Rohan's plan was to get people who enjoyed playing chamber music to play together on Sunday afternoons at his apartment. His idea was that this core group of people would form the core of the orchestra. What musician doesn't like the idea of playing chamber music with the promise of eventual employment?
Rohan got me to get my friends at Juilliard to come and play. Sometimes I would play stuff with him. He was a rather weak pianist, but he assured me that he was a brilliant conductor. I was impressed by the way he could play chess with many people at once and win every game, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
He had already assembled a board of directors for what he called the American Philharmonic Orchestra. The "celebrity" on the board was Xavier Hermes, though during my two-year association almost daily with Rohan I never actually managed to meet him. The only board member I actually met was an airline pilot who was very generous with money but knew very little about music. Rohan had a roster of principal winds, and I was going to be the principal flutist. There was some talk (from Rohan) about David Nadien playing a concerto with the orchestra, which got everyone excited and got several principal string players from major orchestras (whom I knew and encouraged to consider working with Rohan) interested in possibly playing concertos themselves.
As the orchestra roster continued to grow, so did Rohan's dreams. He imagined that the orchestra might have its own building where people could live. He imagined playing concerts at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center. He also imagined that if he could get Juilliard students interested, he could enlist some more powerful and connected players from the freelance world. He did, and eventually he ended up holding auditions for every position. He hired powerful people in the freelance world to listen to the auditions, and I was no longer guaranteed the position of principal flute in the orchestra because I had to audition as well.
My audition went well, but I was given the position of second flute. The first season had only single flute music (a Bruckner Symphony and Schubert's 5th). I was rather heartbroken, but I tried to understand and make the best of the situation.
For some reason the principal flutist could not make the first rehearsal, and Rohan asked me if I would play. I wasn't happy about it, but my loyalty as a friend made it impossible for me to refuse. I had a real shock at the first rehearsal. Rohan was probably the worst conductor I had ever seen in my life. He had no sense of rhythm, no beat, and he didn't really seem to know the score. Everything became clear to me, and I resigned.
I left the country a few months later, and when I returned to New York in 1982 there were American Philharmonic posters all over Lincoln Center. There was also a spread about the orchestra in the Sunday New York Times.
I just found out this evening that Rohan died in 2003. It seems that he returned to Sri Lanka, where the music reviewers loved him. Here is an obituary for him. Here is another. Here is a review from the New York Times archives from 1982 of one of his concerts.
What a strange musical world we live in.