Thursday, March 16, 2017

I Did Not See This One Coming.

Last week, I published an extremely gloomy post about the current state of the New York Philharmonic, after learning that their chief executive, artistic administrator, and senior vice president for capital campaigns and the endowment were all leaving the orchestra, just as Alan Gilbert leaves, with a year before Jaap van Zweden arrives, and with a renovation down the road that will completely disrupt the orchestra for a couple of years.

Honestly, I thought that the orchestra had a good chance to wind up in bankruptcy court within ten years, considering that they've been running deficits since the 2001-2 season.

But yesterday morning, Michael Cooper of the NY Times managed to scoop the press departments of both the NY Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic by publishing some astounding news ahead of the orchestras' press releases: Deborah Borda, who has been chief executive at the LA Phil for 15 years, is returning to the NY Philharmonic.

As far as I can tell from what I'm reading and hearing, nobody saw this one coming. If you'd asked me who could possibly run the NYPO successfully, i would have said, in no particular order, 1) Brent Assink, who is leaving the San Francisco Symphony...and who turned down the NY job last time it was open 2) David Gockley, who has retired from the San Francisco Opera but who probably isn't interested in this job, and 3) Deborah Borda, but she is not going to leave LA.

So much for that thinking.

Over at the Washington Post, Anne Midgette, after picking herself up off the floor, speculates on why Borda would take on this particular challenge:
Why would Borda want to return to a job she already had? Speculation is already running rampant. Her last stint at the New York Philharmonic was a mixed experience. She was the first woman to run a major American orchestra when she took over in 1991, but she had a contentious relationship with Kurt Masur, the music director for her entire tenure. Does this return offer her a chance to realize her vision for the orchestra in the company of a new music director?
Or did she want to live in the same city as her longtime partner, Coralie Toevs, the chief development officer of the Metropolitan Opera? Or did the board just offer her a boatload of money?
The answer is likely some combination of all three, but perhaps outweighed by the thrill of a challenge. The New York Philharmonic, for all of its longtime foibles, is widely seen as one of the pinnacles of the orchestra world, the peak of a career. And it’s in such dire straits right now that only a real visionary can help fix it. No one doubts that Borda could be the person to turn it around; still, it would certainly be a major coup for her were she to pull it off.
I think Anne is absolutely right: the thrill of the challenge has to be a huge factor in the decision. The Philharmonic post is a difficult one, between the musicians' reputation, the apparent lack of direction of the orchestra over a long period, the years of financial problems, and the huge task of raising money for the renovation. If Borda can pull off the renovation and stabilize the orchestra's finances, she'll go down in history as a hero, the savior of the country's oldest orchestra.

The other reasons are significant as well. After 15 years of racking up frequent flyer miles, who wouldn't want to be in the same city as her beloved?

As for the boatloads of money, Deborah Borda is already the highest-paid orchestra executive in the country. When the Phil's 990s start to come out for the second Borda era, we'll see just what the pricetag was. But the point is, if she does what she's setting out to do, she'll deserve every penny.

My last thought on this is speculative: the NY Philharmonic's repertory has been far more adventurous and interesting under Alan Gilbert than under his last several predecessors. You'd need to go back to Boulez to find the last conductor who took a serious interest in forward-looking programming. There has been some concern about Jaap van Zweden's interest in new and recent music. But under Deborah Borda, the LA Phil's programming has been the most interest and adventurous of any orchestra in the country, and it just gets better and better every year. We can at least hope that she'll hire a progressive replacement for Edward Yim and continue this in NYC.

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