Deborah Borda: The woman who runs the L.A. Philharmonic

Feb. 8, 2015

By Jeffrey Fleishman



he Los Angeles Philharmonic was days away from performing Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” Sopranos and tenors had flown in from around the world. Musicians were practicing scales and arpeggios in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The woman behind it all, Deborah Borda, buttoned her coat, stepped outside and slipped under an umbrella.

She hurried across 1st Street to the Music Center to rally orchestra volunteers, who raise about $500,000 a year through dessert tastings and 5K runs. She gave a short speech and headed down a hall to another room to meet with wealthier benefactors. She then drove to Santa Monica to try on a dress designed by top couturier Hussein Chalayan, which she would wear to the opening of “Cosi.” Shortly before dusk, Borda arrived at the L’Ermitage in Beverly Hills to sip Pinot Noir and coax patrons to sponsor $150,000 tables for the fall gala.

“Let’s keep the magic going,” she told the gathering as trays of crab cakes and sliders sailed past.

Deborah Borda makes the rounds at a reception before the season-opening concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sept. 30, 2014. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Borda’s charm at such events belies a fierceness that can sometimes startle; a musician once greeted her by saying, “I hear you're tough.” But she is one of the most successful arts leaders in the country. In her 15 years as the L.A. Phil’s president and chief executive, she has presided over the opening of Disney Hall, amassed the largest budget of any U.S. symphony and instilled a corporate savviness that has increased the orchestra’s endowment nearly fivefold to $222 million.

In an era when many orchestras are fighting to survive, she has expanded marketing and fundraising, increased the number of concerts at Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and hired Gustavo Dudamel, one of the world’s most exciting conductors. Her ability to build on the artistic adventurousness begun by former executive director Ernest Fleischmann has brought classical music in Los Angeles to new audiences.

Her key accomplishment has been to keep the Phil relevant — and prosperous — at a time when fewer people nationwide want to buy season tickets to the symphony, especially an on-demand young generation that prefers a la carte programming with a contemporary edge. Borda and Dudamel have kept the classics, but they have expanded the repertoire. The Phil has commissioned 10 works this season — more than any U.S. orchestra — and its Green Umbrella series features genres as varied as Minimalism and the European avant-garde.

Many orchestras are innovating, but Borda is a master at fitting the pieces of art and commerce together. She is dogged about tapping rich donors, capitalizing on tens of millions of dollars in revenue from the Hollywood Bowl and raising the Phil’s profile on programs such as “On the Podium With Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic,” a new radio show on SiriusXM.

An orchestra has to have “the patience and courage to play the long game,” said Borda. “I don't think anything we've done is revolutionary, but it has been seriously evolutionary.... What we’re moving toward, in essence, are micro-audiences.”

From top left, clockwise: As part of the Green Umbrella concert series, countertenor Nathan Medley, right, performs with the L.A. Phil New Music Group in Olga Neuwirth's "Hommage a Klaus Nomi" at Disney Hall on Jan. 13, 2015. Video artist Herman Kolgen’s video of Gustav Klimt’s imagery is projected on the screen at the L.A. Phil’s summer season opener at the Hollywood Bowl on July 10, 2012. An exterior view of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2013. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times; Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times; Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The daughter of a Colombian businessman, Borda, 65, is deft at building relationships and has shrewd political instincts. She arranges a luncheon once a year for the Bowl staff and airline pilots — to thank them for not flying over the venue during performances. She cultivated a close relationship with Zev Yaroslavsky, the longtime Los Angeles County supervisor responsible for securing about $50 million in public funds for renovations at the Bowl and for supporting the Phil’s lucrative 30-year lease on the venue.

Years ago, Yaroslavsky mentioned to Borda that his mother had attended a 1942 Phil concert featuring composer and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. On his birthday, Borda sent him a program from the performance, which he had displayed in a hallway leading to his office. The orchestra also invited Yaroslavsky, who has a smooth baritone, to narrate during its 2012 performance of Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait.”

“She’s a multitasker and a visionary,” said Yaroslavsky, who stepped down as a supervisor in December. “She knows where her bread is buttered.”

Trying to keep up with Borda in meetings, rehearsals, backstage rounds, soirees and concerts is like chasing a breeze. She can mimic divas and tell stories about impresarios and a demanding but “sweet” virtuoso pianist who, as part of his contract, needed to sleep in sheets of high-grade Egyptian twill and stay in a hotel no more than three blocks away from live chickens; his traveling chef wanted them fresh.

At a cookout at Disney Hall in June, Borda wished Ron Elliott, the Phil’s piano tuner for 27 years, a happy retirement. She then turned and accepted a $15-million pledge from a financier in attendance who asked to remain anonymous. People of varying stripes walk through the door to her unadorned office in Disney Hall, including Mary Lou Falcone, Dudamel’s publicist who recently sat with Borda thumbing through dozens of photographs of the conductor while discussing how to maximize his global appeal and coordinate his guest appearances with other orchestras.

Deborah Borda and Gustavo Dudamel share a laugh on the Hollywood Bowl stage after the unveiling of the upcoming Bowl season on April 29, 2014. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Borda is in constant search of new patrons. Lately, she’s had her eye on a German businessman who lives near her in the Hollywood Hills. Among individuals and foundations who have donated more than $200,000 in a single year to the orchestra are arts benefactors Lenore and Bernard Greenberg, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and Terri and Jerry Kohl, founders of Brighton, a jewelry and women’s accessories line.

When a major sponsor withdrew before the Phil’s 2012 trip to Venezuela, Borda, who speaks in quick bursts, took to the phones and, in 10 days, raised $1.6 million from 18 patrons to fund the tour. That flair comes to mind in the new Amazon comedy series “Mozart in the Jungle,” in which Bernadette Peters plays the urbane chairwoman of an orchestra conducted by Rodrigo, a wild-haired parody of Dudamel.

Who sits on the L.A. Phil Board of Directors?

The Phil’s board of directors, which hired Borda and pays her $1.8 million in salary and benefits, according to the orchestra's most recent tax filing, represents the intersection of finance, art and philanthropy. The 52 members include actress Julie Andrews; Jane B. Eisner, wife of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner; and Diane B. Paul, board chairman and a retired business litigator. Technology entrepreneur and board member David Bohnett in December pledged $20 million to fund musical innovation, target nontraditional audiences and endow the orchestra’s CEO post to honor Borda.

The quaint notion of sitting on a board solely for community spirit is long gone. For the privilege of serving, board members must pay $60,000 in annual dues, and that’s just for starters. They are urged by Borda and other board members to buy tables at fundraisers and help underwrite other events. This can add up to tens of thousands of dollars in additional contributions. Such demands forced at least two members to resign; one of them said the emphasis on money had turned the board into a “billionaires club” that limited new voices and ideas.

Orchestras around the world are facing severe money pressures, especially since the 2008 recession. For many, including the Phil, shrinking corporate donations have contributed to tighter budgets. The Phil’s corporate donors include Rolex Watch USA Inc., which last year gave at least $250,000, and Viking Cruises, which gave at least $100,000. But Borda has intensified her focus on individual donors, who account for about 70% of contributions.

Economic concerns and budget tightening by boards nationally have led to friction, lockouts and strikes between management and musicians in a number of prominent orchestras. But the Phil’s financial strength — its endowment has grown through investments and increased contributions — and Borda’s skill at satisfying both the board and the musicians’ union has thus far kept conflicts to a minimum.

Despite its success, the L.A. Phil has at times miscalculated. In 2011, it launched an initiative to broadcast concerts to more than 400 theaters around the country. But attendance didn't meet expectations, and the national marketing campaign wasn't cheap. The program was abandoned after one season.

Borda’s domain stretches in many directions. The L.A. Phil, like any orchestra, is a collection of idiosyncratic parts fused into a collective voice. Dudamel and 106 musicians are its face, but ushers, truck drivers, accountants, marketers and page turners have their roles. Borda trades stories and moves among them all, including Kazue Asawa McGregor, a music librarian who was once summoned to help notate a score for guest conductor Kurt Sanderling, whose music had been stolen from a suitcase in Paris.

“He was distraught,” said McGregor, who not far from Borda’s office tends scores, some dating more than a century, that are insured for $6 million. “It was like losing his baby.”

“200 Motels,” with Jeff Taylor as Larry the Dwarf, was part of the Green Umbrella Series and was based on an original theatrical concept of Frank Zappa and his Mothers in Invention in 1970. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

One morning at a Bowl rehearsal last summer, Borda sat in the shade, closed her eyes and smiled as the orchestra struck the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth. “I’d like two things to be embedded into the DNA of the organization,” she said. “A commitment to discovery and new art, and the other is defining the social imperative of an orchestra.”

She is an impresario who understands her era and will take risks to reach broader audiences, such as the Phil’s 2013 world premiere of Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels — The Suites,” which featured rock musicians, risqué language and illuminated sex toys.

“You’ve got to get the music part right,” she said. “What is the transaction with the community? How do we develop that?” Minutes later, when discussing her tenure, she mentioned a book she had read about Winston Churchill, the unflagging British prime minister during World War II. “Was Churchill a visionary? No,” she said. “He was a leader in his time for a very specific set of circumstances and when those circumstances changed he was thrown out.”

Her style rubs some as overly competitive and abrasive. In 2012, several board members of the Los Angeles Opera, which performs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion across the street, were irritated by the Phil’s repertoire of operas, including a Mozart trilogy. The Opera board members regarded such productions as cutting in on their turf.


“She’s got this power,” Warner Henry, founder of the Henry Wine Group and a board member of the Los Angeles Opera, said. “She’s gifted and has good qualities. But I think she can be her own worst enemy. Her power thing is over the top.”

Borda brushes aside such criticism. Her inner circle includes Dudamel, Chief Operating Officer Gail Samuel, who oversees the Hollywood Bowl; Shana Mathur, vice president of marketing and communications; and Chad Smith, vice president of artistic planning. An orchestra’s reputation is built in large part on its repertoire, and Smith travels the world scouting talent: composers in Bogota, pianists across Europe and Asia. The Phil will perform 13 world and U.S. premieres this season.

The Phil recently won a $315,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts for its Classical Music Discovery Initiative. The program includes an online quiz — with questions such as “you wouldn’t mind being stuck in an elevator if it were playing?” — to help potential subscribers, especially those in their 20s and 30s, choose concerts. The orchestra’s new in/Sight series merges music with videos, including a three-act opera by Steve Reich about advancing technology.

“The L.A. Phil epitomizes a lively, vibrant orchestra that people want to be around,” said Jesse Rosen, head of the New York-based League of American Orchestras. “It feels fresh, of the moment, very L.A.”

Borda has also begun “Inside the Music,” a series hosted by KUSC-FM’s Brian Lauritzen that offers ticket holders preconcert talks, post-performance discussions with musicians and an online classical music quiz complete with prizes. Lauritzen, who plays the role of an enthusiastic guide reminiscent of “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” will let the viewer “crawl inside an organ” in one segment and in another describe how sound is mapped “so you can see what you hear.”

“We need to take the mystery out of classical music,” said Mathur. “We like to equate it with kale in some ways. It was not always popular, but now kale is in everyone’s diet.”

Gustavo Dudamel conducts Tchaikovsky's three Shakespeare concert pieces — "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet" and "The Tempest" — on March 10, 2011. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Borda hates to be late. She sometimes arrives early at dinner parties, killing the time by sitting in her midnight blue BMW or driving around the block. Few details escape her attention, including a proposal (later abandoned) to place Darth Vader-shaped centerpieces on tables at a gala dinner following a tribute to John Williams, composer of the “Star Wars” theme. The night before her interview with soprano Jessye Norman as part of the Los Angeles Public Library’s ALOUD program, she wrote herself a note not to wear perfume because certain scents bother the singer.

Borda keeps a bicoastal relationship with her longtime partner, Coralie Toevs, the Metropolitan Opera’s chief development officer in New York. She unwinds by working out and is an avid reader. She recently finished Henry James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” and Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” which she said began with promise but turned pretentious.

When she was 4 years old, she heard Mozart’s string serenade “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” playing from a 45-rpm record in her home in Queens.

“Talk about an epiphany,” said Borda, who was raised by her mother, a political lobbyist, and her stepfather, a psychoanalyst. She played violin and viola, getting up before dawn to practice. Her family moved to Boston, where she joined the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra. She later studied at the Royal College of Music in London.

She returned to New York as a professional musician and joined a string quartet. In the late 1970s, she realized she wasn't going to be a world-class player. But she had begun taking on administrative duties with the quartet, arranging contracts and scheduling performances, and decided she might have a future managing music organizations. That notion crystallized in 1976, when she became a scheduling assistant for the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont.

By the late 1980s, she was president of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In 1991, she was named executive director of the New York Philharmonic, the first woman in the modern era to head a major American orchestra. She said at times she encountered an “insidious kind” of sexism that kept her out of the loop for job interviews. “It’s not, ‘How come I didn't get the job?’ but, ‘How come I didn’t get called?’” she said.

Her time in New York was “one of the great experiences of my life,” she said, adding: “great moments and terrible moments.”

She had a fractious relationship with conductor Kurt Masur, who once likened her management style to that of an East German Stasi agent. The disunity was a factor later in the orchestra’s board decision not to renew Masur’s contract. The rift between the two appeared to heal in 2011, when Masur was a guest conductor for the L.A. Phil.

Looking back recently, Borda described the New York Philharmonic as a gifted orchestra “pressed into the ground by the weight of its history. It felt like Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill.”

From top to bottom: Borda and architect Frank Gehry in 2003. Borda in front of a model of Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2000. (Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images; Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

She departed New York after she was charmed by the L.A. Phil’s then-conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and architect Frank Gehry, who was designing Disney Hall.

“It was the single most beautiful building I had ever seen,” she said of the early architectural renderings she was shown. “I saw the possibility for real innovation and real change and real freedom to create in Los Angeles.”

She joined the Phil in 2000, and when Disney Hall opened three years later, Borda capitalized on its allure by holding 177 concerts there, up from 106 the previous season in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Phil and other groups performed 180 concerts in Disney last season. She formed an aesthetic and personal kinship with Salonen. But there were financial problems. Borda said when she took over from Willem Wijnbergen, who resigned after 15 months because of undisclosed issues between him and the board, the orchestra “had been running significant deficits for a number of years.”

“It’s not rocket science,” said Borda. “You have to control your expenses and income.”

One of Borda’s major achievements was to tap the potential of the Hollywood Bowl, which is owned by Los Angeles County and brings in about 35% of the Phil’s revenue. She and her staff opened the Bowl to more commercially appealing pop acts — some of whom performed with the orchestra — and pushed for new seats, sound systems and high-definition television screens. The Bowl generated about $50 million last season, or 20% more than it did four years ago. For its part, the Phil, under a 30-year lease agreement, pays the county about $2.5 million annually to cover operating, maintenance and other costs.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, left, embraces his replacement, Gustavo Dudamel, at the 2007 announcement of the change in music directors. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Borda’s reputation and the Phil’s stature were further enhanced in 2009 when Dudamel, a 28-year-old Venezuelan aglow in paparazzi flash, replaced Salonen, who wanted to devote more time to composing. It was a coup for Borda, who helped win over the heavily courted conductor. The son of a trombone player, Dudamel was a star in El Sistema, a nationwide, government-funded network of youth orchestras, where he began conducting when he was 12.

Nine-year-old Karla Melgar, right, rehearses as part of the YOLA program at the Expo Center in 2008. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

She promised Dudamel she would start a version of El Sistema in Los Angeles, regardless of whether he joined the Phil. Dudamel, who earns at least $1.4 million a year (not including income from guest conducting and other work) signed a contract that has been extended until 2019. Borda persuaded the Phil’s board, which was at first reluctant, to take on a musicians program for mostly disadvantaged children, known as the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, or YOLA, that would be at once altruistic and a strategic effort to build a future audience in a county that is about 50% Latino.

“Gustavo has really changed my life,” said Borda, who in Dudamel’s company is like an admiring teacher conspiring with a mercurial prodigy. “He gave me an incredible fundraising tool in his belief that music is a universal human right. It was such a profound thought for me. He is going to be one of the most important musicians of the 21st century.”

Borda sat in a chauffeured SUV that sped toward a rehearsal for “Cosi fan tutte.” It was the day after a performance featuring Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. Borda mentioned, the way some might comment on an old neighbor, that the 19th century composer was “uptight” about being compared to Beethoven. “Gustavo,” she said, looking out the window, “was in great form.”

The car stopped at Occidental Studios, not far from Echo Park. A distant voice ran scales in the shade. Borda walked into the cavernous hall, greeting baritone Rod Gilfry, Swedish soprano Miah Persson and other singers who had gathered for a run-through with a pianist. They exchanged hugs and air kisses and discussed their latest projects.

Borda loves how musicians flow through her life — in Disney Hall, in northern Italy, the south of France.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" is performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall on May 23, 2014. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s my movable feast,” she often says. She headed toward a moving stage that spiraled upward. She walked across it.

“This is cool,” she said.

Dudamel arrived. The pianist took his place. Scores opened. “Shall we play the overture?” said the conductor. Borda smiled and sat back. Her phone on silent, she scrolled through messages. Dudamel raised a finger. A note lifted from the piano and Persson’s voice climbed, as if a stream of light on a faraway cliff.

Dudamel stopped her, telling her to go even higher. The orchestra, he said, would come from beneath and lift her. “Like a tsunami.” She sang again. “Gorgeous,” he said, sitting in a swivel chair, his curls shiny as the Steinway.

Borda headed for the SUV. The driver grabbed the door. There were donors to meet, schedules to arrange, marketing ideas to study. The car raced down Temple Street toward Disney Hall. Borda looked out the window. She was quiet for a moment.

She mentioned the scene in “Cosi” in which two men pretend to go off to war and return later in disguises to trick their women into infidelity. The women have no inkling of the deception. When the young officers are leaving, the women, their voices layered between those of the men, sing of sorrow and love.

“It’s one of the great moments in music,” she said. “It’s a mystery how voices blend. A mystery.”

Video Credits: Creative Director: Myung J. Chun.

Additional Credits: Digital Producer and Developer: Evan Wagstaff. Digital Design Director: Stephanie Ferrell. Lead photo of Deborah Borda: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.

Coming Thursday: The musicians