NY Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda Was Once Told a Woman Couldn't Lead an Orchestra | Playbill

Classic Arts Features NY Philharmonic CEO Deborah Borda Was Once Told a Woman Couldn't Lead an Orchestra

The longtime leader of the classical music institution is stepping down after 15 years, but she doesn't plan to stay away completely.

Deborah Borda and violinists Katherine Greene and Carter Brey

Her name is familiar not only to New York Philharmonic audiences but to orchestras around the country, and the world. This summer Deborah Borda is stepping down as the Orchestra’s Linda and Mitch Hart President & CEO. We asked her for her thoughts as she begins a new chapter.

First, what everyone wants to know: will you still be part of the NewYork Philharmonic afterJune 30?

Absolutely. I’ve worked for this orchestra for 15 years over my two tenures here. As a native New Yorker, I feel a part of the NY Phil family. The Board of Directors urged me to stay on as Special Advisor, and I’ll be working on fundraising and projects, and serving as an ambassador.

Now, let’s set the table for our readers. How do you define the role of President & CEO of an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic?

It’s not unlike being a CEO of a major company, except we are here for music and the public good, like a hospital or university. Our “product” is artistic, but we need to operate with sound business practices. Managing a nonprofit is different than a corporation: even when we sell out, that only covers about 40 percent of the costs of production, marketing, musicians’ salaries, etc.

A symphony orchestra is a multifaceted institution. There are the musicians, Board, staff, and our public. The CEO works with the Music Director and the Board to define our mission and future vision. Beyond that, the CEO oversees the many aspects of operating the orchestra — programming, finance, marketing, labor negotiations, philanthropy, touring, media, and, of course, the staff. You provide the interface for and coordinate with the Board of Directors. It is a 24/7 job, one can get a call at any time of the day or night. You have to believe in music and people to be successful.

What qualities have helped you be so effective?

I was a professional musician for many years, and on moving into management I didn’t lose that knowledge or discipline. These are crucial in working with the Music Director to develop an artistic vision for the orchestra. Also, I think I am good at communicating that vision and the love of music, which is at the center of who we are. And I’ve been willing to take risks while being attuned to assessing potential dangers. Finally, I have come to see that every problem—whether financial, technical, logistical—is at its root a human concern. Recognizing that is very important.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career?

One of the most stressful days I can remember is my first day as CEO of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, when we couldn’t meet payroll! Today it’s thriving.

Systemically, early on, there simply weren’t women leaders, especially in music. Decades ago, I was offered and accepted the top post at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; then Lorin Maazel, its music director, objected, saying that a woman couldn’t do the job, and the board of directors had to withdraw the offer. I can laugh at it now, but it was painful at the time. As for my time here, it’s well known that the NY Phil and Lincoln Center had a sometimes contentious history, which played a role in delaying the renovation of David Geffen Hall. For today’s leadership of both organizations—Katherine Farley and Henry Timms from Lincoln Center, and our Co-Chairman Peter May and myself—to bring the project to a stunning reality was a tremendous accomplishment. It is inevitably challenging for two important institutions to work 50/50 on such a crucial project—and remain friends afterwards! We wouldn’t have been able to do what we needed to, given the enormity of the project and the shortness of the time frame, without Oscar Tang, the NY Phil Co-Chairman who “kept the trains running” while we were focused on the building. The creative decisions that the group made, reflected in every aspect of the hall today, show that all of it really worked.

How is the NY Phil different from other orchestras?

This is a particularly vibrant group of musicians. Guest conductors speak of their openness, willingness to work hard, flexibility, and sheer skill. They demonstrated all that and more in the difficult nomad season [presenting concerts in numerous venues during the hall’s construction]. It was essentially a one-year tour. The musicians didn’t have a place to hang their clothes, yet they played great concerts week in and week out. It has been such a privilege to work with them. There’s the fact that the Philharmonic, as America’s oldest symphony orchestra, reflects the musical history of America. Like this country, the NY Phil was built by wave after wave of immigrants, who came here to find a better life, and built a truly American institution. Also, the partnership with Jaap van Zweden. Beyond his work with the Orchestra, and how deeply supportive he’s been of the hall, just think about the important new works that he’s introduced—his championing of Julia Wolfe with Fire in my mouth and, now, unEarth. The very complicated production of David Lang’s prisoner of the state. The works born of the Project 19 women-commissioning initiative, which he and I are incredibly proud of. He always worked toward creating a pathway forward through new and exciting models for the NY Phil. And there’s our audience, who love this Orchestra and know the players by name; it’s a relationship that’s even closer because of the intimacy of the new hall. They are so dedicated; they stuck with us when we were performing in the old, less-than-ideal hall, and then through the pandemic. I think they are thrilled by life with us in the new David Geffen Hall.

What are your proudest achievements at the NY Phil?

Being able to protect and pay the Orchestra during COVID while finding a way forward. The musicians, Board, and staff worked in true and transparent partnership when we, frankly, wondered if there would be a Philharmonic in three years. We were determined not just to preserve the Orchestra but to be a beacon of hope for all New Yorkers. Beyond that, Project 19 [the largest women-commissioning project in orchestral history] is a historic accomplishment for the Philharmonic and for the world of music. During COVID there was the headline-grabbing NY Phil Bandwagon, with its almost 100 pop-up concerts over the five boroughs. And, of course, the re-imagination of the hall, and hiring Gustavo Dudamel.

What do you see as the challenges for the orchestra field?

We need to define the intersection between artistic and social imperatives in a way that brings in new audiences, from all walks of life. There is a sense that the word “elite” is a pejorative term when applied to an orchestra, unlike when it is used to describe an athlete. We need to overcome that, integrate orchestras into the fabrics of their communities, and use new technology to bring in new audiences. Orchestras have been around since the 17th century because they’ve evolved. Bach’s orchestra was different from Mahler’s, and both were different from Messiaen’s and Ash Fure’s. The invention continues.

Gary Ginstling is your successor at the NY Phil. What strengths do you feel he brings to the job?

Gary and I have been friends and colleagues for many years, and I’ve always admired his work. He was trained as a musician—he even studied clarinet with a member of the NY Phil while at Juilliard! The love of music is in his soul. He sees challenges as opportunities and is a skilled communicator. There is a wonderful humanity about him; he is a people person. Seeing him achieve great success will be a measure of my own success.

What are your hopes for the NY Phil’s future?

I have tremendous confidence in a vibrant future. Our audience’s connection with the musicians and our music is deeper than ever, and it will only grow when Gustavo Dudamel arrives as Music and Artistic Director. He believes that music is a fundamental human right, and doesn’t feel that our art can be put into any singular box. He is both compassionate and open, and he brings a pure joy to music-making and creativity that will usher in a Golden Age for the New York Philharmonic.

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