Gail Samuel has always loved being part of an orchestra. There was something poetic about all the small parts, each instrument and every chord, coming together and building the swell of the ensemble’s greater, symphonic whole.
But Samuel, an accomplished violinist and the daughter of two public high school music teachers, also knew that becoming a performing artist wasn’t her final goal: “I didn’t like spending that much time alone in a practice room,” the Pasadena resident recalled.
Now, however, in her fourth year as executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Samuel has found her stride in pushing forward the greater whole of one of the world’s premier orchestras. Her tenure at the L.A. Phil has evolved nearly 30 years and encompassed a slew of critical positions, from orchestra operations management to chief operating officer to vice president and general manager. Now, as executive director, Samuel oversees the Hollywood Bowl, non-classical programming by the association at the Bowl and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, concert production and community affairs.
She still can’t believe her good fortune of working at the L.A. Phil, now in its centennial year.
“I still have these days when I look up, driving into downtown, and think, wow, this is so beautiful, how lucky am I? It strikes me still,” said Samuel. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to do this, to be part of such a wonderful and creative team. They’re always looking at what is new and what is different, and how can we continue to develop, it’s just really exciting.”
The L.A. Phil was first established as the city’s permanent symphony orchestra in 1919. It has flourished over the years to become internationally renowned for its forward-thinking performances, cutting-edge music education and innovative community engagement programs. A few years ago, the New York Times even called it “America’s most important orchestra. Period.”
“We used that a lot for a while, then we backed off it,” Samuel deadpanned.
It was a thrill, of course, and marked what people living here already felt.
“We’ve experienced this tremendous growth. … All of Los Angeles has really developed and become known and seen as a creative hub and creative center, and to have that acknowledged by someone like the New York Times, to see it recognized, is very exciting,” she said. It took years for the West Coast to be taken seriously for music, she recalled, noting that with the historic center of orchestral music in Europe, it was difficult for L.A.’s relatively new orchestra to make its mark.
“In the earlier days of my working here, I remember there were some classical European artists who just wouldn’t come to L.A. because they considered it to be too far. They would make the trip to New York, but they wouldn’t come all the way out here,” she recalled. “Now, it’s impossible not to.”
The L.A. Phil is said to be redefining what orchestra music can entail, putting on more than 250 concerts a season at the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, with musical programming as diverse as the city it represents, including jazz, world music, orchestral pop and pop/rock. Under the vibrant leadership of Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel, the orchestra is pushing boundaries with the ambitious, adventurous attitude that has long defined the West Coast.
“Gustavo is so dynamic, such a great musician, but also a great communicator,” she said. “He brings this mission and message together. We have such a brilliant group of musicians who do beautiful work week after week and work really hard. The musicians are often playing something new every single week, which is exciting for all of us to be a part of contributing to the future of music.”
With the L.A. Phil’s centennial underway, and the Hollywood Bowl on the cusp of turning 100 in 2021, Samuel and the association have given much thought to the next 100 years in the Greater Los Angeles area.
Part of that future is a deep commitment to education and development of diverse audiences and performers of all ages, colors and ethnicities, including those with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, Samuel noted.
Through Dudamel’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles program — inspired by the way he was brought up in Venezuela, in the music education program called El Sistema — the L.A. Phil and its community partners provide free instruments, intensive music training and academic support to students from underserved neighborhoods. The program will soon complete its fifth center of operation with a new permanent YOLA center, called the Judith and Thomas L. Beckmen YOLA Center at Inglewood, designed by Gehry.
While the association has a long history of education and community programs (after the Los Angeles riots in 1991, the L.A. Phil dived into community concerts at local churches, actively trying to pull communities together through music), Samuel said this remains a strong part of the mission. Some the first participants in the YOLA program, which was initiated in 2008, are already in college and studying music, and Samuel is hopeful they will come back and become a part of the symphony.
“We constantly check to see if we are connecting with the community in all the ways that we should be. … How are we representing people on our stages? We want everybody to see themselves represented and to feel a part of who we are.”
Samuel is also a passionate supporter of her hometown, Pasadena, its public schools and community programs. Both of her sons, Samuel and Orlando Christian, attend Blair Middle School.
“I am a firm believer that we should have the option to send our children to strong public schools,” she noted. “We believe in advocacy for and participation in the public schools, and we’ve had the good fortune to meet a lot of like-minded people about that.”
Samuel’s husband, William Christian, is a professional actor, and the entire family has been very involved at A Noise Within, where Samuel joined as a board member last year. One of her sons is now in his seventh production there. She praised the playhouse as well for its diversity of programming, which symbolizes what she sees as representing Pasadena’s rich cultural backgrounds.
“We were fortunate to have Gail Samuel join our board of directors this past fall,” noted A Noise Within Producing Artistic Director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. “She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to ANW’s board that has been invaluable to our organization. Gail and her husband, William, have also been tremendous advocates of our education program.”
Going forward, at home in Pasadena and at the L.A. Phil association, Samuel will remain a staunch supporter of the diverse fabric threading together the Greater L.A. communities. She hopes this can be strengthened through musical and educational programming.
“That has been a thread though the story of the organization for a very long time, but we need to make sure that thread continues and grows over time, connecting our communities together,” she noted. “We want everyone to feel welcome and remove some of those barriers for people to come to orchestral music, to create ownership and comfort over it.”