Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
Greenwich Village Orchestra Performs Beethoven's 9th at Washington Irving High School

A New Day at the NY Phil

Photo: Chad Batka, The New York Times

Not that long ago, things looked pretty grim at the New York Philharmonic. Last January, music director Alan Gilbert - whose up-and-down eight year tenure comes to a close this season - was replaced with the relatively unknown Dutch conductor Jaap Van Zweden. This January, an exodus of top execs began when Ed Yim, director of artistic planning, left to become the executive director of the American Composers Orchestra. It ended three weeks later with the announced departure of president Matthew Van Besien, who is leaving to head up a university performing arts center. And this on top of the tenuous plans surrounding the long-overdue renovation of David Geffen Hall, which will displace the Philharmonic for two seasons starting in 2019 - assuming they can raise the $500 million they still need without a full-time development director. Sheesh.

Then, out of nowhere, came today's surprise announcement: Deborah Borda, who was the NY Phil's executive director from 1991-1999, will be returning to the post this September as President and CEO. In the intervening 17 years, Borda has turned the LA Philharmonic from a second-tier American orchestra to one of the most progressive, well-run orchestras in the world. Here are a few tidbits:

  • She grew the LAPhil's endowment five-fold to $287 milllion, supporting an annual operating budget of $120
    million, largest of any orchestra in the world
  • She helped realize the construction of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, by far the best concert hall in the U.S., and one of the finest in the world
  • She successfully replaced longtime music director Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2009 with Gustavo Dudamel, arguably the most sought-after conductor in the world

In the process, Borda has become the leading orchestra executive in the United States, and one of the most highly respected performing arts administrators in the world, something I learned firsthand when I attended the League of American Orchestras Essentials of Orchestra Management program more than a decade ago. To say she was a "good get" for the NY Phil is an understatement. (You can read the rest of her long list of accomplishments here.)

02artsbeat-borda1-blog480In those same 17 years, the NY Phil has run deficits nearly every season, has seen their endowment - which Borda built up to more than $3oo million - dwindle to $186 million, and has continued to suffer in the drab, unresonant shoebox that is Avery Fisher David Geffen Hall. 


Photo: Iris Schneider, The New York Times

According to Philharmonic Chairman Oscar Schaefer - who deserves the lion's share of the credit for wooing Borda - he and van Zweden flew to L.A. last month to meet her in person at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. 

“Halfway through the dinner," according to Schaefer, "Jaap reached out, took her hand, and said, ‘What will it take to get you?’" (Van Zweden may have sealed the deal last week when he was back in town to conduct a previously-scheduled subscription series with the LA Phil.)

Good question, Jaap. Why would a 67 year old woman with such a remarkable track record of accomplishment risk it all on a Hail Mary to turn around an orchestra whose music director is an unknown quantity, whose senior management has been eviscerated by defections, and whose players are notoriously intransigent - and whose contract expires right when she arrives in September? 

Because Borda says she likes the challenge. 

"There are big challenges," Borda said to the NY Times, "but there are great opportunities...It’s uphill — but it’s doable.”

(There is also a personal reason behind Borda's move: her longtime partner, Cory Toevs, is the assistant general manager for development at the Met Opera across the plaza, which means that they'll finally get to live and work in the same city. Which is a story in and of itself, in that it's a non-story.)

Borda's hiring reminds me of another former New Yorker who went on to achieve great things in LA, only to return to NYC in the twilight of his career. But, at least Bill Bratton was inheriting a well-oiled NYPD from his predecessor. Maybe The Tuna taking on the 1-15 Jets after winning two Super Bowls with that other NY franchise is a better comparison. Or the late Gerard Mortier, who after leaving the Paris Opera wanted to turn the also-ran City Opera into the most progressive opera company in the world.

And, hey, why not? The Phil is, after all, the orchestra of Mahler, Toscanini, Bernstein, Boulez. It is the oldest, most famous symphony orchestra in America, even if we New Yorkers sometimes have a hard time appreciating her. 

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Around the world, the NY Phil is still held in high regard - and not just by the North Koreans. Case in point: I stopped by the Austrian Cultural Forum last week on the final day of their excellent exhibition celebrating the 175th anniversaries of both the NY and Vienna Philharmonics. Having just seen the Vienna Phil during their annual residency at Carnegie Hall, I could almost believe that my lower opinion of the NY Phil vs. the VPO had less to do with musical inferiority than over-familiarity. Almost. The exhibition is now on its way to Vienna, where it will be housed at the Haus der Musik until the NY Phil arrives this spring on their European tour. (More pics on the photo page.)

I will admit, there have been times when I've doubted the long term relevance of the NY Phil in a city with too many competing alternatives, in an era without subscriptions or mass media exposure. But, somewhere in the back of my mind, I've always known that the right person would be able to resurrect this diamond in the rough. And, with a new hall and a new music director on the way, that time might finally be upon us. 

“I’m an optimist," Borda told the LA Times, "and optimists get things done. If we can turn around the ship in New York, that’s good for the whole orchestra business.”

If you're in town, go celebrate with the Phil this week as Alan Gilbert leads a stellar program including the NY premiere of Salonen's Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma. Tickets and info available at the Philharmonic box office or online