Deborah Borda

In the chronicles of classical music, there is not a great deal of discussion of the arts administrators. Composers and conductors are generally seen as the main protagonists. Administrators rarely make for exciting heroes. 

But, when the record of the 21st century American orchestra is written, I believe the narrative should start with Deborah Borda, the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

For the past fifteen years, Borda has given the LA Phil a new public image. One of her most memorable accomplishments was the completion of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, designed by Frank Gehry.

It is a shining example of modern architecture that offers a unique experience for daytime passersby and concertgoers during the night.

Additionally, she has modernized the Hollywood Bowl, transforming it into a summer home for the symphony and a financial success with its diverse programming. Most importantly, she brought the Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, then only twenty-six, to lead the orchestra in 2007.

His popularity has skyrocketed, earning him the nickname “the Dude”, and he is now one of the most renowned conductors in the world.

The LA Philharmonic is the most successful orchestra in the United States. Boasting the largest performing budget of any American symphony, it also commissions more world premieres than any other orchestra in the world.

Interestingly, it manages to do this while maintaining a balanced budget. In stark contrast, many leading East Coast orchestras are struggling with large deficits. In 2013, the LA Philharmonic was able to generate $59 million in concert ticket sales, a figure higher than the combined total of Chicago and New York’s symphonies.

Furthermore, it brought in $125 million in revenue, and its season schedule has grown from ninety to nearly three hundred concerts. Deborah Borda is credited with overseeing the orchestra’s renaissance.

Before coming to Los Angeles, Deborah Borda had served as the general manager of the San Francisco Symphony, president of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

In 1991, she made history by becoming the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, being one of the first women to manage a major American orchestra.

However, in 2000, she left the then-prestigious NY Phil to take over the Los Angeles symphony, which was struggling at the time. It was there that she discovered the possibility of leaving the orchestra’s conservative past behind and creating a new future for it.

This gave her the freedom to think the orchestra could be different in the next century than it had been in the last.

The interview was held in the expansive office of Disney Concert Hall, with Borda just departing for a photo shoot. She had on a professional blazer but was also wearing jeans, and she spoke with great poise and clarity.

The allotted time was forty-five minutes, but we went over, and her press secretary knocked on the door. Jokingly, Borda shouted, “Two more minutes!” and proceeded to answer my next query with a grin.

Theodore Gioia’s words ring true – that music is an art form that can bring joy, solace and comfort to people. It is something that everyone can relate to and find pleasure in, regardless of culture or background.

I “The Aroma of Opportunity”

Question: What is the one instrument in the orchestra that you least enjoy?

Answer: The viola is not my favorite instrument in an orchestra, as it is usually difficult to pick up the sound.

BLVR asked if the person being addressed had ever played the viola.

The answer to the question is affirmative.

BLVR: Initially, you had a background in violin playing and then what happened afterwards?

Answer:Beginning my music career as a violinist, I then switched to the viola. This is why I stand by my response.

Question:At what stage of life did you choose to be a music manager instead of a musician?

Answer:When I was in my mid-twenties, I was the member of a string quartet who took care of the engagements, stands, and music selection. As I watched bigger orchestras, I noticed a kind of machine operating behind the scenes. It piqued my interest.

All I saw were men in suits and no women were allowed. This inspired me to apply for a job at the Marlboro Music Festival, which was renowned and run by Rudolf Serkin. I was able to get my first job there as assistant to the artistic scheduler.

Question:Are people now considering organizing their time as a form of creative expression?

DB recalled how he had been fascinated from the moment he was given the role of assistant to the scheduler, whose job it was to organize rehearsals and assign times for them.

BLVR: In what ways has being a female had an impact on your professional life?

DB: To be honest, I can’t claim that my success has been hindered at all. I’ve been quite lucky.

BLVR: What effect has it had on your job?

DB: Boards of directors make all the hiring decisions, and even in the present day, they are typically filled with males.

This meant I had to be at the top of my game and be willing to try unconventional methods to advance my career. I took on numerous jobs that weren’t typically seen as stepping stones in order to progress.

BLVR: What kind of unorthodox tactics did you take?

DB recounted when she had an epiphany that her career trajectory would be different from the normal progression of a general manager of a symphony to the president of a larger orchestra.

She had been unaware of this until a colleague, the general manager of the St. Louis Symphony, inquired as to why DB had not been contacted for the top job at the National Symphony or the Houston Symphony.

It was through this conversation that DB realized she was not being considered for the same positions as her peers.

BLVR: Could you tell me about your experience in New York? Do you think the difficulties of leading an orchestra in New York and Los Angeles differ in any way?

DB stated that while there are many similarities between orchestras, the New York Philharmonic has a unique challenge that other orchestras do not.

The city is filled with other great orchestras that come to visit or play in their home hall, and the NY Philharmonic has to present four concerts every week. These performances have to be of the highest quality in order to not be overshadowed. Therefore, they must plan their repertoire and soloists carefully.

The divergence between Los Angeles and New York is another point to consider. What drew me to Los Angeles was its open-mindedness. Ideas are welcomed, not disregarded or seen as absurd. There is a much more exploratory attitude here, encouraging people to take a chance.

BLVR: What motivated you to make the transition from New York to Los Angeles back in 2000?

DB described his experience at the New York Philharmonic as if he had become the president of Harvard. However, he felt as though he was in an increasingly confining environment due to a conservative point of view from the music director and board.

One Sunday morning, he opened up the New York Times Arts and Leisure section to find an above-the-fold photo of a new hall being built in Los Angeles.

His first reaction was one of admiration at its beauty and his second was profound jealousy that New York wouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of success.

It had been two years since I last thought of it, and then, unexpectedly, I was contacted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for a job opportunity. The board members had been quite persuasive.

It was a collective effort from the board members, orchestra members, Frank Gehry, and Esa-Pekka Salonen that had brought me to this moment.

Initially, I didn’t take it seriously, but then, upon seeing the effort they had put forth and the possibility it brought, my life changed. I became infatuated with the people and the potential.

II. “I have a Serious Dislike of the Label ‘Classical Music'”

BLVR: With two of the most unique performance venues in the country, the LA Philharmonic has undoubtedly been impacted by them.

The world-renowned Disney Concert Hall, being a prime example of the 21st century symphony hall, and the Hollywood Bowl, which is a deviation from the typical summer symphony homes like Tanglewood, have both been influential in the way the organization is perceived.

Question:How have these spaces influenced the LA Philharmonic’s image?

Answer:The Walt Disney Concert Hall is a place of great creativity and open-mindedness, and working here has absolutely changed the outlook of many employees, musicians, board members, and even the audiences.

The design of the hall, known as “vineyard,” allows the audience to be encircling the orchestra, which creates an incredibly powerful atmosphere and encourages those who are performing to take more risks with the music they are playing. Architecture is certainly life at this special venue.

Question:What about the Hollywood Bowl?

DB: The Hollywood Bowl is a tremendous asset to the city, as concerts are held there seven nights a week from June to September.

It is a great venue for a variety of music, from Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday to a sold-out performance of Carmina Burana conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and a Tchaikovsky spectacular with the 1812 Overture and marching bands.

The LA Philharmonic also provides programs in Walt Disney Concert Hall with world music, jazz, and other presentations. This organization seeks to be an integral part of the community, with the Philharmonic as the highlight of their services.

BLVR: Are you broadening the concept of classical music to include tunes from all genres?

DB expressed that he does not agree with the term ‘classical music’ because it is not accurate. He went on to explain that ‘classical’ is only used to describe a particular time period.

A rigid time period is in place.

DB: Music has rigid eras, so Mozart and Haydn are both considered classical. However, this does not apply to Stravinsky or Brahms. Beethoven is the bridge between these two genres. It’s been a challenge to find a suitable phrase to classify this type of music, but “art music” appears to be sufficient.

BLVR responded with the sentiment that the idea sounded excessively ostentatious.

DB: Indeed, very affected.

BLVR: How is the process of inventing new terms going?

Answer:Having been in the industry for an extended period of time, I have not been able to find another way to express it. Thus, am I broadening the meaning of classical music?

Not necessarily. I’m attempting to enlarge the definition of what a musical organization or institution can present as music, while attempting to include all forms of music. To clarify, the LA Philharmonic is not playing jazz shows.

BLVR: Is it realistic to anticipate seeing Kanye or Beyonce on the upcoming season’s lineup? Is that an excessive expectation?

DB: [ Chuckles ] We could do something at the Bowl, but only for one night. It has to be a performance with artistic and intellectual value, however, I have yet to book anything.

BLVR: Is the Los Angeles Philharmonic seen as a US or an international orchestra in your opinion?

DB: I consider the Los Angeles Philharmonic to be an amazing American orchestra that has a considerable worldwide influence.

It’s very meaningful to me when I observe other orchestras introducing their new music directors–for instance, the Zurich Tonhalle recently welcomed Lionel Bringuier as their new music director, and the Chicago Symphony is another example–I can see they’re taking a cue from how we presented Gustavo Dudamel to Los Angeles.

Moreover, when people open new halls, the LA Phil took a different approach. We started with a ten-day event called “Phil the House” with free entry for everyone. Instead of one gala, we had three.

The first night was a “sonic gala,” with the performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring starting with a single voice and gradually increasing in size. The subsequent night was dedicated to twentieth- and twenty-first-century music and the last night paid homage to the Hollywood film tradition.

[ points to a framed photo on the wall ] Right here is a picture of the hall on the opening night with fireworks illuminating the sky. We even shut down Grand Avenue and provided a meal for every attendee.

This is how I think we led the way. Additionally, we are the most active commissioning orchestra on the planet. This year, we premiered twenty-four works. It’s in this sense that people around the world look to us. But, ultimately, I would like to think of us as a great American orchestra.

III. A Rare Occurrence

Occasionally, something happens that is so remarkable it is only seen once in a hundred years. This is an event so rare that it is often referred to as a “once in a hundred years” occurrence.

BLVR: Could we discuss Gustavo Dudamel? What was the first time you heard him as a conductor?

Answer:I recall the moment I first heard of him… Whew. [ Pause ]

We’ll begin here.

The music director, who is now the conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen, was a judge at the Mahler competition.

He phoned one day and mentioned a 24-year-old unknown person who spoke no English or German had won the competition and was incredibly talented. DB and EP discussed if they should take the risk and invite him and decided to.

This was how Gustavo made his debut at the Hollywood Bowl ten years ago and the orchestra and staff reported spontaneous combustion afterwards. Following this, DB quickly rebooked him to come back multiple times.

I began to travel the world while he was making his debut at La Scala and many other venues. He always teases me by saying, ‘Yes, I had this nice stalker who followed me everywhere!’

We did become acquainted and I was utterly convinced of his talent. I am struggling to remember the exact moment I realized it, but the overall impression was a ‘Jahrhundertereignis’ – a term used by the Germans to describe a ‘once in a century experience’.

I had never seen anything like it when I watched him conduct, and I knew it was something special.

BLVR: Fortunately, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to use that word very often.

DB: [ Laughs ] I’m so fond of German. It’s so amusing. Earlier on during the photo shoot, the assistant to the cameraman came from Munich and I told him that while I was in Germany, I had to buy a pair of tights and I needed the guidance of the concierge to locate the shopping mall that sold it.

I asked, “What is the name for ladies’ stockings?” and he replied, ” Jah. Strumpfhosen. ” So Strumpfhosen. We were both amused by it. I genuinely enjoy German. Those clever words, like schadenfreude, zeitgeist.

BLVR: Indeed, zeitgeist is an apt word to use. Come to think of it, there are bars named Gestalt and Zeitgeist located in San Francisco. That being said, let’s move on. How did you eventually find Dudamel?

Answer:I followed Gustavo around the world, before he eventually returned to conduct here. But to really comprehend him, I decided to visit his home in Caracas. I spent a week touring El Sistema and witnessing it for myself.

Though he still hadn’t agreed to the contract when I left, I made a pact with myself: if I couldn’t bring Gustavo back as the music director, I would bring El Sistema to Los Angeles, as I was so moved by the experience. This eventually came to fruition and here we are now.

Question:What effect has Dudamel had on your goals over the past six years?

DB commented that it is vital to collaborate with people from different backgrounds, ages, and places in order to learn and grow.

She shared that her and Gustavo’s mutual love for music created a strong bond that helped them to explore how to combine an artistic and social imperative. This was an eye-opening experience for her.

Question:Do you ever find yourself in a situation where the artistic and social demands are at odds with one another?

At DB, innovation and excellence are the two words which guide the decisions made. This is a complicated combination to work with, but it is something we must figure out.

IV. Orchestra Playing In a Culture of Instant Gratification

Question:In your opinion, what separates the twentieth-century orchestra from the twenty-first-century orchestra?

Answer:It is safe to say that the orchestra of the 21st century has yet to be established, as we are still in the early chapters.

Question:In your opinion, how will the contrast be?

Answer:It’s the early 21st century and if we look back to 1901 and 1999, the world has changed drastically. Orchestras have been one of the slowest artistic institutions to evolve and keep up with the times.

It appears that there is a much greater flexibility in the industry and a drive to consider creating art, experimenting with different concert formats, utilizing social media and finding a balance between the artistic and social imperatives of orchestras. We are just starting to explore these possibilities.

BLVR: You’ve mentioned orchestras transitioning to smaller audiences, and you have implemented multiple initiatives to create new audiences. How is the demographic of people attending classical music performances evolving?

Answer:In comparison to the past, people now consume music and art differently. They prefer to have options in how they experience it, which is a far cry from only being able to place an ad in the paper.

Social media is now frequently used to reach out to various audiences. Instead of labeling them as “micro-audiences,” they should be referred to as “niche marketing.”

The biggest difference, however, is in the way people buy tickets. In the past, many people would buy a season subscription, allowing them to attend eight Thursday nights at a certain orchestra or theater company.

Now, we are living in an “on-demand” society, as hardly anyone watches live television anymore.

Nobody is present.

Streaming, online viewing, and even TiVoing have become the norm for consuming culture. This is why investing in our website, as well as apps like the Hollywood Bowl and LA Philharmonic, have been so important for us.

We have even created games like ConcertMaster to assist people who are unfamiliar with music in selecting the perfect concert to attend. Additionally, our Bravo Gustavo app allows users to conduct Mahler No. 1 with Gustavo. It has been a very interactive experience.

BLVR: Is there an ideal audience for your concerts, or is everybody welcome?

Answer:In an ideal situation, DB would want to observe a wide variety of people in the audience in terms of age and ethnicity. That is something everyone would desire.

BLVR: During your time with the LA Phil, there has been an impressive amount of money raised. Could you discuss your approach to fundraising?

DB states that the most important aspect of fundraising is having a profound belief in the product one is presenting, as well as some evidence of successful management of the money.

He further adds that one of the best moments when fundraising is when the giver’s pleasure of giving the gift exceeds the pleasure of the recipient in receiving it. This moment, he calls it magical.

BLVR: You have been aiming to build relationships with individual contributors more so than organizations that offer financial support.

DB suggested that there were two primary reasons for the shift from corporate to individual philanthropy in the music sector. Firstly, the corporate base in Los Angeles had mostly disappeared and it was consequently more practical to rely on individual entrepreneurs.

Secondly, the quid pro quos demanded by for-profit corporations were becoming increasingly difficult to meet. He noted that while their organization was doing alright in this area, ultimately it was going to require passionate people who are willing to put money towards wild organizations that often only cover half the cost of their concerts.

BLVR: Is it beneficial for the arts, and more specifically music, when there is a great amount of commercial demand?

DB: Absolutely, since it must develop. We can’t just remain in an outdated bubble from the 1800s.

V. Once You’re Done, Begin Again Right Away

BLVR: I understand that you enjoy reading biographies about politicians. Do you take on any leadership traits from them?

DB discussed how leadership styles have changed over time. He mentioned Winston Churchill, who was a great leader in his time but was thrown out afterwards.

He then went on to talk about how the world has become so much more complex and moves quickly, causing him to feel an unrealistic pressure to always deliver the right answer.

DB then talked about Max Bazerman’s writings on what leaders notice and how his leadership style has changed. He concluded that one should never think they know the right answer and he referenced Joseph Roth’s book, The Radetzky March, which talks about a colonel who “alas knows nothing!”

Thomas Mann’s quote from The Magic Mountain that I enjoy speaks of the protagonist’s grandfather as someone who “refused to accept innovation.”

Thomas Mann’s direction is to reread the novel Magic Mountain immediately after completing it.

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