N.Y. orchestra leader to take helm in l.A.

N.Y. orchestra leader to take helm in l.A.
Esa-Pekka Salonen, new executive director Deborah Borda and president Barry Sanders at a press conference in 1999. (Rick Meyer / Los Angeles Times)

Just four months after the tempestuous departure of Los Angeles Philharmonic managing director Willem Wijnbergen, the orchestra's board on Wednesday named Deborah Borda, 50, executive director of the New York Philharmonic, as his replacement.

Borda, a native New Yorker who is one of only two women currently managing major orchestras in the United States, is in her ninth season at the helm of the New York orchestra. She is also a violist and trained at London's Royal College of Music and Boston's New England Conservatory of Music.

Borda has a reputation as an administrator who is not afraid to shake up the status quo. She took the helm of the New York Philharmonic management only months after German conductor Kurt Masur arrived and caused a stir among orchestra members who were unaccustomed to his rigorous disciplinary style. Borda was equally aggressive in reconfiguring the orchestra's administration, stepping up fund-raising and, with Masur, introducing new audience-building strategies including "Rush Hour" and "Casual Saturday" concerts, short programs meant to draw in uninitiated music audiences.

Borda said Wednesday that she was lured away from her prestigious position in New York by the extraordinary opportunity to manage an orchestra in Los Angeles--a place that she described as "quintessentially what a 21st century city will look like."

"We have a really special opportunity to shape what an orchestra will be like in the 21st century, not just for the nation, but for the world," she said by phone from New York.

Borda met with Philharmonic officials here a week and a half ago and said she felt an instant rapport with the musicians and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, 40, with whom she met over dinner.

"We just sat and talked and talked for hours," Borda said. "I have such admiration for him as a musician, and as a human being. The word for the meeting was electricity. That, and the Philharmonic musicians, were what really sold me." Salonen is in Mexico City with the orchestra and could not be reached for comment.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has suffered declining audiences in recent years, but Borda declined with a laugh to comment on what she sees as the most pressing problems she will face here.

"I have learned not to come in and make pronouncements about what the problem is and what the solution is going to be," she said.

The announcement of Borda's appointment ends a rocky episode in the orchestra's history. After the Philharmonic was managed for 28 years by Ernest Fleischmann, who had significantly increased the budget and reputation of the orchestra, Wijnbergen, 40, spent only 15 months in the job, which pays an annual salary of about $300,000. He was abruptly relieved of his duties in July after filing a letter with the Philharmonic board citing concerns about serious issues and his intent to terminate his contract if those issues were not addressed. The Philharmonic viewed Wijnbergen's letter as a resignation.

After announcing his departure, the Philharmonic board and Wijnbergen refused further comment until late August, when the orchestra issued a terse statement saying that issues surrounding Wijnbergen's departure had been amicably resolved. No further clarification has come from either side.

Borda said Wijnbergen's abrupt departure gave her no qualms about accepting the position in Los Angeles. Though she sidestepped direct comment on the Wijnbergen matter, Borda said: "I've been managing symphony orchestras for 25 years, I'm a musician, and I think I have a pretty good nose for situations. This is a positive one, where everybody really wants to pull together, and I believe they will."

Borda said she also was excited by the challenges presented by managing the Hollywood Bowl and its orchestra, as well as the construction and planned 2002 opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Philharmonic's new home across the street from its current headquarters at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

"It's been an exciting nine years here [in New York], and we've just accomplished so much," Borda continued. "I feel like I have another great burst of energy coming here, and this is where I want to put it."

Borda said she was approached by the L.A. Philharmonic's search committee, formed after Wijnbergen's departure, within the last two weeks.

Bob Weingarten, a board vice president who headed the search committee, said in a statement Wednesday that "the search committee is extremely gratified that Deborah Borda has accepted the position. We set out to attract the best managing director in the business, and we have."

Along with Deborah Card of the Seattle Symphony, Borda is a rare female leader in a male-dominated field.