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L.A. Phil President Deborah Borda's departure sends arts world spinning

The classical music world — and the arts world at large — was reeling Wednesday morning with the sudden and unexpected news that longtime Los Angeles Philharmonic president and CEO Deborah Borda will be leaving the organization. She’ll be replacing Matthew VanBesien as president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic starting Sept. 15.

“It was pretty unexpected!” said Jesse Rosen, head of the New York-based League of American Orchestras. “I tend to hear rumblings before they happen, and I hadn’t heard anything. If anyone saw this coming, they weren’t saying.”

Rosen said Borda’s departure shouldn’t be a head-spinning surprise, but the fact that she’s circling back to head up the New York Philharmonic, where she served as executive director from 1991 to 1999, is significant and possibly unprecedented in the orchestra world.

“Deborah has been in L.A. 17 years, so the fact that there might be another chapter in her professional career shouldn’t surprise people,” Rosen said. “But the surprise of coming back as CEO to a place she’s already [headed up] before, that’s the surprise. I’m not aware of any other instance where [the head of] an orchestra left and went back a second time to be CEO.”

Borda, a New York native who grew up in Queens, is considered one of the most successful arts leaders in the country. She oversaw the opening of Disney Hall in 2003 and super-charged the Los Angeles orchestra’s endowment to the tune of $255 million, the most recent public figure. She grew its budget from $46 million when she arrived in 1999 to $120 million for the 2015-16 season; the orchestra is now the most financially secure in the country. And, of course, she famously lured the charismatic, wild-haired “It conductor,” Gustavo Dudamel, in 2009.

So it makes sense the New York Philharmonic would come calling.

But few thought that call would come so soon, not least of all the L.A. Phil.

“I think it’s safe to say we were all very surprised,” its executive director, Gail Samuel, said. “Once you think it through and talk to Deborah, it begins to make sense. But, yes, we were definitely surprised.”

In a short phone interview with The Times, Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry both laughed heartily and nearly cried, his voice cracking with emotion over the news.

“My friend is leaving us, right?” he said off the bat. “She told me 24 hours ago. I sensed because she’d been traveling a lot. Her partner lives in New York, and they don’t get to see each other a lot. I felt that urgency coming. But I didn’t know.”

Gehry said that Borda’s rare combination of talents — both in arts management and as a trained musician who empathizes with artists — “will be hard to replace.” But he’s not concerned about the long-term future of the L.A. Phil, he said.

“Any time a key person like that leaves, there’s challenges. They have to look at their assets, who’s there and assess the realities of that,” Gehry said. “But Deborah’s done what all great administrators do, she has trained her team. She’s brought a rigor to the organization. She’s leaving them in really great shape and hands — it’s a well-run ship.”

Nearly everyone reached for comment on Wednesday morning was quick to acknowledge what a “get” Borda was for the New York Philharmonic.

“The search committee and I immediately knew that Deborah Borda was the best and only person to help lead the New York Philharmonic at this pivotal time as we head into an exciting future along with [Music Director designate] Jaap van Zweden,” New York Philharmonic Chairman Oscar S. Schafer said in a statement.

“She is recognized worldwide as a premier leader in the arts, and her proven track record of bold vision and innovative leadership fits hand in hand with this great city and this great Orchestra. We could not be more thrilled that she has chosen to return to the New York Philharmonic and to her New York home.”

Van Zweden, who was in Los Angeles last week to conduct the Philharmonic in a program that included Beethoven’s Fifth, added that he was “thrilled” with Borda’s appointment and what he sees as a “new era” for the New York Philharmonic. “Her energy and commitment to music is unparalleled, and she has a special passion for community access and inclusion,” he said in the statement.

Longtime former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was responsible for securing about $50 million in public funds for Hollywood Bowl renovations and for supporting the L.A. Phil’s 30-year lease on the venue, said that he was “stunned by the news.”

“I had a conversation with her about a year ago in which I got the distinct impression that L.A. was her last stop, that she was gonna stay,” Yaroslavsky said. “She’s been a significant part of making Los Angeles the cultural capital it is.We’re lucky to have had her, but people don’t stay forever.”

Dudamel was traveling internationally and unavailable for comment. However, in a statement the L.A. Phil released Wednesday morning, he spoke affectionately of his and Borda’s mutual journey.

"Deborah and I have come such a long way together in the last 10 years, and it has been a truly productive road that we have traveled,” Dudamel said. “Together we have fought for music education and community, and she believes, as do I, in breaking down walls, not building them. We will miss her energy, vision and spirit … and also her loving and caring presence!"

In the same statement, Borda said her gratitude was “profound.”

“I especially express my deepest thanks and admiration to my partner for now almost the past decade, Gustavo Dudamel,” she said. “Leaving him and indeed my L.A. Phil family is not easy, but my solace is in returning to my home and my family. I have been blessed to work with such courageous and loving partners. The institution is in a robust and healthy state both artistically and financially and is wonderfully positioned to continue to make history ... and it will!"

Samuel said that the L.A. Phil is hard at work planning its 2018-19 centennial season, which will bear Borda’s influence, but that teamwork is essential going forward.

“It’s a big piece of news for everyone today, and that’s still setting in,” she said of Borda’s departure. “But there’s a lot of people here, and we have a lot of plans moving forward, and planning our centennial season; that work has always been done by a team of people — and that continues.”

For his part, Gehry said he may be racking up more frequent-flier miles than usual.

“Oh, man, in terms of friendship and all that, I hate to see her go!” he said. “We’d get together every week for dinner. We’re very close. I guess I’ll just have to go to New York more!”

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @debvankin

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