An Interview with Simon Woods
Chief Executive Officer, David C. Bohnett Chief Executive Officer Chair Los Angeles Philharmonic Association
Simon Woods couldn’t have come at a better time. His arrival as CEO of the LA Phil took place on the cusp of the orchestra’s centennial, a historic milestone and notable moment of institutional reflection.
A veteran orchestra executive, Woods previously held leadership posts at the Seattle Symphony, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and The Philadelphia Orchestra. He also worked as a record producer with EMI Classics in London for close to a decade. Before that, he earned degrees in music from Cambridge University and conducting from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Woods’s background, combining serious musical study with a career in orchestral leadership, is similar to that of the two legendary executives who led the Los Angeles Philharmonic for nearly half of the last century: Ernest Fleischmann with a tenure of 30 years and Deborah Borda with one of 17. Each, of course, faced radically different challenges when they arrived in Los Angeles. Woods, for his part, has taken the reins of the LA Phil at a time of immense change for American orchestras, with business models, programmatic strategies, and community relationships all under investigation.
The task of guiding the LA Phil into its second century belongs to him.
The following interview, conducted between his appointment and his arrival in Los Angeles, captures his impressions of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and thoughts on why orchestras must expand their “circle of caring.”
WARD: What has been your perception of the Los Angeles Philharmonic over the past few years?
WOODS: It has become the organization that literally is redefining what it is possible for an orchestra to be. It has been amazing to watch its growth over the past decade or so.
I don’t think another orchestra in recent history has had the courage to think about doing things so differently—moving the art form forward in new ways, engaging with the community in new ways—and also had the resources to act on that. That combination of courage, incredibly bold thinking, and very strong sense of ambition, allied with the resources and being located in such an extraordinary, global city, has turned the LA Phil into a unique organization. It’s without parallel in the world.
The opportunity to join this organization was an enticing proposition, but also a deeply humbling one. I’m thinking day and night about how I can best help the organization grow and thrive and develop, even beyond the extraordinary entity it is today. It’s an exciting challenge, but I’m sure the ideas won’t truly coalesce until I’ve spent many, many months embedded in the organization and the city.
WARD: Your primary partner in this endeavor is, of course, Gustavo Dudamel. What are your impressions of him?
WOODS: It’s probably worth backing up to say that when I was a student, my primary focus was conducting. It’s what I almost exclusively focused on in my college years. After I decided not to focus on it as a career, I spent the next 30 years or so being a professional conductor watcher, both through the record business and running orchestras! I am fascinated by the elusive art of conducting and how gestures translate into musical meaning. It demands huge technical and musical skill, a profound understanding of music and interpretation, but it’s also a profession where you need a high degree of emotional intelligence to be successful.
I’ve had the good fortune through my career to work with a lot of amazing conductors—and there are themes that emerge. Many of the most successful conductors view their work not as a projection of self, but look at their role as facilitating those around them to make the greatest music. I had the great pleasure for years, when I was at The Philadelphia Orchestra, of working with Wolfgang Sawallisch, who definitely fell into that category. And I feel it strongly with Gustavo as well.
It might seem a strange thing to say this about somebody who has this extraordinary public presence, but one of the things that’s always impressed me about Gustavo is that his conducting style is quite self-effacing. He has extraordinary economy in his gestures. But if you watch him carefully, you’ll see that the tip of the baton is always moving. I’ve come to understand that there’s a sort of kinetic energy inside the way he communicates using his body. Yet it doesn’t seem to be about him. It’s always about the music. When he wants to, he can pull gestures out of his drawer that can inspire musicians to do extraordinary things and take the performance to a new level—but he does it sparingly. He’s just got this mastery of the physical art of conducting that’s hard to put into words. I recently heard him say that he always tries to “listen to the honesty of the music,” which is a beautiful phrase.
The other thing I’d say about Gustavo is that his greatest performances clearly still lie in the future, and I mean that in a good way. I am extraordinarily impressed by the way he continues to grow as an artist. He conducted a Mahler 9 with the LA Phil in Benaroya Hall in Seattle about two years ago, and it was a quite remarkable performance. He has more that we haven’t seen yet, and that’s immensely exciting for the LA Phil.
WARD: Conducting is sometimes employed metaphorically in speaking about organizational leadership. How has your background as a student of conducting influenced your leadership style?
WOODS: Everyone's educational background is influential on their leadership style. Like teaching, leadership is mostly about who you are, not what you know. We are the result of our pasts and our lives. And like artists, leaders evolve as well. If you looked at me 30 years ago, I was a rather different person to how I show up in an organization today.
I really believe that famous phrase of the great management guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This doesn’t suggest that strategy isn’t important, but it says that even if you have the greatest strategy in the world, if you don’t have an organizational culture that supports it, you’re unlikely to be successful.
One of the single most important things you can do as a leader is to set tone in the organization. For me, that means creating a place where everyone has a voice, where every individual can allow their creativity to flourish, and where they can understand how their particular creativity and skills fit into the larger goals of the organization. We just talked about the art of conducting, and the same applies here. It’s more about empowering those around you than about an expression of self, which is why I think it’s possible for great leaders to go from one organization to a very different organization and still be successful. The job is critically about realizing the essential potential of the DNA of the organization. That’s what great leaders do.
WARD: The Seattle Symphony’s Simple Gifts program was started under your leadership to serve those experiencing homelessness. You’ve also said an orchestra should “commit to its community with the same passion as it commits to its art form.” A statement like that seems to come from a civic-minded and even moral place. Where does this attention to social justice come from for you personally? What is the role of an orchestra in contemporary society?
WOODS: The Simple Gifts program came from a sense that orchestras really need to think in a much deeper way about how we impact the world around us. In most American cities, orchestras are often one of the largest arts organizations in their community. And in large arts organizations, we are very good at telling people what we would like them to do for us. Think about it: We want you to buy tickets. We want you to support the annual fund. We want you to be our friend on Facebook. We want you to talk about us to your legislators. We want you to spread the word about how great we are. We want you to come to our special events. It's endless!
But, in general, we have not been nearly as successful at reversing that and saying, “What do the communities in our city and our region need from us? What does the arts ecosystem in our city need from us? How can we be a part of helping all ships rise? How can we bring inside our circle those people who traditionally are outside of it?”
There’s a concept I read about recently which I really love: the “circle of caring.” That’s my new phrase! The circle of caring. I love that idea. I think that, as orchestras, we have to think much more carefully about who we include in the circle of caring. Because it can no longer just be about the people who are familiar with our art form and who have the capacity to pay for it. We have to define ourselves in a much broader way about how we make everyone’s lives richer.
This is not just a question for education and community departments. It’s a question for every single person in the organization to ask themselves, whether it’s a musician on stage or whether it’s a marketing department or whether it’s a board member. Because if you start to think less about the activity you do every day and more about the impact you make on people’s lives, it’s quite transformational in shaping how you feel when you come to work.
The program that we’ve initiated in Seattle around homelessness, which is clearly one of our most acute social problems on the West Coast, has been very meaningful. The number of people that it has reached is actually quite small, and, for sure, we can’t put roofs over people’s heads through music. But what we can do is give them dignity and inspiration, and the personal impacts are immense.
Of course, Los Angeles is a much bigger and more complex city with many, many different communities. It’s one of the things I’m most fascinated by. The LA Phil as an organization is thriving in so many ways: it has not only one of the world’s greatest orchestras, but also extraordinary centennial programs and creative thinking on so many levels. So my first job is going to be staying out of the way of the good stuff happening! And while I do, I’m going to explore the question, “How do we make the most meaningful impact for the greatest number of people in our second century?”
WARD: I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on artistic programming. What should our programs look like nowadays? Is there an ideal in your mind?
WOODS: The LA Phil has done an extraordinary service to the whole musical world by leveling the playing field between older music and the music of our time. There’s no other orchestra in the world that comes close to having done that. I feel, with the LA Phil, that we’re in a place now where the contemporary, living repertoire lives alongside the repertoire of the past in an almost ideal, symbiotic balance. And it’s about time, really, because, if you think back to the nineteenth century, most of the music that was played then was music of their current time.
That said, I am absolutely not interested in—or, frankly, even tolerant of—the rather apologetic approach that I hear some in the music world voicing towards the great repertoire of the past. I do use the word “canonical,” and I think it's a good word. I deeply treasure those canonical works. The analogy of an art museum is interesting. If you go into the Metropolitan Museum and you start looking at the Dutch masters or the French impressionists, you don’t say to yourself, “Oh, it’s that same old stuff all over again.” Only in classical music do we have this unique ability to unconsciously disparage our heritage through using demeaning language like “warhorses” and “standard repertoire.”
We need to apply the same creative thinking and sense of engagement that we bring to contemporary music to the repertoire of the past. I don't think the classical music world has done as good a job as we can in thinking about new ways to bring that repertoire from the past forward to new generations and to sectors of society who may not be familiar with it.
We have to push out of our comfort zone in thinking about presentation styles, thinking about how we help people to have some sort of real-time appreciation of what is going on in the music. I've always been a little wary of the phrase “the universal power of music.” I think “the universal power of music” sometimes is an excuse for being very lazy and assuming that Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler will automatically speak for themselves to everyone. As in so many art forms, we cannot underestimate the “language barriers” around musical style. Those barriers can be relatively easily overcome, and, by doing so, we can demystify our art form and provide an effective on-ramp for new audiences.
As education changes, as the world changes and works at a faster pace, there is a constant risk of culture being marginalized in society. We have to sharpen our pencils like we never have done before around the issue of making those “canonical” works relevant and accessible.
WARD: Recording and digital distribution will play some role in that future as well. Can you talk about your experience in the recording industry and how the development of in-house labels might play into orchestras engaging new audiences?
WOODS: I have been obsessed with recorded music since I was a teenager. After I decided that the life of a performing musician was not for me, my first dream became getting into the recording business, and eventually I got lucky! I worked at Abbey Road Studios in London from 1988 to 1997, and almost the first decade of my professional life was spent in recording studios. I definitely left a little bit of my heart in the recording world, because I’m never happier than sitting in front of a mixing desk with a pair of headphones on! There’s an attentiveness to the music in that setting that is very special.
What’s been interesting, being in the record business and then being in the orchestra business, is watching the speed of change. There are these overlapping waves, and as each wave increases and gains in strength, the previous wave declines. We have 78s and then we have LPs and then we have CDs and then we have downloads, and now we have streaming. And next we’ll have something we don’t know about yet. But for now, streaming is really the only thing that’s going to be relevant for the future.
Streaming is extraordinarily democratic because it allows smaller organizations and artists to control their own destinies in new ways. The reason orchestras have been moving toward having their own labels is the same reason pop artists have moved toward owning their own content. It gives you tremendous freedom to lock your recording strategy to your general artistic and touring strategy, so that recording just becomes a core part of what you do. For now I think these artist-driven initiatives will sit very nicely alongside prestigious label-driven initiatives. Although the concept of the eighty-minute CD is probably soon going to be irrelevant. As we consume music more and more through streaming platforms, we tend to choose a particular piece of music to listen to rather than a CD concept. I know this through observing my own listening patterns.
WARD: When I think about all the world premieres the LA Phil will be recording in the next year and who is embraced in our circle, I wonder what role composers might play in all this—not just as artists to be commissioned, but as actors in our institutional and community conversations. What do you think the role of a composer is in an institution like the LA Phil?
WOODS: First of all, composers are just great fun to be around! I love being part of watching a new work being dreamed about and coming to life. That is one of the most exciting things that happens on a regular basis in our business. It’s enormously enlivening for an institution for living music to be at the center of its world.
Composers are also in a unique position to tap into the zeitgeist of the time, to comment on what’s going on in society and the world. There’s a parallel with contemporary fiction, which so often deals with big issues and helps us understand the world around us and has a very wide readership. But classical music has not always enjoyed that kind of comfort level with the wider public. So the journey the LA Phil is on to make the composer an increasingly important part of its world is a really important one.
I was trying to think of a good example of this, and one that came to mind is John Adams’s work Scheherazade.2. John wrote this piece very intentionally to highlight the oppression and abuse of women. What topic is more in the public eye than that today?
Most of society doesn’t yet realize how powerful contemporary composers can be as a voice for understanding the world. It’s a tremendous opportunity.
WARD: We’re fortunate to have John Adams within our family, because I think what you were saying about Scheherazade.2 is true of most of the works the LA Phil has commissioned from him.
WOODS: Absolutely. If you talk to John about it, he'll probably tell you that he never sits down and says, “I’m going to write a symphony.” It always comes from something happening in the world around him, or an issue that fascinates him. As we think about commissioning works, it’s exciting to think about how we can deliberately ask composers to plug into what’s going on in the world, because that only enhances the relevance of our art form.
WARD: Moving us to the center of the public dialogue.
WOODS: Absolutely. Moving us to the center of the public dialogue and helping frame the narratives of our time.
WARD: Now, the fun question about all these commissioned works. Which have you heard that you think will stand the test of time?
WOODS: I think we’re probably the worst people to judge! We just did a few weeks of Berlioz’s music here [in Seattle], and I was reminded about Berlioz’s famous quote, “My religion is that of Beethoven, Weber, Gluck, and Spontini.” Of those four composers, we only think of one of them as a true master—two are fine minor composers, and one is completely unknown. What does that tell us? It tells us that we don’t know what will be considered great in the future, and what will vanish without a trace. Our job is to bring great works to life of all genres, of all styles, and of all disciplines to life. Time will do the rest!