When the musicians of the New York Philharmonic gathered inside what was still very much a construction site in mid-August to hear for the first time how they would sound after the $550 million renovation of their home, David Geffen Hall, Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s president and chief executive, handed out roses to the arriving players.
“This is a historic moment,” Borda, who had barely slept the night before, told them from the conductor’s podium. “Welcome to your new home.”
It was a homecoming that Borda, 73, has been working toward for decades.
She first led the Philharmonic in the 1990s, and left partly out of frustration that there was no will to rebuild its perennially troubled home, known then as Avery Fisher Hall, which had long been plagued by complaints about its look and, especially, its sound. She spent 17 years at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, ushering the orchestra into the acclaimed Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall and signing Gustavo Dudamel as music director. Then, just as she began to consider a new chapter, perhaps teaching, she was lured back to New York five years ago: a $100 million gift from the entertainment mogul David Geffen had revived plans to remake the hall, but momentum seemed to be stalling.
“It was unfinished business,” she said. “I had been dreaming about this since the 1990s. And then I finally saw a path forward.”
So there was a lot on the line that afternoon in August, when she listened intently as the orchestra tuned up and then, under the baton of its music director, Jaap van Zweden, played excerpts from Bruckner’s elegiac Seventh Symphony. She felt reassured.
“It sounds terrific,” she told the small crowd in attendance, including leaders from Lincoln Center, board members, sound experts and construction workers.
When Borda returned to New York in 2017, arts leaders had real concerns about the health of the Philharmonic, the oldest orchestra in the United States. It had top-flight musicians and a storied tradition — over the years it has been led by giants like Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein — but it ran deficits every year, its audience was aging and it faced competition from the many international ensembles that tour New York. When she arrived, its endowment fund had less money than when she been in charge in the 1990s.
It was the Geffen gift — secured in 2015 by Katherine G. Farley, the chairwoman of Lincoln Center, which owns the hall and is the Philharmonic’s landlord — that finally put a revamped hall within grasp. But there were still serious obstacles. Lincoln Center was going through a period of management churn as top executives came and went. The renovation plans under consideration were growing too expensive and hard to build, not to mention impractical (glass walls?) for an orchestra. Soon after Borda arrived, she and Lincoln Center officials announced they were going back to the drawing board.
Undeterred, Borda kept working toward the ultimate goal. “She is a force of nature,” van Zweden said. “What she wants, she gets.”
In 2019 Lincoln Center tapped Henry Timms, who formerly led the 92nd Street Y, as its president and chief executive. He returned stability to the organization, rethought the mission of the arts complex — which produces work on its own while serving as the landlord of independent constituent groups including the Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and New York City Ballet — and got the renovation project moving forward.
He and Borda worked to turn the historically acrimonious relationship between Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic — which reached a low point in 2003, when the Philharmonic tried to leave and return to its old home, Carnegie Hall — into a collaborative one. That message was driven home by stickers and tote bags about the project that proclaimed, perhaps aspirationally, “Working in Concert.”
Timms recalled meeting Borda at her home for coffee shortly before he took office, when they vowed together to finally finish the Geffen project.
“It was a priority that I think we both signed up for,” he said. “But what we needed to do was make our relationship a priority.”
“She could have stopped before this job and gone down in history, but she chose not to,” he said. “She went the other way and chased this final triumph.”
Borda said the hard work and support of Timms and Farley at Lincoln Center, as well as the co-chairmen of the Philharmonic’s board, Peter W. May and Oscar L. Tang, had been critical. “They had the heart and the hunger and the vision to do this,” she said.
Borda, whose mother was a lobbyist and whose father immigrated from Colombia and worked as a salesman, grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. She attended her first New York Philharmonic concert when she was 4, and from the balcony she watched Leonard Bernstein conduct. Her parents divorced when she was 6, and when she was 12, the family moved to Boston, where they lived with Borda’s stepfather, a psychiatrist, and she played in a youth orchestra. She initially envisioned a career as a performer, studying violin and attending the Royal College of Music in London for graduate studies, and working as a freelance musician in New York. But she was drawn to management early on.
In 1979, when she was 30, she landed her first major job, as general manager and artistic administrator of the San Francisco Symphony. Her appointment caught attention: She was one of the first women to lead a major orchestra in the United States. But because of her gender and sexual orientation — she is gay — she sometimes faced obstacles in the male-dominated classical field. She recalled the surprise she felt losing out on a job managing the Pittsburgh Symphony in the 1980s after being told that its maestro, Lorin Maazel, would be uncomfortable working with her because she was a woman.
“It didn’t even occur to me that my gender and sexual orientation might be an impediment,” she said. “I never even thought of it.”
After stints at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, she came to New York in 1991 for her first round as the Philharmonic’s chief. She balanced the orchestra’s budget and led efforts to attract more young people to concerts with innovations like short evening “rush-hour” concerts. But her tenure was also marked by feuds, including acrimonious negotiations with the orchestra’s musicians over a labor contract, and persistent tensions with Kurt Masur, who was then its music director.
She first tried to remedy some of the hall’s stubborn acoustic problems in 1992, when Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic placed curved wooden reflectors around the stage — their shape inspired her to dub them “the bongos” — to help spread the sound. But the problems persisted.
She left for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999, in part, she said, because she did not believe cultural leaders in New York were committed to a full-scale renovation of the hall.
“I didn’t think there was the heart or the vision to get it done at that time,” she said. “It was frustrating and that’s why I left.”
She flourished in Los Angeles, leading the orchestra to new heights. She more than quintupled its endowment, earned the orchestra a reputation for creative programming, helped make Dudamel a superstar and started an ambitious youth orchestra program for the city’s underserved communities. Then, just when she was thinking about retiring from orchestra management to teach or start a think-tank, New York beckoned her back.
She returned in 2017, energized by the opportunity to finally remake Geffen Hall. “It was sort of like a karmic circle,” she said. (She also wanted to be closer to her longtime partner, Coralie Toevs, who oversees development at the Metropolitan Opera; the two maintained a long-distance relationship when Borda was in Los Angeles.)
Back in New York she worked to balance the budget, raising $50 million to help the orchestra stay solvent. She built up its endowment, which was valued at $195 million when she arrived, lower than it had been when she led the orchestra in the 1990s, and which is now valued at around $220 million. And she championed innovative programming: she commissioned works from 19 female composers to honor the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which barred the states from denying women the right to vote, and one work, “Stride,” by Tania León, won the Pulitzer Prize.
Then the pandemic hit. The orchestra canceled more than 100 concerts — losing more than $27 million in anticipated ticket revenue — and laid off 40 percent of its staff.
“I genuinely thought we could go out of business,” she said.
But Timms and Borda pressed ahead, seizing on the long pandemic shutdown period to accelerate the project, which was originally scheduled to take place over several seasons.
Now Borda, having made good on her promise to usher another Philharmonic into another modern home, has announced plans to step down at the end of June, when she will hand the reins of the Philharmonic to Gary Ginstling, the executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington. (She will stay on as a special adviser to assist with fund-raising and other matters.)
But she still has work to do: planning enticing seasons to lure concertgoers to a new hall.
“A hall can’t just be a monument to itself,” she said.
And a critical decision looms: before she departs, Borda hopes to name a successor to van Zweden, the music director, who will leave his post in 2024. A 12-person committee of Philharmonic staff, musicians and board members is sifting through candidates. Among the likely contenders are Dudamel; Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, the former music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Susanna Malkki, the music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic; and Santtu-Matias Rouvali, principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Borda said she was looking for a leader who “clicks with the orchestra” and “clicks with New York.”
On a recent day, as she led a tour of the hall for the Philharmonic’s board, her cellphone often sounded, filling the hall with her ringtone: “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” from Handel’s “Solomon.”
Standing before a new digital wall in the lobby, she smiled, saying she was moved that the Philharmonic would finally have a home to match its artistic caliber.
“It energizes me completely,” she said. “It’s like a dream.”
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