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Deborah Borda on leaving the LA Phil and why she thinks the NEA will survive

by John Horn and Darby Maloney | The Frame

Deborah Borda and Gustavo Dudamel at the LA Phil’s Opening Night Gala for the 2016/17 season. Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

Last week, there was news that sent a shockwave through the classical music world in Los Angeles and New York.

Deborah Borda announced that she will leave the Los Angeles Philharmonic and return to the New York Philharmonic, which she ran in the 1990s. While Borda may not be a household name for lot of people, her influence on the L.A. culture scene has been profound.

For the past 17 years, Borda has been the President and CEO of the L.A. Phil, and in that job she rebuilt not only the orchestra's finances, but also its national and international reputation.  

Borda oversaw the transition of the conductor’s baton from Esa-Pekka Salonen, the orchestra's former music director, to the dynamic, young Gustavo Dudamel. And with Dudamel, she helped establish the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, or YOLA. It teaches children to play orchestral instruments and is based on El Sistema, the program that gave Dudamel his start in Venezuela.

Finally, Borda supervised the construction and opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall. The gleaming Frank Gehry building instantly became an L.A. landmark, and helped elevate the profile of the Philharmonic on a global scale, as did the orchestra’s frequent tours abroad.

The Frame's John Horn discussed all of this and more when he sat down with Deborah Borda in her Disney Hall office, right after she met with the orchestra to deliver her news.

Interview highlights:

On speaking to the orchestra about her departure from the LA Phil:

The first thing I said is that I was going to speak to them as Deborah. I wasn't going to speak to them — although I still was — as their president and CEO, but I was going to speak from the heart. And the first thing I wanted them to know was that this was a very personal decision and it had nothing to do with them or with the L.A. Philharmonic, because in my heart I hold them with such admiration and affection and, indeed, love. And this has been the work of my lifetime being here. But I've been separated from my partner and my family for 17 years and thought it was time to move back into that arena.

When I first came [in 2000] ... I thought, Well, I'll stay about six or seven years. The place was really in disaster then. We weren't sure Disney Concert Hall was going to be built, the Philharmonic was running an enormous deficit. There were just all sorts of problems. Empty houses at performances. About 17 years later I realized the place had just gotten to me, so here I am.

On the importance of opening The Walt Disney Concert Hall:

It entirely changed the orchestra, how they sound, how we relate to the community. And I will just say, unashamedly, this is the greatest symphony hall in the world. The sound is perfection. And opening the hall gave us, really, a chance to reimagine what The Los Angeles Philharmonic could be, because we're not simply a symphony orchestra. Frank [Gehry] always said, "Make the hall a living room for the city." And we took that to heart. 

On bringing Gustavo Dudamel to the L.A. Phil:

My phone rang one late afternoon and it was [the conductor] Esa-Pekka Salonen, who was a judge at the International Mahler Competition. He said, "Deborah, you won't believe what just happened. This 24-year-old kid from Venezuela just won the competition. He doesn't speak English, he doesn't speak German, and he just conducted the best Mahler [5th Symphony] I've ever heard in my life." And I said, "Well, how could you describe him to me? Tell me a little bit more." He goes, "Well, all I can tell you, he's a conducting animal!" We quickly decided to invite him right away to come to Los Angeles to make his American debut. So the next morning I tried to find how to book Gustavo Dudamel. He didn't have a manager yet. The day after, he had one. He made his debut at The Hollywood Bowl and it was spontaneous combustion. The orchestra fell in love with him, the audience fell in love with him.

So I started sort of following him around the world. And ... as Gustavo tells the story, he thought I was not stalking him, but that I had a crush on him! Which I did, but in a different way. I was there when he made his debut at La Scala. And the funniest moment for me was when he made his Boston Symphony debut at Tanglewood [the Boston Symphony's summer home], and from the right-hand side of the [stage] came in the entire artistic committee of the Chicago Symphony, and from the left-hand side [came in] the entire artistic committee of the New York Philharmonic. And we all looked at each other and smiled. And it's history from there. 

On President Trump's proposed elimination of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA):

Here's the great irony: the budget of the Los Angeles Philharmonic is now about $120 million a year. The total amount of money we get from the National Endowment for the Arts is about $150,000. So it's less than one percent of our budget. So we — the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic — both of these orchestras will move ahead because that's about the level that big orchestras receive from the NEA. Who is going to be terribly hurt are the smaller organizations in this city and especially in rural America. There is a larger, and very troubling, societal statement which is made by this, which is, I cannot imagine a successful and a rich society marginalizing the arts to this extent. And I actually don't think it's going to happen because I think people are rising up throughout the country, including Opera Omaha, Singalong Kansas — this is the heartland of America and they have been really the major beneficiaries of the NEA.

To hear the full interview with Deborah Borda, click the blue player above.

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