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Make No Mistake: She’s in Charge

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

The first thing she did was sell the furniture.

A year ago, when Deborah Borda moved into the managing director’s office at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she found it filled with some $28,000 worth of high-end contemporary European furniture, purchased at company expense by Borda’s predecessor, Willem Wijnbergen.

Borda promptly replaced most of Wijnbergen’s selections with about $3,000 worth of furniture from Ikea--a visible symbol that the Philharmonic was in for a change.

“It’s good to have style, it’s part of the job,” Borda says with a laugh. “I wouldn’t buy my clothes at Ikea, if they sold them. But people need to have a style, and I will have my own.”

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Furniture was not the only thing that Borda inherited from Wijnbergen when she arrived in town after eight seasons at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. The L.A. Phil--one of the nation’s top orchestras, blessed with a shooting-star conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and a new home, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, scheduled to open its doors in 2003--was $7 million in debt at the beginning of 2000, the biggest deficit in the orchestra’s 82-year history.

It was easy enough to redecorate. Several leather chairs were purchased by friends of the Phil in what Borda jokingly calls a “fire sale.” Some of Wijnbergen’s other chairs and a coffee table remain in the office, and his desk became Borda’s conference table. Proceeds from the “fire sale” went into the Philharmonic’s general fund.

But getting rid of the deficit would prove to be more complicated--and a fire sale of even the most expensive furniture would not make a dent.

“I won’t say it wasn’t bumpy at the time when I came to the Phil,” she says--winning a prize for understatement of the year. But it’s just the kind of challenge Borda likes best.

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“People like to talk about surplus and deficit--well, this organization is operating in a huge artistic surplus,” she asserts. “The orchestra itself is in fantastic shape.

“There was something very obnoxious that [music critic] Bernard Holland wrote in the New York Times: ‘Los Angeles doesn’t deserve an orchestra as good as the LA Phil.’ . . . What is the single most important part of this institution is that we’re robust, we’re vibrant, and we’re going to have potentially the best concert hall of the 21st century.”

And, she adds, “you see a very different organization here than you did one year ago.”

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She is 51, a 5-foot-3 ball of energy who walks fast, talks fast and says with a laugh that she feels as if she’s got the words “New Yorker” branded on her as she zips through the more laid-back business environs of the West Coast.

When she arrived in L.A., Borda hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car for years, but she has relearned the art of driving, negotiating traffic from her home in the west Hollywood Hills with the aid of a talking navigational system in her car that she has nicknamed Ethel. “She yells at me all the time,” Borda says.

She is a musician, a former professional violist, and the first woman to manage one of the top five American symphony orchestras in terms of budget--the list includes those in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, which has an operating budget that fluctuates around $50 million. And she is only one of a handful of women managing orchestras of any size, worldwide. That short list includes Deborah Card at the Seattle Symphony and Mary Vallentine at Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia.

She’s an executive who works around the clock. She admits that her blue Ikea office sofa is not comfortable to sit on, but it’s a perfectly adequate place to take a nap between a long day of meetings and the evening’s concert--often followed by dinner or drinks to woo a potential donor. She’s single, no kids, no pets--a lifestyle that suits the demands of the job.

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She also has a reputation for crisis management; she likes to put out fires--and hold fire sales. But at the risk of mangling a metaphor--in putting out fires, Borda has also burned a few bridges along the way.

During a recent conversation, Borda described the scene early last year when she stood before the Phil’s 107 musicians for her first meet-and-greet session. After a period of polite interchange, one of the orchestra members rose to his feet.

“ ‘Well, nobody else is going to ask this question, so I will,’ ” she says, gleefully imitating the gruff tones of the player. “I hear you’re tough.”

Borda was amused--but hardly surprised.

“We all have our own style, mine has probably been mine since I’m about 3--and it can be perceived by people here as perhaps intense and overly energized,” she says. “It can frighten people; it can scare people. I’ve been trying to figure out how to use that in a positive sense.”

And though Borda is not one to spend much time agonizing over the plight of women in a traditionally male profession, she adds: “Tough is good for a man, but not for a woman. He’s a great manager if he’s aggressive--she’s a bitch. Look at Hillary Clinton, the level of hatred towards her is stunning, I mean, it’s mythic.

“I think where it happens is more in terms of very complex emotional relationships; people project emotions onto women that they don’t even think about with men.”

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Borda is not sure which of three factors was the most important in luring her to Los Angeles. One thing that appealed to her was the complexity of the Philharmonic’s operations, which include the Hollywood Bowl. Another was the chance to forge a partnership with music director Salonen, whom she likens to a young Leonard Bernstein. The third: Disney Hall.

But with those opportunities came the money problems--and more. When she took over, the Philharmonic was reeling from the financial and emotional upheaval of the brief, troubled tenure of Wijnbergen, who came from a similar executive position at Amsterdam’s venerable Royal Concertgebuow Orchestra.

After Ernest Fleischmann’s 28 years managing the Philharmonic, Wijnbergen--a flamboyant personality with the quirky habit of wearing a watch on each wrist, along with watch cuff links--spent only 15 months in the job. He was relieved of his duties in the summer of 1999 after filing a letter to the Philharmonic board citing concerns about “serious issues,” and his intent to terminate his contract if those issues--which have never been made public--were not addressed. The Philharmonic accepted Wijnbergen’s letter as a resignation. Neither the Phil nor Wijnbergen will disclose the terms of his departure.

The biggest challenge was the money--a $3.5-million operating loss for the 1998-99 season, as well as another $3.5 million incurred in a legal dispute with a food supplier at Hollywood Bowl.

“There was quite a hole,” acknowledges Bob Weingarten, a Westside financier who became the Philharmonic’s board president after Wijnbergen departed. He said the operating loss was due to such factors as Wijnbergen’s expansion of the staff by some 25 positions, the orchestra’s decision to publish a glossy, coffee-table book-style season brochure that was expensive to produce and mail, and the settlement with Wijnbergen. (The former managing director could not be reached for comment.)

Then there was the less tangible problem of low morale. Philharmonic associate principal cellist Daniel Rothmuller says it was clear to everyone that Wijnbergen had wanted to go in a different direction than Salonen and it made everyone uneasy.

Besides selling the office furniture, Borda made a few stopgap decisions quickly. She canceled the Phil’s expensive plans to perform in the 2000 Olympic Arts Festival in Sydney, as well as a European tour scheduled for 2002. She overhauled the executive staff, eliminating 10 positions. New additions include Marketing and Communications Director Patricia Mitchell and Chief Operating Officer Joan Cumming--both raided from the staff of Los Angeles Opera--and Edward Yim, a native Angeleno who returned home in December from Cleveland Orchestra to become director of artistic planning.

Borda also axed a concert series created by Wijnbergen for the winter season at the Chandler Pavilion that included pops concerts by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (a separate entity from the Philharmonic) and appearances by the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, which Wijnbergen named the resident jazz ensemble at the Bowl.

The Clayton-Hamilton ensemble continues to perform at the Bowl, but its concerts failed to draw audiences at the Pavilion. And Salonen has said presenting the Bowl Orchestra downtown only confused the public.

In addition, Borda nixed Wijnbergen’s plan to move the Phil’s management offices out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion into fancy new digs in the Department of Water and Power building at 1st and Hope streets. The Phil has reverted to the original plan of moving management into Disney Hall when the orchestra takes up residence.

Borda has returned to the Phil’s policy of “papering” the house, or giving out some tickets for free. Wijnbergen had stopped doing it, cold turkey. “They are artists, they live to make music for people, not to play alone,” Borda says. “It’s also not fair to audiences, part of the reason you go to concerts is for that group experience.” She adds that papering is common practice for most orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic.

The results have been encouraging. By September, the end of fiscal year 1999-2000, the Phil’s operating deficit had been reduced to less than $200,000. To date, this season’s ticket sales are up an average of 13% per concert following 10 years of steady decline--good news, but still 25% behind ticket sales a decade ago.

The morale problem is less easily measured. But Phil musicians as well as management and board members say people feel better about things than they did a year ago.

“Let’s just say that after she got here and proved what she could do,” cellist Rothmuller says, “the anxiety factor more or less disappeared. People weren’t going around with worry lines on their faces anymore.

“What she’s done is unify everything,” Rothmuller continues. “It was starting to look like a big, corporate, fragmented organization. She has put it back to the way it was in the old days--the Phil has become the center of the focus. And that, of course, has changed everything.”

Salonen, who returned from a yearlong sabbatical this month, won’t compare Borda specifically to Wijnbergen. (When it comes to the departure of the former managing director, he says, “I am legally bound to keep quiet about the details,” but cautiously offers: “In a very general way, I can say that had there not been problems [with him], he wouldn’t have left.”) But, like Rothmuller, Salonen feels a new sense of stability at the Phil.

“Since Ernest’s announcement of his retirement, I have felt I was living somewhat in a state of transition--until now,” Salonen says. “Now, we are ready to move forward to something new, and I can’t think of a better partner in that than Deborah.”

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Borda’s “intense” personal style isn’t the only thing that dates from her preschool years. She was 3, maybe 4, when she first heard Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” and fell in love.

A native New Yorker, Borda was raised by her mother, Helene Ellis, a political lobbyist, and her stepfather, Herbert Levine, a psychoanalyst. She began studying the violin at age 6.

At 15, Borda switched to the viola because she applied late to a summer music camp, and all the violinist slots were filled. She began college at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, but transferred to Bennington College in Vermont after her freshman year to major in music there. “At the conservatory, it was how fast can you play it, how high can you play it--I was more interested in the cultural history of music and how musicians communicate,” she said.

Borda went on to London’s Royal College of Music, then performed for a time with a string quartet. But she was already showing signs of a born manager. “I was always the person who got the music, chose the engagements, ordered the music stands, collected the check,” she said.

After a brief, not particularly happy period working in politics, it came to Borda during a walk on the beach that she should combine music and her bent for management into one career.

Borda took a summer job at Vermont’s Marlboro Music Festival as an assistant scheduling director, just to see if she liked music management. She did. She became director of Boston’s distinguished Handel and Haydn Society, and then moved on to her first orchestra management position as artistic administrator of San Francisco Symphony, rising to general manager, or second in command, by 1986.

That year, she became president and managing director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and, in 1989, executive director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra--an organization facing labor disputes, an operations deficit, accusations of racism, and dismal ticket sales. This was a job so tough that her parting gift from musicians in St. Paul was a pair of red boxing gloves.

Within a few months of her arrival in Detroit, the orchestra became the center of a debate over affirmative action. State politicians demanded that the orchestra hire a black musician, or lose a multimillion-dollar state grant. In the midst of a European tour, Borda negotiated the hiring of Rick Robinson, an African American bass player who had performed with the orchestra on a guest basis, without putting him through the standard audition process.

Today, Borda stands by her controversial decision. “I genuinely felt that the orchestra had taken certain actions that made it a potentially fair perception to say that they were racist; they had been warned for years,” she says, carefully choosing her words. “I think when something like that occurs, one needs to take remedial action. Plus, Rick was a terrific player. . . . I felt we did it without compromising our artistic level.

“There were better ways to have handled it, in the long run, but we didn’t have the luxury,” Borda continues. “It was a unique situation, it was life or death: We literally didn’t have the money to get back from Europe.”

John Guinn, music critic for the Detroit Free Press during Borda’s tenure, remains in awe of her decisive action in the matter. “It’s a lot to have on your plate while you’re in the middle of a European tour, but she pulled it off,” Guinn says. “I stand back and I think--wow!

“But at the same time, I think, good Lord . . .” Guinn continues. “I’ve never met anyone like her, and I’m sure the musicians would say the same. She’s the most ambitious person I ever met in my life--I mean, beyond Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and everybody else. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She came in and did an awful lot of good in the time she was here.”

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After hiring Robinson, the Detroit Symphony instituted what Borda calls a better long-term solution: a fellowship program for African American musicians. Borda also remains proud of engineering the orchestra’s move from Ford Auditorium to the acoustically superior Orchestra Hall.

Borda left Detroit in 1990 to return to Minnesota, this time as president of the Minneapolis Orchestra. And, in 1992, Borda went home to New York--as executive director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a $400,000-a-year job that would span eight seasons.

And if Detroit demanded boxing gloves, New York called for a Sherman tank.

In New York, Borda is credited with bolstering sagging ticket sales, averting a musicians’ strike at the 11th hour, instigating new programs to reach out to the community and, with German music director Kurt Masur, raising the orchestra’s musical stature after several years of what the press called “routine” performances under former music director Zubin Mehta.

It’s also a tenure marked by well-known clashes with the musicians and, more important, Masur.

Some of those in a position to know acknowledge that Borda ruffled feathers--but offer that feathers are easily ruffled in an organization as large, complex and contentious as the New York Phil. (Masur was not available for comment.)

Nathan Leventhal, outgoing president of Lincoln Center, home of the New York Philharmonic, agrees. “I think if you are aggressive and goal-oriented and tough, you are going to rub people the wrong way,” he says, acknowledging her “brilliant ideas and professional demeanor.”

“I’m not a personal friend of Deborah’s; we had clashes all the time, so I’m not being nice to a friend. I’m giving my professional assessment of her ability.”

While the Los Angeles Philharmonic presents plenty of fodder for clashes, one fight that’s unlikely to erupt is one between Borda and Salonen. Each waxes rhapsodic about the other.

“I have a partnership with him that I dreamed about having, a partnership that, frankly, I did not have with Kurt [Masur],” Borda says. “He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s brilliant, and he’s very sensitive.”

For his part, Salonen sees no evidence of the contentious personality he heard about before Borda was hired.

“One of the key issues is communication between the managing director and the music director, whether they are in sync on the big issues,” he says. “If this is not the case right away, you will have problems, and those problems will never go away. In this case, I felt immediately that no translation was necessary.

“The atmosphere in New York was traditionally tougher than it is here,” Salonen adds. “She realized right away it wasn’t necessary to be particularly defensive, or aggressive, or force issues. It’s a different mind-set here, a different culture.”

A different culture--or a different Borda?

“I had my sights set high, it’s true, and I felt very driven to get there,” Borda observes of the earlier days of her career.

“But half a century into my life, I feel ambitious for different goals--if I was the same person, I would have stayed in New York. It’s not like I’m a mush ball, but it’s about my life--it’s about enjoying it more, in a funny way it’s about accomplishing things that are more satisfying to me personally.”

And, Borda adds, any executive whose highest goal is money or power would never choose classical music.

“As I went through life and met people who had jobs with less responsibility who were making millions of dollars, it did take me aback--I went through a period when it bothered me, in the go-go ‘90s,” she admits. “But in the end, I feel quite at peace, because my life is so rich, and interesting.

“Sure, it has its frustrations. But in the end, I am a musician. I never left it.”


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