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Make No Mistake: She's in Charge

After contentious stints in Detroit and New York, ambitious executive Deborah Borda took on the troubled L.A. Phil. What a difference a year makes.

January 07, 2001|DIANE HAITHMAN | Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

The first thing she did was sell the furniture.

A year ago, when Deborah Borda moved into the managing director's office at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, she found it filled with some $28,000 worth of high-end contemporary European furniture, purchased at company expense by Borda's predecessor, Willem Wijnbergen.

Borda promptly replaced most of Wijnbergen's selections with about $3,000 worth of furniture from Ikea--a visible symbol that the Philharmonic was in for a change.

"It's good to have style, it's part of the job," Borda says with a laugh. "I wouldn't buy my clothes at Ikea, if they sold them. But people need to have a style, and I will have my own."

Furniture was not the only thing that Borda inherited from Wijnbergen when she arrived in town after eight seasons at the helm of the New York Philharmonic. The L.A. Phil--one of the nation's top orchestras, blessed with a shooting-star conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and a new home, the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall, scheduled to open its doors in 2003--was $7 million in debt at the beginning of 2000, the biggest deficit in the orchestra's 82-year history.

It was easy enough to redecorate. Several leather chairs were purchased by friends of the Phil in what Borda jokingly calls a "fire sale." Some of Wijnbergen's other chairs and a coffee table remain in the office, and his desk became Borda's conference table. Proceeds from the "fire sale" went into the Philharmonic's general fund.

But getting rid of the deficit would prove to be more complicated--and a fire sale of even the most expensive furniture would not make a dent.

"I won't say it wasn't bumpy at the time when I came to the Phil," she says--winning a prize for understatement of the year. But it's just the kind of challenge Borda likes best.

"People like to talk about surplus and deficit--well, this organization is operating in a huge artistic surplus," she asserts. "The orchestra itself is in fantastic shape.

"There was something very obnoxious that [music critic] Bernard Holland wrote in the New York Times: 'Los Angeles doesn't deserve an orchestra as good as the LA Phil.' . . . What is the single most important part of this institution is that we're robust, we're vibrant, and we're going to have potentially the best concert hall of the 21st century."

And, she adds, "you see a very different organization here than you did one year ago."

*

She is 51, a 5-foot-3 ball of energy who walks fast, talks fast and says with a laugh that she feels as if she's got the words "New Yorker" branded on her as she zips through the more laid-back business environs of the West Coast.

When she arrived in L.A., Borda hadn't been behind the wheel of a car for years, but she has relearned the art of driving, negotiating traffic from her home in the west Hollywood Hills with the aid of a talking navigational system in her car that she has nicknamed Ethel. "She yells at me all the time," Borda says.

She is a musician, a former professional violist, and the first woman to manage one of the top five American symphony orchestras in terms of budget--the list includes those in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, which has an operating budget that fluctuates around $50 million. And she is only one of a handful of women managing orchestras of any size, worldwide. That short list includes Deborah Card at the Seattle Symphony and Mary Vallentine at Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia.

She's an executive who works around the clock. She admits that her blue Ikea office sofa is not comfortable to sit on, but it's a perfectly adequate place to take a nap between a long day of meetings and the evening's concert--often followed by dinner or drinks to woo a potential donor. She's single, no kids, no pets--a lifestyle that suits the demands of the job.

She also has a reputation for crisis management; she likes to put out fires--and hold fire sales. But at the risk of mangling a metaphor--in putting out fires, Borda has also burned a few bridges along the way.

During a recent conversation, Borda described the scene early last year when she stood before the Phil's 107 musicians for her first meet-and-greet session. After a period of polite interchange, one of the orchestra members rose to his feet.

" 'Well, nobody else is going to ask this question, so I will,' " she says, gleefully imitating the gruff tones of the player. "I hear you're tough."

Borda was amused--but hardly surprised.

"We all have our own style, mine has probably been mine since I'm about 3--and it can be perceived by people here as perhaps intense and overly energized," she says. "It can frighten people; it can scare people. I've been trying to figure out how to use that in a positive sense."

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