A New York Philharmonic Coup: Deborah Borda Is Named the New Leader (Published 2017) (2022)


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A New York Philharmonic Coup: Deborah Borda Is Named the New Leader (Published 2017) (1)

By Michael Cooper

It is the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, led by giants like Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein, but the New York Philharmonic’s recent struggles have sent shudders through audiences, donors and power brokers across the classical music world.

It has run deficits for most of this century. It is sometimes treated as an afterthought amid the rich cultural offerings of New York. And during the past two months, it reached a crisis point: An exodus of top executives threatened the Philharmonic’s ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the long-delayed renovation of its drab Lincoln Center home, and left a vacuum just as the orchestra needs to plan the introduction of its next music director, Jaap van Zweden, in 2018.

So it was nothing short of a coup for the troubled Philharmonic to announce on Wednesday that it had poached one of the most successful arts administrators in the nation to become its next president and chief executive officer: Deborah Borda, who helped make the Los Angeles Philharmonic the envy of the orchestra world during her 17 years at its helm.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Ms. Borda, 67, who ran the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s.

“You know, the New York Philharmonic is a critical institution in this country, and when things aren’t going smoothly at the New York Philharmonic everybody notices,” Ms. Borda said in an interview. “Any challenge is really an opportunity. And there are big challenges — I don’t deny those — but those are great opportunities.”

Ms. Borda’s achievements in Los Angeles read like a to-do list for New York. She ushered the orchestra into its new home, the popular Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. She bolstered the orchestra’s shaky finances and proved herself a prodigious fund-raiser, more than quintupling the endowment to $276 million this year. She signed Gustavo Dudamel as its music director when he was still in his 20s, and helped make him an international star. And she deepened the orchestra’s ties to its city while helping it earn a reputation for artistic risk-taking.

Oscar S. Schafer, chairman of the New York Philharmonic’s board, said there was universal agreement that she would be ideal for the post after Matthew VanBesien, the orchestra’s president, announced in January that he was leaving. But few thought she could be lured back to the orchestra she left almost two decades ago. The turning point, Mr. Schafer said, came after New York’s incoming music director, Mr. van Zweden, proposed flying to Los Angeles with him last month to woo her in person.

The three met in a booth at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. “Halfway through the dinner, Jaap reached out, took her hand, and said, ‘What will it take to get you?’” Mr. Schafer recalled.

Mr. van Zweden said in a telephone interview that “if there is anybody in the world who knows how to manage an orchestra, it is her — and more important, how to reach the public, how to make a connection with the city.”

Orchestra management has become increasingly difficult. Its challenges include selling tickets as the old model of marketing subscriptions to a season’s worth of concerts is dying out; raising the donations that make up an ever larger share of orchestra budgets; dealing with rising labor costs and musicians protected by powerful unions; and forging connections with audiences as classical music is marginalized.

The New York Philharmonic’s difficulties are particularly acute. It has run deficits every year since its 2001-2 season. Its endowment is worth less than it was when Ms. Borda ran the orchestra in the 1990s, partly because the Philharmonic has dipped into it in recent years for budget needs. The fund was valued at $183 million at the start of the 2015-16 season, down from $210 million in 1999.

Even the much-needed renovation of David Geffen Hall poses danger: The Philharmonic will need to perform away from its home for two seasons during construction, risking the loss of even more subscribers.

Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Juilliard School, said he had grown “very concerned” about the Philharmonic’s ability to navigate its challenges without strong administrative leadership. The hiring of Ms. Borda reassured him. “This certainly made me take a 180-degree turn,” he said.

Mr. Schafer — who had also bonded with Ms. Borda over lunch at Le Bernardin and on the dance floor at a mutual friend’s party — said that it was only fitting that she come back to New York. “It was bashert,” he said, using a Yiddish word that means “destiny,” or “meant to be.”

It will be a return to a familiar world stage for Ms. Borda, a native New Yorker. When she ran the Philharmonic the first time around, she developed a reputation for bold leadership, starting innovative programs, including short rush-hour concerts, to appeal to changing audience habits.

But she also clashed with the orchestra’s music director at the time, Kurt Masur, and her tenure included tensions with some players as well. When The New York Times asked Mr. Masur in 1996 about their disagreements, he said that he had “learned to live with the Stasi,” referring to the secret police in East Germany.

Coming home will allow her to live in the same city as her partner, Coralie Toevs, the assistant general manager for development at the Metropolitan Opera. Asked if they would find themselves fishing in the same pond for donations from music lovers, Ms. Borda contended that there was relatively little overlap between fans of the symphony and of the opera.

“I think we can sort it out,” she said.

Many orchestras have dealt with recent fiscal pressures by trying to cut expenses, often leading to labor strife. But Ms. Borda suggested that she would seek a different path.

“When an institution is in trouble, you cannot cut your way to health,” she said, adding that she would develop a plan to balance the budget in two or three years.

She has balanced the budget in Los Angeles every year since 2004, she said. Since her arrival, the annual budget in Los Angeles has risen to $120 million, the biggest in the nation, from $46 million; the base pay of its musicians has grown to $154,000 a year, among the highest in the nation; and its endowment is valued at $276 million, up from $50 million before she arrived.

She also became one of the best-paid arts administrators in the nation: The orchestra’s 2015 tax filings show that she made $1.7 million in total compensation and benefits that year, more than twice what Mr. VanBesien made in New York. She declined to say how much she will be paid in New York.

Her departure comes as Los Angeles prepares for its 2018-19 centennial season, but several board members there said planning was already underway. David C. Bohnett, a board member who donated $20 million to the orchestra in 2014 — half to endow the president’s position — said Ms. Borda would be missed. “I think we all knew this day would come,” he said. “I think we were hoping it wouldn’t come now.”

Ms. Borda has already negotiated a notable change in the management structure in New York. She will assume the new post of president and chief executive officer in September and has a three-year contract with an evergreen clause allowing it to be renewed. And she is tapping Bill Thomas, the orchestra’s chief operating officer, to serve as its executive director. She said that he would oversee internal day-to-day operations for the orchestra while she focuses on broader issues.

She seemed to relish her da capo return to New York.

“There will be challenges,” she said. “It’s uphill — but it’s doable.”


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