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Departures Force Los Angeles Philharmonic to Reinvent Itself, Again

One of the most significant developments in American classical music so far this century has been the ascendancy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic: a showcase of talent, inventive programming and strong finances that has become the envy of other orchestras.

But now the institution is facing one of its biggest challenges in decades.

First, Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra’s popular music director, announced that he would leave in 2026 to become the next music director of the New York Philharmonic. A few months later, Chad Smith, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s chief executive officer, who championed and drove its inventive programming, announced he was resigning to run the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was one of the last remaining top deputies of Deborah Borda, who led the orchestra for 17 years in which it reached new heights before she left as its chief executive six years ago to take over the New York Philharmonic.

When Frank Gehry, the architect who designed the Los Angeles orchestra’s futuristic steel-clad home, Walt Disney Concert Hall, first heard the news that Smith was leaving, he initially said, quite bluntly, that he was “scared” by the double hit of departures. But he then explained that he remained hopeful, given the orchestra’s track record of successful reinvention.

“I’ve been through it,” Gehry said. “It’s a moving thing that continues to grow and change. That’s the way of that world. Change has been the M.O. of orchestras around the world.”

Dudamel, who noted that he would remain in his post in Los Angeles for three more seasons, said he was certain the orchestra would find the right person to lead it, and praised its “very, very, very solid executive team.”

“I’m not even zero percent worried — even zero percent,” he said.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic does have a decades-long history of finding talent. Ernest Fleischmann, who led the orchestra from 1969 to 1998, revitalized is lucrative summer programming at the Hollywood Bowl, fought to build Disney Hall and hired a young Esa-Pekka Salonen to be its music director. Borda built on those successes, opening the hall, hiring Dudamel, fostering ties with the city and championing new music. The board exudes confidence that it will be able to find the right leadership again.

“It would have been a much bigger blow in other organizations that weren’t as cohesive and well run and didn’t have such an experienced team,” said David Bohnett, a longtime member of its board of directors.

In truth, the Philharmonic has hardly been tested like this before. Borda, Smith and Dudamel have all helped shape the Los Angeles Philharmonic into a pioneering and revered institution. Dudamel is highly popular with his orchestra and the audience: His name on the roster at Walt Disney Hall or at the Philharmonic’s summer venue, the Hollywood Bowl, assures big crowds, almost regardless of what is being played.

On Thursday night, returning to Disney Hall for the first time since February, Dudamel walked out to shouts and cheers to conduct world premieres by Ellen Reid and Gabriella Smith, and left two hours later to a prolonged standing ovation after leading the Philharmonic in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

The upheaval for what has been described as “the most important orchestra in America” has rattled some. “It’s quite the moment,” said Brian Lauritzen, the host and producer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s nationally syndicated radio broadcasts on KUSC, a classical music station here. “There’s definitely uncertainty. It’s a watershed moment for the organization.”

Some orchestra members said they were unnerved, too, but others — including those who have lived through such changes before — said they welcomed a new chapter. Christopher Still, who has played the trumpet with the Los Angeles Philharmonic since 2007, said that when Salonen left, “we all thought, ‘What is going to happen? Who is this kid from Venezuela?’ And look what happened.”

“The L.A. Phil has always been on the leading edge of taking chances,” Still said. “We jump and build a helicopter after we jump. This time we are doing it without a leader.”

The decision by Dudamel to leave for New York startled some in the organization, but it could hardly have come as a complete surprise. There had long been rumors that Borda, who has a close relationship with Dudamel, would try to recruit him to New York. Dudamel is 42 years old, and will have been at the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 17 years by the time he decamps for New York, a long tenure.

But by every account, Smith’s departure was unexpected. Smith had told associates he was reluctant to commit to another five years in Los Angeles and to search for someone to replace Dudamel, with whom he was close. And he is from the East Coast, which is where his family still lives.

Some musicians said they were disappointed to see Smith go.

“I’m super-bummed Chad is leaving,” said Minor L. Wetzel, a violist, calling the news “a punch in the gut.”

Smith, for his part, said he did not believe he was leaving the orchestra in a vulnerable position.

“Periods of change are periods when organizations can be thoughtful and introspective about who they want to be and make decisions that are not just a continuation of what we’ve done,” he said.

Ara Guzelimian, a longtime arts administrator, said that even though Smith’s departure was a shock, it could benefit the institution in the long run.

“There is a logic to the timing, if he was beginning to feel his effectiveness and his shelf date were coming to a close,” he said. “There is a kind of precise professional sell-by date where both you need renewal and the organization needs renewal. My guess is that he began to hear the professional ticking clock.”

The first order of business will be to appoint a new chief executive to run the orchestra and oversee the search for a new music director. The fact that Dudamel is not leaving for three years provides some breathing room.

“They can take their time,” Salonen said. “They have a very strong body of guest conductors, and Gustavo’s doing two more seasons. So it’s not a crisis by any means.”

Thomas L. Beckmen, the chairman of the board of directors, said a committee has been appointed to find a replacement for Smith, and that he was hopeful the search would be finished in time for Smith’s successor to help chose Dudamel’s successor.

It will be a challenge: Board members said there was a relatively small pool of experienced music executives to draw from. “It isn’t that deep,” Beckmen said in an interview. “I started virtually looking at the top 25 orchestras in the U.S. and there’s not a lot of strength. But there are a few, and I think L.A. is a pretty prestigious job these days.”

But these kind of searches are always complicated and risky, given the tightly knit and competitive world of American orchestras. It took nearly a year to replace Borda — and that choice, Simon Woods, who came to Los Angeles from the Seattle Symphony, stepped down abruptly 18 months after he began. That paved the way for the appointment of Smith, who was then the chief operating officer.

“When you have leadership changes, there’s anxiety and uncertainty — that’s normal,” said Thomas W. Morris, a veteran orchestra administrator.

Morris said the priority for the Philharmonic should be to find a chief executive “very expeditiously” to manage the transition.

“They need somebody who has a sense of what an orchestra is in relationship to a community and what an orchestra can be artistically,” he said.

Some board members were optimistic, saying they expected considerable interest in the music director job. “Look at the people that the L.A. Phil has found over the past 60 years,” said Reveta Bowers, a member of the board of directors. “The kind of diversity that exists in the L.A. market — the Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl, the Ford Theater, the different kinds of genres at Disney Hall. This is a dream job.”

The board has appointed Daniel Song, the chief operating officer, to serve as interim chief executive officer. Beckmen said the board would retain a consultant to help find a permanent replacement for Smith; the new music director will be chosen, with the ratification of the board, by a committee made up of two musicians, two members of the board of directors, and two executives from the organization.

Beckmen said the long line of successful music directors, going back half a century, made him confident about the next chapter. “We’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “Hopefully the sun will shine on us again.”

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