The Wednesday announcement that Deborah Borda will soon be leaving the Los Angeles Philharmonic to run the New York Philharmonic seemed to many on both coasts a startling coup by a competitive orchestra. But it is, in fact, the inevitable return of a prodigal daughter to complete unfinished business at home.
Seventeen years ago, L.A. lured the New York native away from a difficult relationship with that city’s philharmonic with the promise of a transformative if unfinished new concert hall and the potential to convert the L.A. Phil into the world’s most boldly imaginative orchestra.
Borda turned that promise into reality. And now she is in the gratifying position of having the New York Philharmonic, which had resisted change when she headed it in the 1990s, come begging for a sizable helping of that same magic.
Borda will replace Matthew VanBesien as New York Philharmonic president and CEO on Sept. 15, and she returns trailing success in her wake. She triumphantly ushered the L.A. Phil into the most celebrated building of the century, Walt Disney Concert Hall. She beat out the competition to hire one of the biggest new classical music stars, Gustavo Dudamel, as music director. And in the process she oversaw the development of the L.A. Phil into the most progressive major symphony orchestra in the world.
The L.A. Phil commissions an unprecedented amount of new music. It stages operas with more flair than the typical American opera company. It breaks new ground with multimedia. And it has built an education program that has put young musicians from underprivileged backgrounds on the Super Bowl halftime show as well as major stages in London and Tokyo.
Behind all of that was Borda, who also managed to erase the multimillion-dollar deficit she had inherited and turned the L.A. Phil into the most prosperous orchestra in the country. Backed by the largest budget, it is also an orchestra known for being an unusually happy organization, the rare orchestra in which the players smile; even more unusually, it hasn’t had a strike, or strike threat, in decades.
Even so, Borda, 67, said in a telephone interview from New York the new post offered something that she couldn’t turn down. “This is an opportunity,” she said, “that won’t come up again.”
The New York Philharmonic is clearly eager for new leadership. The New York press has shown little enthusiasm for Music Director designate Jaap van Zweden, who doesn’t begin until the 2018-19 season and who is little known by the public. (He is currently music director of the Dallas Symphony and Hong Kong Symphony.)
Operating at a deficit for years, the institution faces the further challenges of raising the money to renovate its Lincoln Center home, the David Geffen Hall. The former Avery Fisher Hall was renamed for Geffen in return for a $100-million gift, but at least $500 million remains to be raised. The orchestra faces years of homelessness during the renovation, potentially diminishing its audience and support.
Meanwhile, the L.A. Phil under Borda has come to dwarf New York. She grew the L.A. budget from $46 million when she took over in 1999 to $120 million for the 2015-16 season. For the same period, New York had a $75-million budget and a $4.9-million deficit.
Borda’s successful opening of Disney Hall and dogged pursuit of Dudamel, enticing him to succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen here, rank as two of the most attention-getting orchestral events this century.
All of this success stands in contrast to her difficult tenure at the New York Philharmonic from 1991 to 1999. The first woman to head the orchestra, she clashed with the music director, Kurt Masur, and the board. So strong was the undercurrent of sexism at the orchestra that the then-head of the L.A. Phil, Ernest Fleischmann, sent a letter to the New York Times defending Borda.
Now, returning to New York as someone many would call the most admired arts administrator in America, Borda said she hopes to take advantage of her experience in L.A., which she called “the work of my life.”
“I want to now use my skills where I can really make a difference,” she said. “If we can turn around the ship in New York, that’s good for the whole orchestra business.”
Beyond noting an immediate chemistry with Van Zweden, who was guest conductor of the L.A. Phil last weekend, and the fact that the move east put her 2,500 miles closer to her partner, Coralie Toevs, the Metropolitan Opera's chief development officer, Borda said that she is hardly ready to formulate plans for New York. The decision to leave L.A., which she called the hardest in her life, is too fresh.
She mulled over the prospect in Berlin where she went for the March 4 opening of the Pierre Boulez Saal, a concert hall designed by architect Frank Gehry and acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, who were responsible for Disney Hall. Boulez hall represents the optimistic vision of Daniel Barenboim’s Barenboim-Said Akademie, where young Israeli and Arab musicians study and perform together. The opening proved a gathering of the innovative and idealist wing of the classical music world, and conversation turned to new possibilities.
Returning to L.A. and hearing Van Zweden with the L.A. Phil, Borda decided that she can, and will, make a difference. “In the end,” she says, “I’m an optimist, and optimists get things done.”
That leaves the L.A. Phil to find another rare orchestral optimist, one who can usher the organization into its second century. Borda said that the L.A. Phil’s centennial 2018-19 season is mostly planned. Dudamel’s contract runs until 2022.
The L.A. Phil has not yet said how it plans to replace Borda. The San Francisco Symphony and the National Symphony of Washington, D.C., are also looking for executive directors, but the L.A. Phil has become the plum job.