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There is great importance in being Ernest Fleischmann. He'll tell you that himself.

Pity the flunky who doesn't escort him instantly to the head of the line, offer him the best table, select the right verb for a press release or defer to his professional judgment in all matters, great and small."Do you realize who I am?" he habitually huffs when - perish the ignoble thought - proper attention is not paid. He says the words with equal hauteur to ushers, prima donnas, security guards, politicians, receptionists, waiters, lawyers, agents, educators and garage attendants. Once, according to a popular and oft-told tale, he said it to Secret Service agents barring him from a hotel floor reserved for the vice president of the United States.

Actually, it is amazing how many people do realize who Ernest Fleischmann is. He usually gets the table he wants and the deference he demands. He has served for 20 years as executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and he loves publicity - and power - almost as much as he loves music.

Theoretically, executive directors of major orchestras are supposed to tend anonymously to business problems. They are backstage administrators. Music directors, the men most often on the podium, are supposed to make the artistic decisions and take the spotlight. However, the executive director may wield tremendous authority, provided the music director and the board of directors want him to have it - or let him grab it.

Michael J. Connell, the president of the Philharmonic's board of directors, claims that the separation of powers has been maintained in Los Angeles ("Ernest and I have a sound agreement about what exactly the scope of his job is . . . ," Connell says. "In no way should he dominate the music director. . . ."). In fact, during the regimes of three music directors, Fleischmann, now 64, has been nothing if not the authority figure for the orchestra. He has functioned as impresario, talent scout, super-organizer, programmer, arts politician and sweeping policymaker. For better or worse, and most observers concede the former, he is the most important single force on the serious music scene in Los Angeles. He is an emphatic, dominating, bulldozing, brilliant presence. He is a star.

When he came to Los Angeles in 1969, he found a solid, second-rate orchestra basking in the fleeting glamour of Zubin Mehta, a charismatic conductor who wanted to spend a lot of time out of town. Fleischmann took over, presumably with Mehta's blessings, and proceeded to make the Philharmonic a progressive enterprise.

After Mehta moved on to New York in 1978, Fleischmann managed the coup of persuading Carlo Maria Giulini, the universally beloved Italian conductor, to become music director. The arrangement worked well. During his relatively brief stints here, Giulini tended to the needs of God and Mozart, while Fleischmann ran the store virtually without interference.

But something akin to a scandal finally erupted last April. Music director No. 3, Andre Previn, who succeeded Giulini in 1985, walked out after a four-year tour of embattled duty, leaving behind a terse but telling statement: "In the current structure of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it has become obvious to me there is no room for a music director."

It was obvious to insiders that Previn was not happy about the way Fleischmann had been usurping his privileges. It was obvious, too, that Fleischmann was not happy about the way Previn had been functioning as music director. Neither party, however, would discuss the conflict in public. They had agreed to a pact of silence. It was time, Fleischmann told Los Angeles, to look to the future.

The great conductor quest began - or at least seemed to begin. A search committee was named. Fleischmann granted grave interviews in which he alluded to numerous contenders for the job and the unsettling prospect of a long, difficult wait fraught with complex multilevel negotiations.

But abruptly, in mid-August, a new music director was named. Enter Esa-Pekka Salonen, a 31-year-old Finnish Wunderkind.

Suddenly, the silence was broken, the recriminations began, the charges and countercharges flew. Amid the noise, the gossip and the leaks, virtually everyone would agree on one point: Ernest Fleischmann, as usual, had gotten what he wanted.

Attention had been paid.

Ernest Fleischmann can be affable, sensitive, charming, caring. Ask his friends. He can be arrogant, callous, rude, ruthless. Ask his victims. Ask Andre Previn.

Previn, who had begun his career in Hollywood, brought with him a respectable reputation with European orchestras. He was known as a solid technician, a conservative composer and a refined specialist in music by such composers as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Elgar, Walton and Ravel.

The Philharmonic hype machine, overseen by Fleischmann, worked overtime to glamorize his homecoming. The euphoria, however, did not last long. The new conductor proved most persuasive in repertory that failed to excite the majority of subscribers. On the podium, he tended to be businesslike, not flashy like Mehta or romantic like Giulini.

Under the circumstances, Fleischmann had trouble selling Previn to the masses. Empty seats greeted the music director with increasing frequency, though the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was usually full for such popular guest-conductors as Kurt Sanderling, Simon Rattle - and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Vague reports of friction between the music director and the executive director surfaced early. The reports were denied on both sides. Then, in interviews that began on the day of Salonen's appointment, Previn and Fleischmann admitted the friction was real.

Previn, it seems, made a serious mistake. He wanted to run his orchestra. He wanted to make the important decisions. Instead, he contends, Fleischmann had in mind a more ceremonial role. "I wasn't allowed," he claims, "to have any opinion."

"From my perspective," the executive director says, "Andre did not exercise enough music-directorial leadership. I mean, you either have it or you don't. . . . It became clear that the orchestra was standing still, making no progress."

When Previn's original three-year contract was renegotiated, Fleischmann remembers taking a "neutral role. There was a lot of opposition from the board. I defended him," he says. The board decided to offer Previn only a two-year extension. That would have kept him here until 1991. It also may have have given Fleischmann ample time to find a more dazzling successor.

In London in 1983, Fleischmann had "discovered" a young, handsome, energetic and intense conductor named Esa-Pekka Salonen. He invited Salonen to make a guest appearance in Los Angeles in November 1984, the season before Previn took over as music director. After numerous return engagements, the executive director decided he wanted to engage Salonen as "principal guest-conductor." Ordinary guest-conductors merely come, conduct and leave. Being a principal guest gives the visiting maestro a place in the power structure of the orchestra and validates an ongoing relationship - up to and including, in this case, the possibility of taking the orchestra on a high-profile international tour.

By all accounts, the romancing of Salonen would be the beginning of the end for Andre Previn.

"It was," admits Fleischmann, his basso quasi-profondo halting, "a murky episode. When Andre's first contract was being renewed, the board asked me to go and see him, to explain some things that worried them. Andre and I had a few days at his place in England. We discussed the possibility that Esa-Pekka should become principal guest. I think that was back in 1986. Andre agreed, and I was to work out a contract with Esa-Pekka's manager.

"The manager said that Esa-Pekka wanted a tour of Japan and, where possible, U.S. tours, because he will want U.S. exposure. Japan was important.

"Andre came back later and told Robert Harth (Fleischmann's second-in-command) that he had changed his mind about Esa-Pekka as principal guest. Andre said, `Esa-Pekka can come as a guest-conductor. You don't have to give him a title.'

"When I found out about this I realized that I had to find the right time to explain to him about the tour. . . . I hadn't wanted to tell Esa-Pekka that Andre had changed his mind. I thought that at the right moment I could get Andre to see the reason."

Apparently, the right moment never occurred.

Andre Previn does not mince words when he responds to Fleischmann's version of the story. "Ernest Fleischmann is very clever," he says bitterly, "because he mixes absolute truths with absolute lies."

Complications arose when he first became conductor, Previn said, because the orchestra had two principal guest conductors. And now Fleischmann was proposing another, and one quite young.

" `Oh, wah-wah-wah-wah-wah,' Ernest replied. I said, `Let me think about it.' I didn't think there was any rush.

"He had already signed him. I hit the roof about that.

Previn later talked to Salonen himself. "He was extremely pleasant. Esa-Pekka said he had no idea I didn't know. `You can see where I can't have this,' I said. He said, `Absolutely.' "

Previn thought everything was settled. Then Salonen inadvertently dropped the bomb:

"As he was leaving," Previn remembers, "he turned and asked, `It is still OK for me to take the orchestra to Japan, isn't it?' I said, `What?' That was one little item that had never been mentioned."

Board president Connell, to whom both the executive director and the music director officially report, calls the tour fiasco "a grave misunderstanding" and "an innocent mistake." Eventually the principal-guest appointment was cancelled and the Japan tour with it.

Andre Previn had won the battle, but he would lose the war.