The New York Times recently called her “a visionary” and The Washington Post anointed her “the leading orchestra administrator in the country.” Now Deborah Borda—the New York Philharmonic’s executive director in the 1990s—has come home, as President and CEO.
The native New Yorker has never truly left her hometown. “No matter where I’ve worked, they have always said, ‘She walks like a New Yorker, she talks like a New Yorker,’” she chuckles. “For those of us who are born here, New York can be in your blood; others move here as an adult and, if they truly love the city, they become New Yorkers. This is the single most diverse and vibrant place on earth. I love that about the city.”
Broda’s passion for music began here, at age four, at a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert. “Our seats were at the top of Carnegie Hall, and the stairs were so big that my mom had to help pull me up, step by step. The musicians looked so small they seemed to be a toy orchestra. I loved the concert and from then on was hooked.”
So much so that at age six she started studying violin, and at 15 she added the viola. After a year at the New England Conservatory of Music she transferred to Bennington College, which she describes as a place “where people were allowed to pursue not-just-one-track professional careers. In addition to playing, for me, there was also composing and conducting. I was very attracted to that.” After graduate studies at London’s Royal College of Music she began a performing career, but her intellectual curiosity led her to arts management.
As The New Yorker said, “Borda relishes challenges.” Her career presiding over America’s top orchestras has been one of transformation, her most recent beneficiary being the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where over 17 years she expanded artistic programming, oversaw the opening of a new concert hall, and more—restoring the orchestra to robust fiscal health and elevating it to the apex of L.A.’s cultural scene. She has also become a leading consultant, music competition judge, and lecturer, including as Hauser Leader-in-Residence at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership in 2015.
When, last winter, the Philharmonic needed to name a new President, those overseeing the search—Jaap van Zweden, who will become music director in September 2018, and Oscar S. Schafer, the Chairman of the Board—immediately agreed that Borda was The One. She’d recently met Schafer at a mutual friend’s birthday party, and the two instantly hit it off. Van Zweden had also recently met Borda for the first time: “It was spontaneous combustion,” she says. “We talked for three hours straight. We share an intensity, a love of music, a love of the future.”
She, therefore, had a pretty good idea what was in store when, as she recalls, “Oscar called me up and asked, ‘Can Jaap van Zweden and I come to L.A. to have dinner with you?’ They flew out just to take me to dinner! When we all sat down they asked, ‘What can we do to get you to come to the New York Philharmonic?’”
It is very clear that the chance to work closely with van Zweden and the New York Philharmonic musicians was a strong inducement. Upon her appointment, she immediately expanded the leadership team by elevating Bill Thomas (whom she’d brought to the Philharmonic more than 17 years ago) to executive director, thus establishing an unprecedented oversight structure to chart the Philharmonic’s future.
Borda embraces the opportunity to advance the Orchestra. “During my years in L.A., I attended several New York Philharmonic concerts every year. The Orchestra sounds absolutely spectacular, with its own unique sound and a power unmatched by any other ensemble.”
Her ultimate goal is ambitious, but it’s one she is excited to achieve in collaboration with the musicians, board, and administration. “I want the Philharmonic to matter to people. We have to invade people’s consciousness in a very positive way. I want them to care deeply about this orchestra. I want it to be in their hearts.”
Monica Parks is the Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.
Look back at the combination of Broadway and Orchestra talent in the past production of Show Boat: