The former president & CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic discusses her decision to move back to New York.
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight we’re talking about music and the arts. First, a conversation with the former president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deborah Borda, widely credited with lifting the L. A. Phil from a place in the shadow of Hollywood to an orchestra on the world stage.
Ms. Borda will soon take her magic to the Big Apple as the incoming president and CEO of the New York Phil. Tonight we’ll discuss her 17 years here in Los Angeles and her decision to move back to New York, arts funding and much more, I suspect.
Then whether it was his collaboration with Drake or a seat at the table for Solange’s latest album, Sampha is now making a name for himself with his debut solo album, “Process”, invoking the likes of Bill Withers, the British-born musician will tell us how the death of his parents shaped his work and why no one knows him like the piano.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. Deborah Borda and Sampha coming up right now.
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Tavis: Deborah Borda is the former CEO and president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She spearheaded the opening of Disney Concert Hall. She brought in conductor Gustavo Dudamel. She built the artistic reputation and the financial coffers of the institution.
She saw the rebuild of the Hollywood Bowl and, after nearly two decades, has stepped down to become president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic in September. Should I just get down on my knees and just “Don’t go! Don’t go!” I should beg you to stay! This is so not fair! You’re leaving us!
Deborah Borda: Hey, you know I’m a New Yorker, although I thought I did very well, I became a Californian when I was here, but always accused me of having that New York accent, the New York walk. But I’ve loved it here. It’s been just the greatest professional 17 years of my life. It’s been my joy, it’s been my life’s work.
So it’s time to return home to my family and to help one of the great orchestras besides the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It’s funny that I’ve worked for two Philharmonics, New York and Los Angeles, to really assume its rightful place in the pantheon of orchestras.
You know, it’s interesting because the New York Philharmonic is 175 years old. It is the oldest orchestra in America. And what’s interesting to me about that is you know I’m a futurist. I’m always thinking about where can we go? What can we invent?
What I want to be able to be a part of is in work with the musicians and the board and the community, is to not be weighted down by that legacy, but to use it, to move to a vibrant, youthful 21st century future. Because so much of what has happened here embodies what an orchestra of the 21st century can be like.
Tavis: That’s the question, though. Can you do in New York what you did in L.A. and not be weighted down by the legacy or by the expectations or the parameters of the New York crowd?
Borda: Well, we’re going to see. I left there once before, 17 years ago, because I was looking for challenges. So one of the things about me is Frank Gehry once said, “Deborah just loves jumping off cliffs, but she always lands on her feet.”
We’ll see. It’s gonna be a challenge. It’s exciting. It’s a moment in my life where I’m up to do this. I’m up for doing it is what I should say. I think I’m up to doing it as well, but up for it.
Tavis: I listed a number of things at the top of this conversation that you have done remarkably well. That’s why I was on my knees begging you not to leave. Remarkably well here in Los Angeles, of those things or something perhaps I did not list, what are you most proud of here in Los Angeles.
Borda: I’d put it in a larger sense. I mean, yes, the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, really the reimagining of what a symphony orchestra could mean to a community. So in a way, brining Gustavo Dudamel who has just lit up the imagination of our community and indeed the international community.
What that all goes to is a core belief that music is important to the community and that the community loves and values the Los Angeles Philharmonic for all of the art, for all of the education, for what it can mean to peoples’ hearts on an everyday basis. I think the Los Angeles Philharmonic really means something to Angelenos. They love it, they love it, and it wasn’t always that way.
Tavis: To your point, what do you make of — how can I put this — the cultural? Because it’s cultural, it’s artistic, it’s fashion, but there’s a cultural renaissance that the city of L.A., has undergone that parallels nicely to the time that you’ve been here. What do you make of that and what role do you see the orchestra, having played in that renaissance in this city?
Borda: Well, you know, a dynamically pivotal moment was the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall because until that moment, of course, it was an epic journey of 17 years between when it was first conceived and when it opened. And you remember what the downtown was like then.
I remember when I was here for the press conference to announce my appointment at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I looked out my hotel window and you could have shot a gun in the streets and nobody would have been hurt. Today you go downtown, there’s The Broad, there’s the Walt Disney Concert Hall, there’s the Music Center, there’s MOCA, there’s restaurants…
Tavis: L.A. Live, all the…
Borda: L.A. Live. It’s a happening exciting place. Thousands of people are moving to downtown L.A. So maybe I’m a little Walt Disney Concert Hall centric, but the pivotal moment to me was the opening of that hall. Also, you know, Tavis, that we opened it in a very special way. The opening wasn’t the big gala where people paid thousands of dollars.
Remember this. We opened with a week called “Phil The House”, P-H-I-L, Phil the House in which we invited 18,000 regular Angelenos to come into that hall. So the first people to hear a concert in that hall were school kids. Next, teachers from LAUSD, the people who built the building, on and on. Firemen, policemen, and Esa-Pekka Salonen who was the music director then did just a series of one-hour concerts.
And I think it really in that moment sort of found its way into the heart of the community or it made a start at it. But that’s how we have to think about things. Just nobody had ever done that before. Now that’s what people do, but at the time, it was considered sort of outside of the box.
Tavis: I’m not going to ask you to divulge any confidences or go into your financial paperwork, but it is reported that one of the other things of the many things that you did quite well here was that you got more respect for the players, more respect for the artist.
We are told — I’ve read at least — that they may very well be the highest paid orchestra players in the world, certainly in the country. But without divulging that, just give me some sense of how you regard the players here and what you did to make sure that they had a higher level of respect.
Borda: Well, you know, central to the success of the organization, you have to look at what is the actual heart of a symphony orchestra, and that’s the 106 women and men who make up the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And I have the most profound respect for them. We’ve had great dialog about where the orchestra is going, where it should go, where it might go, where it shouldn’t go.
And we’ve been able to work together very well. They dedicate their entire lives to being in this orchestra, to making it great. You know, when we have an opening at the Los Angeles Philharmonic or at the New York Philharmonic, 400 and 500 people apply and we select one person.
So my partnership with them, their partnership with me, has been one of the very special aspects of being here. I really love them and I feel that coming back from them. I think what’s at the base of it, though, the basis of it is a mutual respect. I so much respect what they do and I think they’ve been really pleased to think of a positive future.
Because, you know, I’m an optimist and I think optimists really can get things done because you can see all the things that go wrong or can go wrong, but if you see what it is that can go right and you set your mind and your heart to it, you can get so much more done.
Tavis: Let me flip what you said earlier. I can make the argument, given what you’ve achieved here in L.A., given where you are at this point in your career, you don’t need to take the risk to go back to New York to take over an orchestra that is losing money, that needs to be more innovative, more creative, all the things that you said you hoped to bring. You don’t need to take that risk at this point in your career, so why roll the dice that way?
Borda: Because I believe in music. Because I believe it’s not just about one great orchestral institution. Why can’t we have two flagship institutions on either coast? And besides, I love a good challenge [laugh]. I’m just feisty enough to think this could be fun. This is a challenge. You know, I’ve done pretty well, so we’ll see. I’m willing to take that risk.
Tavis: There’s a new conductor coming to the New York Phil.
Borda: Yes, mm-hmm.
Tavis: Tell me more about this.
Borda: Yep. Van Zweden. And that’s part of the reason I’m going. By the way, it breaks my heart to leave Gustavo…
Tavis: I can only imagine, yeah.
Borda: When this all got decided and it was happening very quickly, we’ve been together a long time.
Tavis: And how did he take it?
Borda: We were both really sad. It was a tearful conversation. But he’s doing great. You know, he’s an innovator. He’s one of the most profound geniuses I’ve ever seen, just a natural, natural talent. And, you know, we met him when he was 24.
He’s in his mid-30s now. He’s got a kid. He’s a mature man and he has a vision for the future. So we’ll always stay friends, but I certainly don’t worry about him. He’s done amazing work, but his amazing work is in front of him.
But I met Jaap van Zweden and I found in him somebody who was eager in the same way that I am to take on challenges and to think about things in a different way and not just to say, “We have done A, B, C, D. We are the New York Philharmonic. We shall continue to do A, B, C. D.” I’m saying let’s do red, white, yellow, blue [laugh]. Let’s look at things completely differently if we can. And I felt a partner, I felt a partner.
Also, he guest conducted a week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and I saw how our musicians just fell in love with him and really responded. They all came to me right away and said, “Can we get this guy back?” So it’s a combination of those matters.
Tavis: I assume that there are benchmarks that you have set or will set to let you know whether you’re on the right track. So can you give me some sense of what we should expect over the next couple of years to judge whether or not you made the right decision?
Borda: Well, you’re asking for a very quantitative measurement [laugh] of a great artistic institution. So what I could say is, okay, I can give you metrics.
Borda: Do we have a deficit? How much can we raise for the endowment? What is the percentage of attendance? But really, yeah, that will happen if other things happen.
And what has to happen is a programmatic flair, something that creates excitement within New York in the same way that we have an integration of the L.A. Phil into the fabric of the community, that we can have something like that in New York. Now what I’m not going to say to you yet is I know just how I’m going to do this or how Jaap and I are going to do it. Because it’s not Jaap and me, it’s the team.
It’s the musicians of the New York Philharmonic, it’s the board, it’s the staff coming together to create a great vision that touches people. And you know what? You’re going to get the buzz of that and that’s when you’re going to decide in two or three years, oh, do we want to have Deborah Borda back on this show [laugh]? Maybe not, I don’t know.
Tavis: I can’t imagine that you’d ever be dis-invited to this program. Can I just say in closing that you’ve always been kind to me personally, you’ve been kind to this show, you and Mr. Dudamel, and I hate to see you leave. But they are blessed and fortunate to have you come to New York. And I have no doubt in my mind that you will do everything you promised them you would do. All the best to you.
Borda: Thanks so much, and thank you for what you do. I was sitting in the dressing room looking at some of the people you have interviewed and I just thought what a strong representation for the arts. You know, the arts can be so marginalized today, so thank you for doing that.
Tavis: I love the arts and I love you. Good to have you here. Congratulations.
Borda: Thank you.
Tavis: All right, New York. I hate you [laugh]. Anyway, up next, singer and producer Sampha. Stay with us.