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Agent of Change

Visionary administrator Deborah Borda is starting a new era at the NYPO.
By Fred Cohn
Photographs by Dario Acosta
 

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Photographed at David Geffen Hall by Dario Acosta
Hair and makeup by Nancy McNamara

“OUR MANTRA,” BORDA SAYS, “IS ‘IN NEW YORK; IN OUR TIME.’”
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Photographed by Dario Acosta
Hair and makeup by Nancy McNamara
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Photographed by Dario Acosta

WHEN I MEET DEBORAH BORDA, the president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, in her office in David Geffen Hall, she tells me right away that she Googled me beforehand. “I just wanted to know who you were,” she says, citing a couple of biographical items. I’m disarmed in the moment, but later I realize that her due diligence reflects an essential element of her professional makeup. She carefully prepares for whatever task is in front of her—whether it’s programming a season, making long-range plans for her orchestra or talking to a journalist for an OPERA NEWS profile.

“I give a lot of thought to what I do,” Borda says. “I always say, the best way to invent the future is to predict it.” 

Two elements of Borda’s personality emerge immediately. One is her abundant charm: throughout the interview, she seizes on areas of personal connection. The other is her unquestionable personal authority. She clearly knows how to make decisions—and wields the clout to get them implemented.

The task in front of her now is sustaining an almost 177-year-old institution as a thriving, twenty-first-century entity. When I ask her how she intends to do it, she says, “It’s sort of like, ‘How do we define God?’” But if anyone has the moxie to push the Philharmonic forward, it’s Borda. She came to the position in 2017 after seventeen years at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, during which she shepherded that orchestra into its celebrated new home, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall; hired the dynamic Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel as music director; and instituted a groundbreaking community program, Youth Orchestra Los Angeles—while erasing a huge amount of red ink from the orchestra’s ledgers. 

This is Borda’s second stint with her New York band; she had been the Philharmonic’s executive director for nine seasons before decamping to Los Angeles. One element impelling her defection then, according to contemporary reports, was friction with then-music director Kurt Masur. She had better luck in L.A., forming productive partnerships with two successive music directors—first Esa-Pekka Salonen and then Dudamel. “From the beginning,” Dudamel writes in an email, “[Deborah and I] had an understanding, and while we both have strong personalities, we were striving for the same things, and to do that, in fact the only way to do that, was together.”

Borda and I talk just two weeks before Jaap van Zweden is scheduled to open his first season as the Philharmonic’s music director. Bus-kiosk ads featuring the Dutch conductor’s raw-boned visage have popped up throughout the city, turning him nearly overnight into a local celebrity. Van Zweden was in fact instrumental in wooing Borda back east, flying to Los Angeles to make a pitch for his new orchestra. “If he hadn’t gotten on a plane to talk me into coming, I wouldn’t be here,” she says. (Another inducement: her life partner, Coralie Toevs, is the Met’s assistant general manager for development; for years the couple sustained a bicoastal relationship.) 

“One of the secrets in your artistic partner or your life partner is that you never just say ‘no’ to each other—you think it through,” Borda says. “Of course, [Jaap and I] will have conflicts. But wouldn’t life be boring if we didn’t have them?”

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In Hollywood, 2016, with Gustavo Dudamel
© Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

BORDA WAS A MUSICIAN herself—a violist—before she moved over to management. (She calls it “the dark side” of the music business.) She was first exposed to music as a small child, living in Jackson Heights, Queens. “I loved music from when I first listened to [the classical-music radio station] WQXR, which my parents would put on as background music,” she says. “They got me a little 45 recording, an abomination of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and I wore it out. The first concert I ever heard was the New York Philharmonic. It was Lenny [Bernstein] conducting. We sat at the very top of Carnegie Hall. I must have been just about four, because I remember when we got to the steps, each step seemed enormous to me. When we got to our seats, I asked my mother, ‘Is this a real orchestra?’ because they looked like little tiny fake musicians to me. But I just loved it.”

The institution that Borda now leads is very different from the one that provided her first experience of live music, in large part because our society, and the role of classical music within it, is very different from that of the mid 1950s. “It’s not the little orchestra I saw when I was four years old at Carnegie Hall,” she says. “We live in our moment. And it is tremendously disheartening to me that you don’t have a figure like a Leonard Bernstein who is of real social import—not importance, but import. That has been so far pushed to the side.”

The Philharmonic in the mid 1970s, when I arrived in the city, was an essentially staid institution. The new-music firebrand Pierre Boulez was music director, but the audience was dominated by longtime season-ticket-holders, their tastes heavily skewed toward Beethoven and Brahms: I witnessed more than one performance of new work that brought jeers and walkouts. Much of the audience held subscriptions inherited from their parents or grandparents, but that concert-going habit has not necessarily been passed on to subsequent generations. A crucial aspect of Borda’s job now is attracting what she calls “the world-famous, the we-all-bow-down-to-them Millennials” into David Geffen Hall.  

With the changes in the audience has come a severe erosion of subscription sales: the era when the orchestra sold almost ninety percent of it seats through subscriptions has long since passed. “One’s parents bought eight Thursday nights to the New York Philharmonic,” Borda says. “The money came in in April. We cashed those checks for a season that started in September. But the way people consume culture today is very different. It’s an on-demand society. You can go online and get whatever you want. You can get it at a cheaper price. You have the flexibility you want. 

“But to sell a single ticket,” Borda laments, “costs a minimum of thirty cents on the dollar more than if you sell it on subscription. It also places tremendous pressure on programming. We’re trying to develop audiences and take them on a musical journey. If they’re just picking and choosing, they may not want to be challenged.” 

The 2018–19 season demonstrates tactics that Borda and van Zweden hope will draw potential concert-goers into that musical journey. The season features a number of world premieres, including, much to Borda’s satisfaction, two by female composers, Ashley Fure and Julia Wolfe. Two off-site series, “Nightcap” and “Sound ON,” will feature chamber ensembles in contemporary-music concerts. A “Phil the Hall” series in April will offer five-dollar tickets to city workers and teachers for short introductory concerts. The season ends with three “Music of Conscience” programs, focusing on political engagement in music and culminating in the fully staged world premiere of prisoner of the state, composer David Lang’s contemporary take on Fidelio. “What Jaap and I are doing is fully musical and artistic, but set in a broader cultural context,” she says. “I believe that if you tell an intellectual, cultural and emotional story, it will bring new people to concerts.”

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The announcement of Borda’s return to the NYPO, with NYPO COO Bill Thomas, NYPO Board Chairman Oscar Schafer and Jaap van Zweden
© Chad Batka/The New York Times/Redux Pictures

BORDA MADE A SPLASH LAST YEAR when she announced that she had raised $50 million toward getting the Philharmonic’s house in order. An even more consequential move during the first season of her new term was her decision to cancel a planned $500-million gut renovation of Geffen Hall that would have evicted the orchestra from its home for several seasons. Instead, the orchestra and its partner, Lincoln Center, will make “incremental” changes to improve the hall’s acoustics and transform it into a more welcoming public space.

A major factor in Borda’s decision was the negative example set by New York City Opera, which never recovered its bearings after losing its 2008–09 season to renovations in the David H. Koch Theater. “I felt that if the Phil was out of the hall for that amount of time, we would be going down the City Opera path,” Borda says. “We all watched that happen in disbelief. Who would think we wouldn’t have City Opera? But we don’t.”

A key task on Borda’s agenda is establishing a sense of social commitment for her organization. In this, she is following a widespread trend among performing-arts institutions. “We don’t exist in a vacuum,” Borda says. “What I focused on from the time I was six years old [as a musician], and in my early years of management, was one thing—the artistic imperative,” she says. “But as I watched our institutions try to evolve, it occurred to me that we hadn’t made a case for ourselves, because we’d been so mono-focused. I realized there was a social imperative as well.”

When Borda was pursuing Dudamel for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she made the “social imperative” a key part of her pitch. She visited Venezuela and observed the workings of El Sistema, the venerated cross-cultural music-education system whose most notable product has been Dudamel himself. “It’s an entire social organism, from teaching people how to be great players to teaching them how to fix instruments,” she says. “We went to the poorest barrios. They were dangerous, but if you went with El Sistema, you’d be safe. There wouldn’t be running water in those places, but there’d be an orchestra to play a Mozart symphony brilliantly.”

The promise of an El Sistema-like program in L.A. was pivotal in luring Dudamel. “From the beginning of my discussions, I made it clear that a similar type program was nonnegotiable if I was to take the job,” the conductor writes. The result was Youth Orchestra Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to call it El Sistema,” Borda says, “because it needed to be an American program—a program for a great, gritty American city like Los Angeles—YOLA, or as Gustavo always calls it, ‘JOLA.’”

No New York version of YOLA has yet been announced. But Borda has hired Adam Crane, formerly the overseer of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as the Philharmonic’s vice president for external affairs. He is charged with creating new civic-oriented programs for the orchestra and has entered into dialogues with local organizations to figure out how the Philharmonic can serve the community. “We have to be out there,” he says. “The goal of the New York Philharmonic is to really become New York’s orchestra.” 

“Our mantra,” Borda says, “is ‘In New York; in our time.’”

When I ask Borda about the Philharmonic’s long-range plans, she demurs. “If you had interviewed me at the end of my first year in Los Angeles about what I was going to do—about the product that emerged seventeen years later—I couldn’t have told you,” she says. “Because it’s a journey. Society changes, the institution changes.

“I will do everything I can to move our art form along the evolutionary path,” she says. “Will it be revolutionary? I hope so.” spacer 



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