Orchestrating a Big Change


In 1993, a year after Deborah Borda took over as executive director of the New York Philharmonic, she mused to the British journalist Norman Lebrecht: “I sometimes wonder what I’ll be doing at 50.”

As the first woman to have risen to the top of American orchestral life, a feminist in the hornet’s nest of New York City’s old-boy arts-and-politics networks, she may have had plenty of reason to wonder. But she is a confident manager, and Los Angeles was the furthest thing from her mind.

And last summer, when she actually did turn 50, Los Angeles was still the furthest thing from her mind. She could look back over considerable accomplishments--the New York Philharmonic has the best image it has had in years; it is playing sensationally; it is in excellent financial shape. She could also look ahead to continuing to make an impact on New York culture by leading a search for a new music director (Kurt Masur’s contract expires in 2002). She was well paid (her salary has been reported at $400,000). She had every reason to be, and was, content.

Then the Los Angeles Philharmonic came calling.


“Let me tell you how it happened,” she begins, seated in a conference room in the Philharmonic offices in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Monday, in town for her first visit since the announcement last week that she would become managing director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in January.

“It was about six weeks ago, and it was the last thing that I expected. I was just getting ready to go on vacation when I got a call from this gang. You know, things are really in a good phase in New York right now, so I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And they said, ‘you don’t have to be interested; we’ll come out to see you.’ They sent a sort of shock wave, and I started thinking about it more and more seriously.”

The direction of her move is unusual. The New York Philharmonic is an august institution, the nation’s oldest and most visible orchestra (whether it is American’s greatest is debatable). Zubin Mehta, Angelenos will never forget, left his post as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to head New York’s. When Disney decided to commission two major millennium symphonies recently, it did not choose the orchestra that will one day play in Disney Hall--the works, by Aaron Kernis and Michael Torke, will receive premieres Friday by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center.

Borda, moreover, is a New Yorker. A trained musician--she attended the New England Conservatory of Music and the Royal College of Music in London. She traded the viola for management and slowly worked her way up in orchestras around the country. She served as artistic administrator of the San Francisco Symphony for eight years. The first orchestra she ran was the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, in which she made news by creatively dividing the music director post among a triumvirate--early music specialist Christopher Hogwood, composer John Adams and young conductor Hugh Wolff. From there she spent short periods heading the symphonies of Detroit and Minneapolis, before her hometown noticed her.


Enticements: Salonen, the New Hall, the Bowl

But why, now, at this point of her career, venture back across country? The amusing answer--Borda has a New Yorker’s edgy wit--is: “When you tell somebody that you are going to move to New York, you hear: Oh, that’s horrible. Or if you are going to move to Los Angeles: Gee, that’s terrible. So right there you know there is a reason to go.”

The more considered answer: “One of the basic attractions for me was Esa-Pekka Salonen. I’d always admired him. Each year I make my own sort of mental list of what was the best or most exciting concert I went to--I go to, oh, my Lord, some 200 concerts a year, maybe more. Last year, it was when the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka gave the New York premiere of John Adams’ ‘Naive and Sentimental Music,’ with Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the second half. That for me was the top concert of the season.

“The orchestra sounded fabulous. The players and Esa-Pekka were so clearly engaged by the Adams and by the Prokofiev; it’s easy not to be engaged by the Prokofiev, because everybody does it all the time. The audience was a who’s who of people--composers and performers--I care about in music. And at the end, the reaction of the audience to John’s piece was just overwhelming. That had stuck in my mind. It was like my first trip to Disneyland when I was 9 and what my whole reaction to California was.

“Also I just started thinking about the possibilities, especially about the new hall. When I read an article about it a couple of years ago, I thought, that’s the most beautiful symphony hall I’ve ever seen. I think it can be the greatest symphony hall in the world. What an opportunity to get a chance to have something to do with that! Last, but not least, there is the Hollywood Bowl, and figuring out how that fits into the whole picture as well. Of course, there are organizational challenges and fiscal challenges, but, frankly, I’ve been pretty good at dealing with those.

“I can be a maintainer, but I’m not; I’m a builder. Los Angeles is a city that is confronting the future. Socially, politically, culturally and also artistically. This is the city of the 21st century, and this is where the orchestra of the 21st century could be invented. So you put that all together, and it was so clear that I should come here.”

No Immediate Changes Planned for Orchestra

Unlike her predecessor, Willem Wijnbergen--who two years ago succeeded Ernest Fleischmann in his 30-year reign as managing director of the Philharmonic--Borda will not immediately move toward refashioning the organization. She wants to take time getting to know the community. Although she won’t comment about the troubled departure of Wijnbergen, she is hardly fazed by it.


“They faced a lot of adversity here recently,” she says, “and sometimes when you face that adversity and pull together and start to come out of it, that’s when you can really start to accomplish things. My job is to get everybody to look into the future.”

Another difference between Borda and Wijnbergen will immediately be apparent. Expect Fleischmann to be back in the picture. “It will be great having Ernest here,” she says with obvious enthusiasm. “We have been friends for a long time. I value Ernest. I think he’s a national treasure and to not have him as part of the family, well, I just can’t imagine it.

“You know, last year I was asked to write something in the special tribute book for him [when the Philharmonic gave a benefit concert honoring Fleischmann]. I thought, what can I say? Ernest is somebody I’ve known since I was 25 years old. Then it just came to me. ‘Dear Ernest, when I grow up I want to be you.’ Who knew?”