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Deborah Borda

[PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC]

“I’M EXPANDING THE DEFINITION OF WHAT A MUSICAL ORGANIZATION, AN INSTITUTION, CAN PRESENT AS MUSIC.”

Keys for leadership:
Make the inquiry
Ask the right questions
Notice things

by Theodore Gioia
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

Deborah Borda

[PRESIDENT AND CEO OF THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC]

“I’M EXPANDING THE DEFINITION OF WHAT A MUSICAL ORGANIZATION, AN INSTITUTION, CAN PRESENT AS MUSIC.”

Keys for leadership:
Make the inquiry
Ask the right questions
Notice things

by Theodore Gioia
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

Deborah Borda

Theodore Gioia
15 Snaps

In the history books of classical music, few pages are given to arts administrators. Composers and conductors are cast as the star characters. Managers make unromantic heroes. Administration is not a vocation for genius. But when the annals of the twenty-first-century American orchestra are written, I think they might begin with Deborah Borda, the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

During her fifteen-year tenure, Borda has reinvented the LA Phil’s public image. She completed the most iconic symphony hall of this century in Walt Disney Concert Hall—Frank Gehry’s steel hurricane of warped silver sails—which offers a glaring hellmirror for daytime traffic and a futuristic Xanadu for evening concertgoers. She rebuilt the Hollywood Bowl as the symphony’s summer home and changed its programming, turning the open-air amphitheater into a financial juggernaut for pop acts. But most important, in 2007 she signed then twenty-six-year-old Venezuelan phenom Gustavo Dudamel (the star pupil of Venezuela’s famed music program El Sistema). Dudamel electrifies crowds, earning the affectionate nickname “the Dude,” and has become the most celebrated conductor on the planet.

The LA Philharmonic is the most successful orchestra in the country. Los Angeles has the largest performing budget of any American symphony, commissions the most world premieres of any orchestra in the world—and, astoundingly, keeps a balanced budget. At a time when many major East Coast orchestras are battling huge deficits, the LA Philharmonic is undergoing a full renaissance. In 2013, it brought in $59 million from concert ticket sales alone—more than the combined total for Chicago’s and New York’s symphonies in the same period—and $125 million in revenue. Its season schedule has grown from ninety concerts to nearly three hundred. And the invisible hand behind these impressive stats belongs to Deborah Borda.

Before Borda came to Los Angeles, she was general manager of the San Francisco Symphony, president of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1991 she became the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, making her one of the first women to manage a major American orchestra. But, in a shocking move, in 2000 she left the NY Phil—then the career Olympus of American orchestras—to take over the floundering symphony in Los Angeles. It was there that she found the potential she was looking for: the freedom to turn from the orchestra’s conservative past and look toward its future. The freedom to think the orchestra could be different in the next century than it had been in the last.

I conducted this interview at Disney Concert Hall in Borda’s spacious office. Borda had just left a photo shoot and was sharply dressed in a blazer over crisp jeans. She spoke with warmth and a precision that makes one self-conscious about asking more-articulate questions. Our talk was scheduled for forty-five minutes. As we went over time, we were interrupted by her press secretary knocking on the door. Borda shouted, “Two more minutes!” and answered my next question with a smile.

—Theodore Gioia

I. “THAT WHIFF OF POSSIBILITY”

THE BELIEVER: What’s your least favorite instrument in the orchestra?

DEBORAH BORDA: My least favorite instrument in the orchestra… the viola—because you can’t hear it!

BLVR: Didn’t you play the viola?

DB: Yes.

BLVR: You started as a violinist and then you—

DB: I started as a violinist and then played viola. So I’m sticking by my answer.

BLVR: At what point in your life did you decide to become a music manager rather than a musician?

DB: In my mid-twenties. I was the person in my string quartet who made the engagements, brought the stands, helped pick the music, and I came to see that there was a kind of machine behind all this when you observed the bigger orchestras. And it fascinated me. At the time when I first observed this, it was only men in suits. No women, not at all. No women allowed. It occurred to me that this was something I was interested in, so I applied for a job at the Marlboro Music Festival, a very legendary place. At the time it was run by Rudolf Serkin, and I got my very first job there as assistant to the artistic scheduler.

BLVR: Scheduling is now an artistic calling?

DB: I’m giving you the wrong name: it was assistant to the scheduler. It was just putting together who would rehearse what when. And I was hooked from that moment on.

BLVR: How has being a woman affected your career?

DB: Well, one can’t say that it’s affected it negatively, because I’ve had a pretty good run.

BLVR: Then how has it influenced your career?

DB: Hiring decisions are made by a board of directors. Even at this time, as we speak, in 2015, most boards are largely dominated by males. So I think it meant that I had to work harder and be even better at what I did. But it also meant I had a willingness to look at unorthodox moves, to be willing to take different kinds of jobs to move ahead.

BLVR: What kind of unorthodox moves?

DB: I was general manager of the San Francisco Symphony. So normally the person who had that job—that’s the number two job; it’s like the deputy director—goes on directly to be president of a big orchestra. I went on to be president of the Saint Paul Orchestra, which is a smaller orchestra, because I couldn’t get interviewed. I was just literally not interviewed. I remember when I had this epiphany. I was having lunch with a friend, a woman who is the general manager of the St. Louis Symphony, and she said, “Deborah, have they interviewed you for the job at the National Symphony?” I said, “Well, no. Nobody called me.” And she asked, “Did they interview you for the top job in Houston?” and I said, “No, they haven’t.” Then she said, “They didn’t even call you?” and I said, “No.” “Well,” she said, “they didn’t call me either.” And she just read through a whole litany of jobs. I hadn’t thought about it, because I was very involved in my job. But I wasn’t even called. So that was when I realized that my path would have to be a little different.

BLVR: I want to ask about your time in New York. How do you think the challenges of running an orchestra in New York and LA are different?

DB: Oh, they’re very different. I mean, some things are very similar. An orchestra is an orchestra is an orchestra. But I think there are a number of very different aspects. One aspect is that the New York Philharmonic is absolutely a great orchestra—yet they exist in a city filled with other great orchestras that are coming to visit, that are coming to play in their home hall (now David Geffen Hall) or Carnegie Hall. And when, for example, the Los Angeles Philharmonic goes to play at Carnegie Hall or David Geffen Hall, we bring our party program. We bring our very best pieces, our very strongest works. We plan, almost like a battle: what repertoire will we bring? Who will our soloist be? When will we do it? And we rehearse the program a number of times before we get there. But the poor New York Philharmonic every week has to present four concerts, week in, week out. So in that rich artistic mélange of New York, it’s easy for it to be overshadowed. So that’s one issue that they constantly had to fight, because it is such a great orchestra.

The other issue is a different one: it’s the zeitgeist of the two cities. I think between Los Angeles and New York—and this is what attracted me to Los Angeles—if one has an idea and introduces it here, people don’t simply dismiss it and say, “You can’t do that,” or “That’s a crazy idea.” People are more open. It’s a much more experimental, let’s-try-this atmosphere.

BLVR: Is that why you decided to move from New York to LA in 2000?

DB: That’s exactly the reason. I had been at the New York Philharmonic almost a decade. When I went to the New York Philharmonic, I thought, This is like becoming the president of Harvard. I will do this for the rest of my career. But what I found was that I am a person who is driven by innovation and risk-taking. And I felt—and I don’t want this to sound unkind—as if I was in a box that was closing in on me, because there was a very conservative point of view at that time from the music director, who was a wonderful musician but extremely “old-world.” And to a certain extent, so were the orchestra members and the board. We were doing very well, but I remember one Sunday morning I was sitting in my kitchen and opened up the New York Times Arts and Leisure section. There was an enormous above-the-fold picture of a new hall that was to be built in Los Angeles. I took a look at that hall and thought, That is the single most beautiful building I have seen in my life. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was profound jealousy, because I didn’t see how we could ever accomplish that in New York.

I forgot about it for two years and then one day, out of the blue, the Los Angeles Philharmonic called, offering me a job, with very persuasive board members. It was a community effort to get me here: board members, orchestra members, Frank Gehry, Esa-Pekka Salonen. At first I didn’t even take it seriously. But then I saw the effort they put into it—and that sniff, that whiff of possibility—and the rest is history. I fell in love with the people and the possibility.

II. “I CANNOT STAND THE TERM CLASSICAL MUSIC”

BLVR: The LA Philharmonic has two of the most distinctive performance venues in the country. Disney Concert Hall is probably the most recognizable symphony hall of the twenty-first century, however young, and the Hollywood Bowl is a noticeable departure from traditional symphony summer homes like Tanglewood. How have these spaces shaped the organization’s image?

DB: Architecture is life. One can’t walk into Walt Disney Concert Hall every day and not be affected by this building that we work and make music in. To be fortunate enough to work in a space as endlessly creative and open as the Walt Disney Concert Hall gives you a different outlook on how you do your job, gives every single musician, every single staff member, every single board member a sense of possibility and adventure. And our audiences, I might add. The actual construct of the hall, which is called “vineyard,” means that the audience actually surrounds the orchestra, so the orchestra is almost within the audience. It creates a very visceral impact—an impact that I’ve never experienced in any other hall. So this gives you an opportunity to take even more chances with the kind of music one is mounting.

BLVR: And the Hollywood Bowl?

DB: Remember, the Hollywood Bowl seats eighteen thousand people. In a real sense, the Hollywood Bowl is a playground, or a living room, even, for the city, because we work there seven nights a week. Starting in the middle of June, we run the Bowl seven nights a week until the middle of September. And it’s a complete spectrum of music. Last night we had eighteen thousand people for the hundredth birthday of Frank Sinatra. Tonight we have an almost sellout for Carmina Burana, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Tomorrow night we have a Tchaikovsky spectacular complete with the 1812 Overture and marching bands. We have so many different ways we can speak to the community and excite them. Because it’s all one staff, it’s all one place, it’s all the LA Philharmonic, we’ve also applied that philosophy here, so we do programming in Walt Disney Concert Hall that’s for world music, that’s for jazz, that’s for all sorts of other presentations. We see the Philharmonic as the jewel in the crown, but we view ourselves as a large musical organization that truly tries to integrate itself into the fabric of the community.

BLVR: Does that integration mean you’re expanding the definition of classical music to encompass music in general?

DB: I don’t know if I would call it that. First of all, let me go on record saying I cannot stand the term classical music, because it’s incorrect. Classical, quite strictly speaking, refers to a period.

BLVR: One strict period.

DB: One strict period in music. So Mozart is classical. Haydn is classical. Stravinsky is not! Brahms is not! Beethoven is the bridge. I’ve really struggled with the question “Could we find another term for it?” Art music sounds…

BLVR: Sounds so pretentious.

DB: Yes, so pretentious.

BLVR: So you’re still working on coining—

DB: I’ve been in the business a long time, and I’ve not come up with an alternative phrase. So would I say I’m expanding the definition of classical music? No. I’m expanding the definition of what a musical organization, an institution, can present as music, trying to embrace all of music. But the LA Philharmonic isn’t sitting there playing jazz concerts.

BLVR: Can we expect Kanye or Beyoncé on the season schedule soon? Or is that a step too far?

DB: [Laughs] Well, we could do something at the Bowl. Absolutely, for a single night. But only if they were doing the right kind of piece, a piece that had artistic and intellectual substance… but I haven’t booked anything.

BLVR: Do you imagine the LA Philharmonic as an American or a global orchestra?

DB: I see it as a great American orchestra that is globally leading the way. It’s very touching to me when I see orchestras introduce their new music directors—for example, the Zurich Tonhalle just inaugurated their wonderful, young new music director, Lionel Bringuier, and the Chicago Symphony is another—you see they’re working from the template of how we introduced Gustavo Dudamel to Los Angeles. Or when people open new halls: the way we opened this hall was with a ten-day community festival called “Phil the House” with all tickets for free. Instead of having one gala, we had three galas. The first gala was what we called a “sonic gala,” where we started with a single voice and then expanded bit by bit to an incredible performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The next night was all twentieth- and twenty-first-century music, and the next night was a tribute to the Hollywood film tradition. By the way [points to a framed photo on the wall], here’s a picture of the hall on opening night. You can see we had fireworks. We closed down Grand Avenue and had a dinner for every single audience member. It was great. So I think we have led the way in that area. We are also the single most active commissioning orchestra in the world. This year, we did twenty-four world premieres. So, in that sense, people look at us globally. But I would always want to think of ourselves as a great American orchestra.

III. “ONCE IN A HUNDRED YEARS”

BLVR: Let’s talk about Gustavo Dudamel. When did you first hear him conduct?

DB: Whew. [Pause] Well, I remember when I first heard about him…

BLVR: Let’s start there.

DB: Our former music director (now our conductor laureate) Esa-Pekka Salonen was a judge at the international Mahler competition. And my phone rang one afternoon, and it was Esa-Pekka. He said, “Something quite remarkable just happened. A twenty-four-year-old guy none of us had ever heard of, who speaks no English or German, has won the competition. I’ve never seen anything like it. He’s really amazing. In fact, he’s a conducting animal.” So we talked about it. We have a very close relationship, EP and myself, and I said, “Should we invite him? It’s a risk.” And he said, “If you think we should take the risk, let’s take it.” So we invited him, and Gustavo made his debut at the Hollywood Bowl ten years ago this summer. Crazy story: I was out of town when he made his debut! I was not there. But that night and the next day, I got emails from the orchestra and the staff saying it was just spontaneous combustion. Something had happened. So we got right on it and rebooked him to come back a number of times.

And I actually started traveling around the world to see then was there when he made his La Scala debut, was there when he made a variety of important debuts. He always jokes about this: “Yes, I had this very nice stalker who followed me all over!” And I did. But we got to know each other, and I became so deeply convinced of his talent. But the first time… I don’t think I actually… I’m trying to think, because it all sort of compresses into one giant memory. But I can tell you the overall impression, and the Germans have a word for it—and I can never pronounce it right—it’s like Jahrhundertereignis, “once in a hundred years.” And I remember seeing that when I saw him conduct, and thinking, I’ve just never seen this.

BLVR: Luckily, you only need that word once in a hundred years.

DB: [Laughs] I love German. It’s so funny. We were doing the photo shoot before, and the assistant to the cameraman was actually from Munich, and I said that when I was in Germany I had to buy a pair of hosiery and had to go to the concierge because I needed to find a shopping mall to get it. I asked, “What do you call ladies’ hose?” and he said, “Jah. Strumpfhosen.” So Strumpfhosen. We were laughing about it. I love German. These clever words, like schadenfreude, zeitgeist.

BLVR: Yeah, zeitgeist is a useful word. Gestalt. Zeitgeist. Those are all names of bars in San Francisco. But—getting back on track— how did you ultimately recruit Dudamel?

DB: I stalked him. I literally followed him around the world. Eventually, he came back to conduct here. But I think the turning point was when I visited his home. I felt like to really understand him, I had to go to where he was from. So I took a trip to Caracas and spent a week there with Gustavo and Maestro Abreu touring and seeing El Sistema firsthand. When I left, he still hadn’t agreed to sign the contract, but I made a promise to myself: even if I couldn’t bring Gustavo back to be our music director, I would bring El Sistema to Los Angeles. Because I was so moved by what I saw. And we did. And, of course, here we are today.

BLVR: How has Dudamel influenced your ambitions in the past six years?

DB: First of all, I think it always works better—[whispering to herself] better is not the right word… [full volume] It’s so important to work with people who are from different places than you, and who are younger than you. Because if one doesn’t stay in constant exploration of how to grow, you won’t accomplish what you could accomplish, and you won’t be happy. So for me, working with Gustavo has been a profound learning experience. Our backgrounds—what we share—is the deepest affection and love for music of all kinds, but what I spoke to you about before—this whole concept of an artistic imperative and a social imperative and how we find the intersection moving forward—that whole line of thinking really developed in my work with Gustavo.

BLVR: Do you worry that the artistic and social imperatives ever conflict?

DB: They can and they do, but that’s for us to figure out. It’s a heady mixture. You know, we live by two words here: innovation and excellence. And that’s how we make our decisions.

IV. ORCHESTRA IN AN ON-DEMAND SOCIETY

BLVR: What do you think’s the difference between the twentieth-century and twenty-first-century orchestra?

DB: Well, the twenty-first-century orchestra is not yet defined. We’re in the opening stages.

BLVR: What do you think the difference is going to be?

DB: We’re in early century. Think of the difference between the world in 1901, when neither of us were born—even me—and the world in 1999. There’s a vastness that lies in front of us. Orchestras have been among the slowest artistic institutions to evolve and change. Partly because our canon has been so rooted in eighteenth- and early-nineteenth- century repertoire. From my point of view, what I observe in the industry is a much greater flexibility and an imperative to think about generative art, to think about concert formats, to think about social media. To think about where we are, to think about—and this was very unpopular years ago, because in the past we only focused on the artistic imperative—how we define the social imperative of the orchestra and find a comfortable intersection between the two. We’re in the beginning phases now.

BLVR: I’ve seen you talk about orchestras moving toward “micro-audiences,” and you’ve launched several initiatives targeted at new audience development. How is the audience for classical music changing?

DB: People consume music and consumers consume art in a completely different way than they have in the past. They want to buy it in a different way; they want—as much as they can—to have flexibility in experiencing it, where in the old days you could just put an ad in the newspaper. Now we use all kinds of social media. And there are micro-audiences—though I wouldn’t call them “micro-audiences,” because if we only had micro-audiences the hall would be very small. I would call it “niche marketing.” I think that’s the term that actually applies to it. The greatest change, however, the one which all orchestras and theater companies are worrying about, is the way people buy tickets. Up until about ten years ago, people would buy a subscription, or many people—say 80 percent or 90 percent of our audiences—would buy a season subscription and they would decide, “I will prepurchase these eight Thursday nights to the LA Phil or the New York Phil or the Chicago Symphony.” Increasingly, it’s what I call an “on-demand” society. Who watches live television anymore?

BLVR: No one.

DB: You stream. You watch online. Maybe you TiVo something. But there are all sorts of other ways to get it. Who has a landline anymore? So people have entirely changed how they live their lives, and that has changed how they consume culture. And that is the big difference. That’s why we’ve invested a lot over the years in our website. We have a Hollywood Bowl app, we have an LA Philharmonic app. We’ve had games like Concert Master, where we help people who don’t know about music choose what concert they should go to. We have a Bravo Gustavo app, where you can conduct Mahler No. 1 with Gustavo. It’s very active.

BLVR: So do you have an ideal concert audience, or anybody who wants to come?

DB: Oh, I don’t think there’s an ideal audience. I mean, in a dream world, I would like to see an audience that reflected different ethnicities, different age groups. But that is what everyone would wish for.

BLVR: During your tenure, the LA Phil has been phenomenally successful at raising money. Tell me about your fund-raising approach.

DB: The approach to fund-raising is: you have to believe passionately in the product that you are presenting and you have to have something really worthwhile to present. You have to have a history, a proven track record, to give donors a sense that their money will be well managed. And I’ve been able to deliver those things. But one of the great pleasures is when you are out on a fund-raising call, there’s a magical moment while you’re asking a person for money—and I’m not shy about it, because I’m not asking for me; I’m asking for a place I love and a profession I love—when suddenly they are going to give you the gift. And you see, there’s a profound moment where their pleasure in giving the gift is greater than yours in receiving it. That is a moment: when it happens, that’s magical.

BLVR: It seems like you’ve pushed toward individual donors rather than corporate donors.

DB: There’s a couple of reasons for that. One: just practically, you can see that the corporate base in Los Angeles has evaporated and it’s more individual entrepreneurs. And so it just makes sense. I also think that’s probably the direction philanthropy for music is going to move in. The quid pro quos demanded from for-profit corporations become harder and harder all the time. We’re doing OK in that area, but long-term it’s going to take people who care about music, who fund these sort of wild organizations where if we sell out a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, that only covers half the cost of putting it all on.

BLVR: Do you think commercial pressure is healthy for the arts, specifically music?

DB: Sure, because it’s got to evolve. We can’t just exist in a little nineteenth-century bubble.

V. WHEN YOU FINISH, YOU MUST START AGAIN IMMEDIATELY

BLVR: I’ve heard that you read a lot of biographies of politicians. Is your leadership style influenced by politicians?

DB: No. I’m just interested in studying leadership. I also read Ronald Heifetz and John Kotter, but I do a lot of reading, because it’s fascinating if you look at how leadership styles have evolved. Take Winston Churchill: he was a great leader in his time, and right afterward he wasn’t the right leader, so he was thrown out. For me, the world of music management—and the entire world, in fact—is so much more complex than it used to be and moves so much more quickly. I was trained in the good old days when, as the president, I would listen to problems and then, like an oracle, give forth: “You shall do this.” Then, about a decade ago, I started to feel an unrealistic pressure on myself always to give the right answer, and that prevented me from actually asking the right questions and working in an iterative process to find the right answer. And there wasn’t always a right answer. But the key for a leader is to make the inquiry, to ask the right questions, and to notice things. Max Bazerman at Harvard writes about this—what leaders notice. My own style has changed, and you do have to move people through things, but it was a great relief to me when I finally realized I didn’t have to deliver a perfect solution to everything by myself. As a result, we have an enormously strong management team here. We have great relations with our union, our orchestra, our board, because we have transparency and we have dialogue. And if you ever think, if one ever considers that they know the right answer, they don’t. In [Joseph] Roth’s great book The Radetzky March he writes about his colonel: “Colonel X. He alas knows nothing!”

BLVR: There’s a Thomas Mann quote I like from The Magic Mountain, where he describes the main character’s grandfather: “In sum, a man who opposed anything new.”

DB: I also like Thomas Mann’s direction: “When you finish Magic Mountain, you must start it again immediately.”

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