The Los Angeles Philharmonic Lost Its Leader. Can It Stay on Top? (Published 2017) (2022)


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The Los Angeles Philharmonic Lost Its Leader. Can It Stay on Top? (Published 2017) (1)

By Michael Cooper

LOS ANGELES — American orchestras are supposed to be in crisis, fighting for economic survival and cultural relevance. But no one seems to have told the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which, two years shy of its centennial, is stronger than ever.

Its $120 million annual budget is the largest of any American orchestra. At a time when many ensembles are dipping into their endowments to keep afloat, Los Angeles’s strong fund-raising has helped it quintuple its endowment this century. Its musicians are at or near the very top of the pay scale. Its dazzling Walt Disney Concert Hall, completed in 2003, is considered the nation’s most successful recent concert space. And its artistic daring — and efforts to engage its city with educational and social justice programs — recently led Zachary Woolfe to declare in The New York Times: “The Los Angeles Philharmonic is the most important orchestra in America. Period.”

But there is a dissonant undertone of uncertainty: Deborah Borda, the visionary chief executive who made the orchestra the envy of the music world during her 17 years in charge, left last month to run the New York Philharmonic, a troubled institution dearly in need of a savior.

For Angelenos in the know, Ms. Borda had become almost as big a star behind the scenes as the orchestra’s popular music director, Gustavo Dudamel: After she announced her departure, the television host Tavis Smiley jokingly got down on his knees on his PBS program and begged her to stay. It’s to her as much as anyone that the Philharmonic owes its success. Now the L.A. Phil, as it calls itself with deliberate Californian informality, must decide who will succeed her — a member of the respected team she built, or an outsider? — and how to continue her legacy of innovation, outreach and prodigious fund-raising.

Orchestra officials said they were confident that success would breed more of the same. “People are very envious about being part of this organization,” Jay Rasulo, a former Disney executive who is the chairman of the Philharmonic’s board, said in an interview. “We have our pick of people in our field because of what this team represents to people, what this organization represents to people. And I think that Deborah’s departure was inevitable. Was it inevitable three months ago? No, but it was inevitable. And I think that there’s an incredible amount of confidence.”


The Philharmonic works hard to reach out beyond the cultural acropolis downtown where its gleaming concert hall stands. “We cannot be sitting here and expecting people to come to us,” Mr. Dudamel said in an interview backstage at Disney Hall. “That is too arrogant. We have to go to the community. We have to change.”

On a recent visit as the orchestra wrapped up its season, it seemed to be all over the city at once. Behind a set of black curtains in a downtown basement space, the Philharmonic was presenting something decidedly unsymphonic: a Björk virtual-reality show in which her begoggled fans could experience her song “Mouth Mantra” from inside her mouth. Near the end of its two-and-a-half-week run, the Philharmonic welcomed the real Björk to Disney Hall for a concert of her blend of arty pop and performance art that served as the coda of its recent Reykjavik Festival, an exploration of the music of her native Iceland.

On a soundstage at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, meanwhile, rehearsals were underway for a new staging of the maverick composer Lou Harrison’s rarely performed, homoerotic 1971 opera “Young Caesar,” part of the orchestra’s pathbreaking Green Umbrella new-music series. In South Los Angeles, students in the Philharmonic’s ambitious youth orchestra program, many of whom come from poor neighborhoods, were being drilled in a Shostakovich overture that they would soon play at the Hollywood Bowl, the Philharmonic’s lucrative summer home.

And, oh yes, the orchestra was generating plenty of heat with more traditional classical fare as well. Mr. Dudamel, at 36 one of the few maestros recognizable to the broader public, wrapped up the season leading the piano virtuoso Yuja Wang in a series of high-intensity performances of Bartok’s three piano concertos.

In an interview after she decamped to New York, Ms. Borda described the L.A. Phil as an institution “in alignment.”


“One of the things in Los Angeles that I find different from any other city that I’ve worked in,” she added, “is if you have an idea, people don’t simply say, ‘Well, that’s a crazy idea.’ If you can make it work, people will be open to it.”

No ensemble has done more to adapt to a new environment in which classical music has faded from popular culture and the idea of buying subscriptions to a season’s worth of concerts is growing as anachronistic as spinning 78s. If the erosion of the subscription model is a financial blow to orchestras, it has encouraged Los Angeles to turn more of its performances into events, as when the orchestra staged a cycle of Mozart operas in collaboration with marquee architects including Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry, paired with fashion designers like Hussein Chalayan and Rodarte.

The orchestra plays plenty of classics — Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart and the like — but its devotion to new music is unmatched. It will perform 23 works it commissioned next year. It now focuses on sharp programming tailored to specific tastes, rather than a one-size-fits-all vision of music.

“Pop music has always been a niche industry: You have your Chainsmokers fans and you have your Björk fans, and those two things might have very little overlap,” said Chad Smith, the orchestra’s chief operating officer, who oversees its programming. “In classical music, we’ve always said a Brahms fan is a Stravinsky fan is a Manny Ax fan is a Leila Josefowicz fan.”

That is not true for everyone, he noted. So the orchestra is working to appeal separately to different segments of its audience, sometimes selling its most daring programs, including the Reykjavik Festival, separately from its main subscription concerts.


The orchestra enjoys advantages that allow it, unlike most of its peers, to earn more money from ticket sales than from donations. The Hollywood Bowl, which the Philharmonic operates on a lease from Los Angeles County, is a veritable cash machine, with its healthy box-office revenues bolstered by the pop, world music and movie nights that augment the Philharmonic’s traditional classical concerts. All told, roughly two-thirds of the Philharmonic’s ticket revenue each year comes from the Bowl, said Gail Samuel, the orchestra’s acting president and chief executive, with the other third coming from Disney Hall.

On the site of the swimming stadium that was used in the 1932 Olympics, a group of musicians from the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, known as YOLA, was rehearsing for opening night at the Bowl, where they were to accompany the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra on a program headlined by the Moody Blues.

Ms. Borda said she had hit on the idea of starting a youth orchestra a little more than a decade ago, when she was flying back and forth to Caracas trying to sign Mr. Dudamel to succeed Esa-Pekka Salonen as the Philharmonic’s music director. She was inspired by Venezuela’s government-financed music-education program, El Sistema, of which Mr. Dudamel is a proud product. Some board members blanched, but she persuaded them. After starting with just 80 students, the Los Angeles program now has 800 at three sites across the city.

A bass player at a rehearsal, the 20-year-old Isaac Green, was a recent alumnus of the program. Like 90 percent of YOLA’s first set of graduates, he has gone on to college: He is now majoring in music at California State University, Northridge. Playing Tchaikovsky alongside the Philharmonic, he said, was “the musical highlight of my life.”

On the soundstage at Disney Studios, the director Yuval Sharon, who runs an experimental opera company in Los Angeles called the Industry and who has staged operas in cars and a train station, was rehearsing “Young Caesar,” whose depictions of gay sex were considered scandalous when it had its premiere at Caltech in 1971. Mr. Sharon recalled that when he left New York to move to Los Angeles, friends dismissed it as cultural wasteland.


“The tide has definitely shifted,” he said, crediting the Philharmonic with playing a big role. “People now really understand that L.A. is culturally such a dynamic place, so vital.”

There are some potential clouds on the horizon. The musicians’ contract is up this fall, and while recent negotiations have been notably free of the rancor that has befallen other orchestras, the national American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund is seriously underfunded, which could lead the Los Angeles players to seek more help from the Philharmonic.

Mr. Dudamel’s contract runs through 2022; if he opts not to extend it, the orchestra would lose one of its most dependable audience draws. And in recent years, Mr. Dudamel has been put on the spot as he has tried to stay above the fray of Venezuelan politics, where the country’s increasingly unpopular leaders have been instrumental in supporting El Sistema. But the government’s violent repression of protests, in which a young Sistema musician was recently killed, led him to issue his strongest statement yet last month, telling the government: “Enough is enough.”

Most pressing, though, is replacing Ms. Borda. The orchestra has two internal candidates seen as possible successors. Mr. Smith is one but said he was happy with his current artistically oriented responsibilities as they are now. “We’re the writer’s room,” he said of his team, using a suitably Hollywood-style television analogy, “not the showrunner.”

The other is Ms. Samuel, the acting president, who has been with the orchestra for 25 years and recently had the chance to lead it when Ms. Borda took a sabbatical at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It would be an honor to have that position,” she said in an interview.

The board has not decided whether to promote from within the respected team Ms. Borda built, or search elsewhere, said Mr. Rasulo, the chairman. “We all feel on the board we owe it to the organization to be comprehensive,” he said, “to not maybe jump at the obvious.”

Mr. Dudamel, for his part, said that while he was sad to see Ms. Borda go, he was confident that the Philharmonic would be able to build on her success; flux, he contended, had been a part of its makeup from the start.

“This orchestra’s tradition,” he said, “is the tradition of the new.”


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