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Deborah Borda orchestrates the creative chaos of the L.A. Philharmonic

It was a brisk summer’s night at the Hollywood Bowl, and Deborah Borda was in whirlwind mode: Talking shop with musicians backstage. Greeting familiar faces in the crowd. Energetically parsing the dramatic mood swings in Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony.

“I listen to concerts in so many different ways,” said Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, slipping into her private, center-aisle box seat. “Sometimes I’m thinking, how’s the ensemble? What about the tempi? What about the intonation? Sometimes I’m just awash in the emotion of it. Sometimes I’m thinking, ‘That usher shouldn’t be standing there!’ ”

You won’t find Borda’s name on the Bowl’s Art Deco welcome sign. You won’t see her image emblazoned like a rock god on banners across the city. But many believe that the petite 61-year-old with the brassy New York-Boston accent is a big reason why the Phil is thriving at a time when some U.S. symphonies are struggling, a few of them for survival.

Some 10 years after Borda took over an artistically esteemed but financially embattled, spottily attended institution, the philharmonic today has the largest annual budget of any American symphony orchestra, performs in a world-renowned architectural landmark, is led by the charismatic young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and has embarked on an ambitious effort to bring classical music training to the area’s children, particularly underserved ethnic minorities.

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Ticket sales for all the classical music programs that the Phil produces average 95% of available capacity at the 2,265-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall, compared with an average 63% capacity at its former home, the 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, during the 1999-2000 season. (Borda officially took over the Phil on Jan. 1, 2000.)

And its ambitiously varied programming means that, on any given night, Walt Disney Concert Hall could be serving up Mozart, avant-garde 21st century classical music, ranchera or Afro-pop — as eclectic a lineup as you’ll find at any venue in town.

Many, inside and outside the organization, credit a large measure of the Phil’s success to its risk-taking, ultra-confident, Armani-clad CEO. Frank Gehry, architect of Disney Hall, echoed others in suggesting that what’s most distinctive about Borda’s leadership style is her willingness to embrace calculated risk as a creative strategy and treat innovation as an imperative.

“She jumps off cliffs,” Gehry said. “I find that exhilarating about her. There’s never an arbitrary, ‘No, I won’t look at that.’ ”

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Borda, who calls herself “a change junkie,” acknowledges that her constant pushing for improvement “makes people uncomfortable, frankly, sometimes.”

Perhaps. But her L.A. tenure has been practically stress-free compared with her previous job as executive director of the New York Philharmonic, where she sometimes clashed with its venerable German conductor, Kurt Masur, who once likened her to a member of the Stasi, the dreaded former East German secret police. (Apparently all is forgiven; Masur will guest-conduct here next year.)

Borda’s reputation for demanding as much of others as she demands of herself is matched by the professional respect and affection she commands in classical music circles. In interviews with more than two dozen colleagues and associates in Southern California, other parts of the U.S. and abroad, no one offered a negative word about her. Those who know her best, and work most closely with her, don’t hesitate to praise.

“She’s transparent. She’s collaborative,” said David Bohnett, the Phil’s board chairman. “Very classic, successful CEO traits in terms of giving people a sense of ownership and a sense of responsibility, and a sense of accountability.”

Peter Rofé, a bassist with the L.A. Philharmonic since 1986 and head of the musicians’ negotiating committee, said Borda deserves much of the credit for the orchestra having one of the nation’s most generous labor contracts, as well as for its artistic quality. “I think right now we have the best management in the country,” he said.

Robert Cutietta, dean of USC’s Thornton School of Music, said that Borda has been “a wonderful spokesperson” and leader not only for the Phil but also for L.A. culture in general.

“She has been on our campus so many times for different reasons,” he said. “That’s amazing to me, that the executive director of the L.A. Phil would be so accessible and so willing to come to campus and do things for students.”

Ask Borda who deserves credit for the current prosperity and she’ll respond with paeans to former Phil music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Phil’s legendary impresario Ernest Fleischmann, Dudamel, the orchestra, her board, her staff and the inspirational feng-shui of Disney Hall. “I always say I don’t do anything,” she said. “I help other people to do things.”

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As for her alpha-female popular image, Borda is comfortable with it.

“I used to be upset when people would say, ‘Oh, she’s tough.’ I think it’s cool now,” she said, laughing. “It’s great if you say it about a man. But if you say it about a woman it’s supposed to be pejorative. Well, I don’t think so anymore.”

Perhaps nothing demonstrated Borda’s strategic daring more than recruiting Dudamel to be the Phil’s new music director. After watching the widely coveted young conductor lead orchestras around the globe for two years, she whisked him off by private jet from under the nose of a rival suitor, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to sign a five-year contract.

Some in the music industry fretted about the supposed perils of placing so much faith in a then 26-year-old maestro. Not Borda. “I didn’t lose any sleep over it,” she told The Times in 2008.

Speaking in Spanish, Dudamel, a.k.a. “the Dude,” described Borda as fresca — nervy and refreshingly direct. He said that her commitment to developing local youth orchestras partially modeled on El Sistema, the Venezuelan national music-training program in which he apprenticed, helped sell him on taking the job here. “You can’t really know who I am if you don’t where I come from,” he said.

Salonen, who stepped down last year to pursue composing, said that Borda’s tenacity in landing Dudamel was characteristic of a “fearless” manager who never rests on her résumé.

“She’s always thinking of the next step,” Salonen said, “and I think a good example is my succession. The goal from Day One was to present a new music director, almost from when I would be leaving, and she pulled it off.”

Borda will need to keep thinking ahead as the 2010-11 season opens with an Oct. 7 gala concert and her organization faces a new set of challenges. Chief among them is the ongoing transition from Salonen’s 17-year tenure, the longest in the Phil’s history. Although he officially took over in L.A. last fall, Dudamel spent relatively little time here last season due to previously scheduled commitments.

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This season he’ll be considerably more visible. And although goodwill and strong notices still follow him, some out-of-town reviewers’ assessments of his first U.S. tour with the Phil last spring (“half-formed interpretive ideas,” the Chicago Tribune sniffed) indicates that the critical honeymoon is over. (It may not have helped that Phil insiders had dubbed the trip the “eat-your-heart-out” tour.)

Composer John Adams, the L.A. Phil’s creative chair, said that Borda must help the orchestra retool itself to fit an immensely gifted young maestro schooled in the conservative, Romantic-era core repertoire of El Sistema while maintaining the Phil’s longstanding commitment to daring contemporary music, a passion of Borda’s.

“I think she’s keenly aware that Gustavo is a very different kind of musician than Esa-Pekka, and she’s very concerned with helping the orchestra transform itself to reflect Gustavo’s vision,” said Adams, who has been friends with Borda since the 1980s. “And at the same time she wants to keep what we already have. That’s a tall order.”

Gehry said that Borda still misses her close friend Salonen and sometimes “gets caught in her feelings for, ‘Gosh, I’m cheating on Esa-Pekka.’

“But,” Gehry added, “she’s totally committed to the Dude.”

When she sits in her Grand Avenue office, Borda faces a prized gift: one of Gehry’s earliest drawings of Disney Hall. Even in its rough, spidery form, it conveys a sense of the finished structure’s shock-and-awe capacity.

To Borda, that radical design evokes theories developed at places like MIT’s Sloan School of Management, that lasting and profound positive change sometimes can arise only from chaotic circumstances, “that things have to be really bad before people can honestly rethink things,” she said.

Over her 35-year management career, Borda has built a reputation for being able to orchestrate orderly creativity out of chaos. In the 1990s, she and Masur overcame their differences enough to restore the artistic reputation and financial health of the polarized, deficit-plagued New York Philharmonic.

In Los Angeles, she partnered with Salonen, infinitely more amicably, to soothe an orchestra that many felt had gone adrift under Borda’s short-lived predecessor, Willem Wijnbergen, and lead it into Disney Hall in 2003.

“When I first heard Deborah was going to Los Angeles, I was so relieved,” said Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony, who was raised in Los Angeles. “I felt there was an opportunity for the ship to be put back on course.”

Today’s Phil is a far larger, busier entity than the one Borda inherited. During the 1999-2000 season, the Phil presented 189 concerts at the Chandler Pavilion and the Hollywood Bowl. In 2009-2010, it presented 240 concerts at Disney Hall and the Bowl, a 27% increase.

Its endowment is estimated at $180 million, more than three times its size when Borda’s tenure began. Its $94-million budget is twice as large as a decade ago. And despite a recession-spurred drop-off in contributions, underwriting and government grants, the Phil experienced only a modest revenue dip during the budget year that ended Sept. 30, 2009, the most recent period for which audited figures are available.

Borda’s talent for transformation took root early.

Born in Manhattan to a Colombian-born businessman father and an American mother, she was raised in what she called “an old-fashioned liberal family” in Jackson Heights, Queens, where “the old sort of Archie Bunker Irish were moving out and the Colombians were moving in.” Her parents divorced when she was a child, and for a while she shuttled between different homes and schools. “There was undeniably a period of chaos in my younger years, in a very formative time.”

Borda said her maternal grandmother played an important role in her upbringing and influenced her personality. “She worked at Macy’s in New York, Herald Square, and I remember she would come home every day, and she just had a regular old job, but when she would come home at night and tell the stories, the intrigues of work or of crazy customers, I was captivated.”

As a kid, Borda said, she liked playing stickball in the streets and was “not a star student.” She found her identity as a musician, starting with violin lessons when she was 6 or 7 and later adding the viola. She has thought of herself as one ever since, even after the painful day when she resolved to quit playing to pursue administration.

“I remember driving in my car and had the radio on. It was, like, Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony, and I remember crying, thinking, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ But I moved past it, because I loved what I did.”

Thereafter followed top management posts at the San Francisco Symphony, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony before the New York Phil, a job she thought she’d never leave.

These days Borda is comfortably settled in her personal life. She and her longtime partner, Coralie Toevs, the Metropolitan Opera’s chief development officer in New York, have a satisfying bicoastal relationship. “We see each other all the time,” Borda said, “and we love travel, we love music, we love food, we love reading. And we both work all the time.”

Uprooting herself from New York and moving West, Borda said, was “the single best decision I’ve ever made.” Becoming a Californian has brought her “real professional fulfillment, amazing friendships, personal happiness.”

“I am such a different person,” she said.

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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