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Deborah Borda orchestrates the creative chaos of the L.A. Philharmonic

The president and chief executive's bold style and willingness to embrace risk are credited with helping the organization thrive.

September 26, 2010|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times

It was a brisk summer's night at the Hollywood Bowl, and Deborah Borda was in whirlwind mode: Talking shop with musicians backstage. Greeting familiar faces in the crowd. Energetically parsing the dramatic mood swings in Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony.

"I listen to concerts in so many different ways," said Borda, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, slipping into her private, center-aisle box seat. "Sometimes I'm thinking, how's the ensemble? What about the tempi? What about the intonation? Sometimes I'm just awash in the emotion of it. Sometimes I'm thinking, 'That usher shouldn't be standing there!' "

You won't find Borda's name on the Bowl's Art Deco welcome sign. You won't see her image emblazoned like a rock god on banners across the city. But many believe that the petite 61-year-old with the brassy New York-Boston accent is a big reason why the Phil is thriving at a time when some U.S. symphonies are struggling, a few of them for survival.

Some 10 years after Borda took over an artistically esteemed but financially embattled, spottily attended institution, the philharmonic today has the largest annual budget of any American symphony orchestra, performs in a world-renowned architectural landmark, is led by the charismatic young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel and has embarked on an ambitious effort to bring classical music training to the area's children, particularly underserved ethnic minorities.

Ticket sales for all the classical music programs that the Phil produces average 95% of available capacity at the 2,265-seat Walt Disney Concert Hall, compared with an average 63% capacity at its former home, the 3,200-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, during the 1999-2000 season. (Borda officially took over the Phil on Jan. 1, 2000.)

And its ambitiously varied programming means that, on any given night, Walt Disney Concert Hall could be serving up Mozart, avant-garde 21st century classical music, ranchera or Afro-pop — as eclectic a lineup as you'll find at any venue in town.

Many, inside and outside the organization, credit a large measure of the Phil's success to its risk-taking, ultra-confident, Armani-clad CEO. Frank Gehry, architect of Disney Hall, echoed others in suggesting that what's most distinctive about Borda's leadership style is her willingness to embrace calculated risk as a creative strategy and treat innovation as an imperative.

"She jumps off cliffs," Gehry said. "I find that exhilarating about her. There's never an arbitrary, 'No, I won't look at that.' "

Borda, who calls herself "a change junkie," acknowledges that her constant pushing for improvement "makes people uncomfortable, frankly, sometimes."

Perhaps. But her L.A. tenure has been practically stress-free compared with her previous job as executive director of the New York Philharmonic, where she sometimes clashed with its venerable German conductor, Kurt Masur, who once likened her to a member of the Stasi, the dreaded former East German secret police. (Apparently all is forgiven; Masur will guest-conduct here next year.)

Borda's reputation for demanding as much of others as she demands of herself is matched by the professional respect and affection she commands in classical music circles. In interviews with more than two dozen colleagues and associates in Southern California, other parts of the U.S. and abroad, no one offered a negative word about her. Those who know her best, and work most closely with her, don't hesitate to praise.

"She's transparent. She's collaborative," said David Bohnett, the Phil's board chairman. "Very classic, successful CEO traits in terms of giving people a sense of ownership and a sense of responsibility, and a sense of accountability."

Peter Rofé, a bassist with the L.A. Philharmonic since 1986 and head of the musicians' negotiating committee, said Borda deserves much of the credit for the orchestra having one of the nation's most generous labor contracts, as well as for its artistic quality. "I think right now we have the best management in the country," he said.

Robert Cutietta, dean of USC's Thornton School of Music, said that Borda has been "a wonderful spokesperson" and leader not only for the Phil but also for L.A. culture in general.

"She has been on our campus so many times for different reasons," he said. "That's amazing to me, that the executive director of the L.A. Phil would be so accessible and so willing to come to campus and do things for students."

Ask Borda who deserves credit for the current prosperity and she'll respond with paeans to former Phil music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Phil's legendary impresario Ernest Fleischmann, Dudamel, the orchestra, her board, her staff and the inspirational feng-shui of Disney Hall. "I always say I don't do anything," she said. "I help other people to do things."

As for her alpha-female popular image, Borda is comfortable with it.

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