in New York only nine months when the L.A. position—his current job—came open, and it was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

Borda’s and Dudamel’s predecessors, longtime executive director Ernest Fleishmann and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, had laid an extremely solid foundation on which to build. “Los Angeles became a model of what a twenty-first-century orchestra could be under them,” says the New York–based artist manager Frank Salomon. “They took a community that was younger and not viewed in the field as the most sophisticated in the world, and developed an audience appreciative of new music as well as the masterworks of the past. That’s something that Chad and Deborah have continued and added their own ingredients to. Chad is extraordinarily knowledgeable about orchestral and concerto repertoire. There’s an art to knowing what pieces and players will work together. Chad is an artist in his own right.”

One of the more innovative pieces of programming Smith has been involved with was 2008’s “Concrete Frequency” festival, which documented street and skateboard culture in Los Angeles. The program included a ten-minute film that gave the viewer a “skateboard’s eye view” of the city, showing walls and surfaces as things to jump over, go around, or slide down. It was part of the festival’s examination of music and architecture, and how each influences the other. Other recent explorations have included “Minimalist Jukebox,” with everything from African percussion ensembles to the English ambient electronic ensemble the Orb, and “West Coast Left Coast,” celebrating music on a California theme.

And the presence of a Latin American music director is bound to bring its own geographic twist. One recent event, “America and Americans,” did just that, exploring musical and cultural bonds between North and South America. “So often, classical music looks east and west,” Smith says. “Either back to Europe, or forward to Japan and China. This was an attempt to change that direction to north and south. Gustavo curated that. There were Mexican pop bands, commissioned works by young composers from Venezuela and Mexico, trying to find those connections.”

If it all works, the audience will make those connections, too. The L.A. Philharmonic has fifty commissions in the works for the next five years, including a production of three Mozart operas with architects and fashion designers creating the sets and costumes.

All of which suits Chad Smith perfectly. “For a person who does what I do, this is one of the great jobs in the world,” he says. “It’s a great hall, a great orchestra, and I was part of the process of bringing Gustavo here. There’s a sense of adventure here, pushing boundaries in different disciplines, and also an openness about embracing new things. The goal is to make it the most creative orchestra in the country.”

David Menconi is the music critic at the News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is a frequent contributor to Tufts Magazine.

  © 2011 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155