The following is a conversation between Deborah Borda, President & CEO of the New York Philharmonic, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Managing an arts institution in the 21st century like the New York Philharmonic is one of the most daunting challenges that any leader could face, whether in the profit or nonprofit world. There are many who would say that there’s absolutely no one better at doing this than my next guest. She led the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s, went out to California for 17 years to become the CEO of the LA Philharmonic, and is now back in New York for a second tour of duty. And it’s a great pleasure to have her with us tonight. She is Deborah Borda, the president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic. Good evening, Deborah, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Deborah: Hi Denver. Great to be here.
…it was an orchestra of immigrants, which is a fascinating part of the story that as this city has innovated from wave after wave of immigration, that is who has filled out this orchestra.
…when the Philharmonic truly flourishes, it’s when it dares to be innovative, when it dares to be a leader.
Denver: The New York Philharmonic was founded in 1842, a hundred and seventy-seven years ago. I can’t believe it is as old as the Vienna Philharmonic. Share with us a little bit of its rich history.
Deborah: The New York Philharmonic, it’s fascinating. We talk about an orchestra being 177 years old. That’s truly a landmark in American history. When the orchestra was founded, where was Wyoming? But at any rate, it was an orchestra of immigrants, which is a fascinating part of the story that as this city has innovated from wave after wave of immigration, that is who has filled out this orchestra. It’s a history of firsts – it was the first American orchestra to tour Europe. It was the first American orchestra to be on radio and TV. We had the first and most famous – it wasn’t the first, but certainly the most famous – American music director, Leonard Bernstein. Here’s a factoid I love. It was the first American orchestra to allow women to attend concerts unaccompanied by a man. That’s progress. It’s slow, but it’s happening. We’ll talk a little bit more about that later.
It’s a rich history of firsts, but one of the things we like to think about here is that, although we stand on the shoulders of what’s occurred over the past 177 years, when you look at the history of a place this old, there’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs, and that’s quite natural for a 177-year-old thing… institution. But what you notice is that when the Philharmonic truly flourishes, it’s when it dares to be innovative, when it dares to be a leader. That is something that we work hard to inculcate and renew in the fabric of the DNA of this organization. Because it’s wonderful we did all of those things, but what we need to think about is what we’re going to do in the future.
Denver: Wasn’t it a hard decision for you to make, Deborah, to leave Los Angeles after you had built that institution the way you have over 17 years, and really on the eve of their centennial which is being celebrated this year, to come back to New York in a whole new set of challenges? And what compelled you to make that decision?
Deborah: Probably that I’m a masochist. When I first went out to Los Angeles, I thought I would go out, help get the orchestra back on its feet because it was in a very rocky and perilous financial state, but critically, to get Walt Disney Concert Hall built and opened. So, I thought that was my goal and probably because I was discouraged about achieving that goal here in the renovation of what was then called Avery Fisher Hall. So, I planned to go out for five years. I loaded up my covered wagon and went out there. There was a lot of work to do, and I thought that we were accomplishing work that was important for music and important for thinking about how we think about music in the 21st century: What is the impact of social issues, social justice in music? It was a remarkable time working with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Frank Gehry. It was a very tight trio as we opened Walt Disney Concert Hall and really reimagined what the orchestra could be, using the Walt Disney Concert Hall as a launching pad.
It broke my heart that Esa-Pekka moved on, but he had been there for longer than any other music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We were fortuitous in being able to discover this 25-year-old guy, Gustavo Dudamel, and he inspired me. It’s very inspiring to work with people who are younger than you are and come from different social backgrounds. There it was, Esa-Pekka, the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall, a partnership with Frank Gehry, and then this guy, Gustavo Dudamel comes into my life. It was exciting, and it was a whole, fresh series of opportunities.
But after I had been there 17 years and … we had been very involved in planning. I had been deeply involved in planning the centennial, so it was planned. I started to think about: Was I bringing the kind of freshness to the job that I needed to? And could, in fact, the institution after 17 years benefit from new leadership? I was thinking about it; it was on the back of my mind. I took a sabbatical, and I taught at the Kennedy School. During that time, I felt myself expand intellectually and socially in so many different ways. I thought, I felt more and more, it was going to be a good thing for me to make a change, and then, out of the blue, literally, out of the blue, the New York Philharmonic came back into my life. And there you have it!
Denver: Picking up on that expansion, since 20 years ago, when you sat in this very same chair, society has changed; New York has changed. But how have you changed in the way you lead an institution like the New York Philharmonic?
Deborah: The way we learned to manage from our mentors and back in the ‘80s was extremely top-down; they put a lot of pressure on the chief executive. Because what you needed to do was sit with your senior management group and opine on it. They would present the problem, and you would present the solution. If you’re pretty smart, you can do well at that for a while, but as the world and these institutions became increasingly complex, I found it more and more of a challenge. And there was a period about 10 years ago when I felt like I really wasn’t a very good manager. My management skills just weren’t clicking in the way that I wanted them to. I started thinking about it, and I realized that in a sense, there are so many different areas that require expertise now. There are different ways of asking questions that I needed to work with my team in a different kind of way.
In a sense, I think I took the pressure off myself. I didn’t feel like I had to have all the answers, and I was somehow not a good manager, a good person. It does wear you out. Once I really invested complete responsibility with the other people I was working closely with, a tremendous burden was taken off me, and we put it on them; but actually they thrived. The institution thrived. I think the management skills today that we employ are so different, partly in reaction to a much more complex societal situation. Just take the invention…the internet and what social media means, and how you deal with the changing audiences. How we manage our endowment plans, how we deal with union employees. So many different areas. I’ve changed a lot. I’m not the same person who managed the New York Philharmonic almost 20 years ago. I’m a different person.
I found it to be a very different institution, an institution that is looking for a new way that is, yes, aware of its tradition, but I think increasingly thinking about how that tradition and culture doesn’t weigh us down, but in fact propels us into the future.
Denver: You reinvented yourself for the times. My impression in speaking to people from Los Angeles is that they’re a bit more open and adventurous out there than they are here in New York. Would that be true, would you say, for the Philharmonic and their audiences?
Deborah: Actually, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. One thing I will say in California is, people never just say, No. They say, “Let’s think about that.” No idea is too crazy. For example, the idea of how we introduced and opened the Walt Disney Concert Hall would have seemed like a far-out idea, inviting 18,000 people in for free from different segments of the community. And it turned out… nobody said, No. We did it. It meant that Walt Disney Concert Hall found a real place in the heart of Angelenos.
I was concerned about that when I came back to the East Coast, but I’m a New Yorker, so I can handle a certain amount of adversities… or rather push back. But I found it to be a very different institution, an institution that is looking for a new way that is, yes, aware of its tradition, but I think increasingly thinking about how that tradition and culture doesn’t weigh us down, but in fact propels us into the future.
Denver: Interesting. Let’s talk about a couple of the conductors you’ve worked with – Gustavo Dudamel, we talked about in Los Angeles, and Jaap van Zweden here in New York – it’s amazing, you were able to land both of them. Try to describe their outstanding characteristics, both as conductors and as people.
Deborah: Let’s start with Jaap, because that’s who I’m working with right now, and in fact, I didn’t land him, I didn’t hire him. He was here. He, in fact, was one of the key players in convincing me that it would be, it could be, fun to come back to New York. I always thought, I will say in the back of mind, “I’m a New Yorker!” I always thought at some point, I would return to New York. Jaap became Concert Master in one of the most famous orchestras in the world, the Concertgebouw. He went to Julliard, although he’s Dutch, went back and became Concert Master at an insane age. He was wunderkind. He was 19, something like that. He played in that orchestra. What that has given him is a remarkable sense of being able to speak to an orchestra and help them in the actual mechanics and putting together of a concert.
He can listen. He understands balance as he can tell the instruments very technical kinds of things they have to do… “Strings, up; horns, blend your sound”; so it’s remarkable to hear that, and he does click with an orchestra. Really almost unlike anything I’ve ever seen. You can hear the difference today with how the Philharmonic sounds. The other part of Jaap that was unexpected for New York…. I understood it, but people didn’t see it. There was a lot of consternation that he was going to be right-wing and conservative. He, in fact, had run one of the famous Dutch Radio Orchestras. These orchestras perform almost completely contemporary music. As I got to know him, I was amazed. He knows as much about American contemporary music as I do. I think I know a lot about it. He knows more! He’s been a fabulous partner in terms of thinking about how we shape the season, how we try to catch the zeitgeist of our times and the pillars that we call these special initiatives that we undertake. For me, the combination of just such a master of the symphonic art form, and a deeply knowledgeable and adventurous programmer has been just terrific, and he’s a lot of fun. He’s very straightforward, very Dutch, and I’m a New Yorker. And didn’t the Dutch found New York?
All conductors have to do a couple of things. One is, they have to teach; the other is, they have to inspire. Both of those are critical. You can’t succeed if you do one without the other. You must be able to teach, but you must be able to inspire. If you just inspire, it can be a mess. If you just teach, you can be boring.
Denver: And a great teacher too. It sounds like.
Deborah: All conductors have to do a couple of things. One is, they have to teach; the other is, they have to inspire. Both of those are critical. You can’t succeed if you do one without the other. You must be able to teach, but you must be able to inspire. If you just inspire, it can be a mess. If you just teach, it can be boring, so we like to get a few other things going in there, which he does.
Denver: As far as Gustavo?
Deborah: Gustavo, let me tell you how I first heard about Gustavo. I received a phone call from our then music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, late one afternoon. He was a judge at the International Mahler competition. He called me from Bamberg, Germany, and he said, “Deborah, you won’t believe what just happened. This 24-year-old Venezuelan kid just won the Mahler Competition. He doesn’t speak German; he doesn’t speak English, and he just conducted the best damn Mahler 5 I have ever heard in my life.” I said, “Wow, what’s his name?” I then heard the words, Gustavo Dudamel, for the first time. I said, “Well, Esa-Pekka, how good is he really?” He goes, “Here is what I’m going to tell you. He’s just a conducting animal.” The next thing I thought about was, “Well, let’s get him out to LA…” because I did… Esa-Pekka and I had such a close relationship that we moved on things rather quickly.
The next day, I called to book concerts with Gustavo Dudamel, and he didn’t have a manager. There was no place to call. So, the next day after that, I went back, and then he had five managers. A day later, he had his manager who’s been with him ever since actually. He came to LA, and it was simply spontaneous combustion with the orchestra. There is a special spirit, a special love of music, and something I can’t put into words that’s unique about Gustavo. He’s been conducting since he was 11 years old. He was the wunderkind of El Sistema and Maestro Jose Antonio Abreu who founded El Sistema. To see his development… because he was great to begin with, but to see his development this past decade has been truly spectacular.
You talk about learning things, Gustavo said something to me that has always stayed with me. It’s like a motto in a way. What he said is, “Music is a fundamental human right.” What a thought! It’s a fundamental human right….as clean air, water, education. But he sees it as that central, and that was such an inspiration to me. It’s a funny story, I couldn’t get him to sign a contract to be Music Director. Every orchestra in the world was chasing after him actually – the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony. So, I followed him around the world. He, of course, tells the story much better than I do it. First he thought I was a stalker. He decided I was just a… I had a crush on him. I am old enough to be his mother but, he thought… maybe. Eventually, I went to Venezuela and spent a week with him traveling around the country and seeing El Sistema in action.
El Sistema, for your listeners who don’t know, is a music education program that goes into the very poorest neighborhoods and trains kids in music. There are orchestras, or “were” orchestras; it’s very sad, all over Venezuela. Kids teach each other. The most famous of the orchestras was the Simon Bolivar which was a spectacular orchestra. At the end of my week there, and I literally heard orchestras with hundreds of kids in small little towns in the poorest barrios. When I got on the plane to go back to Los Angeles, I still couldn’t get him to sign the contract. But I made a vow to myself right then that if I couldn’t get Gustavo Dudamel to come to Los Angeles, I would bring El Sistema to Los Angeles, and we did that before… it’s a great program.
We don’t call it El Sistema because we needed to adjust it for America. The great thing about El Sistema is, it’s flexible. It can work in Scotland. It can work in Los Angeles. But it can only work if it works within the fabric of the community that it is placed. And I think that’s an important lesson actually when you think about what we’re going to do here in the very exciting future in the New York Philharmonic. Because what works in Los Angeles and what works in Chicago, or what works in Edinburgh may not necessarily work in New York. So our job is to be the pathfinders in our own city. So, our little mantra here is “In our city, in our time” because that is the unique job of the New York Philharmonic in New York in 2019 and beyond.
I think it’s a complicated question, but it has to do with the misogyny and sexism in society. When you’re a little girl, and you get on an airplane, and you say to your grandmother… you see the pilot get on, you say, “I’d like to be a pilot.” That mother or grandmother says to their daughter, “No, you can be a flight attendant.”
Denver: You were one of the first women to be CEO of a major orchestra, and now, quite a number of women are leading major arts organizations, such as Deborah Rutter here, Katy Clark over at BAM in New York. But progress has been slower with conductors, picking up on conductors again. Although I think some progress has been made, and you are doing a lot to see that it continues and accelerates. Why do you think progress has been slower there? And what are some initiatives to get more women leading orchestras?
Deborah: There have been tremendous breakthroughs, and we’re on the verge of even more. I think it’s a complicated question, but it has to do with the misogyny and sexism in society. When you’re a little girl, and you get on an airplane, and you say to your grandmother… you see the pilot get on, you say, “I’d like to be a pilot.” That mother or grandmother says to their daughter, “No, you can be a flight attendant.”
Denver: Like what happened to you?
Deborah: Exactly. My story. I went to the doctor, and I told my family, “I’d like to be a doctor.” And they said, “You can be a nurse.” So I became an orchestra manager. So, I think there is that inherent sexism and misogyny which people have to work to overcome. And it relates very specifically to symphony orchestras for two reasons. One is, remember that until 10 or 15 years ago, orchestras were entirely male. And they really didn’t have gender equality or move towards it until the late ‘60s when auditions behind screens were introduced.
So, if a woman got up in front of the orchestra, she would be perhaps the only woman there, and there might be one other. That was I think a difficult situation. I think there’s actually a more profound reason which is that, if you don’t see somebody do something, you can’t always imagine yourself in that role. Some of us can imagine we could be jet pilots, but not everybody can. And once it started being introduced, that people could come to concerts and see women conduct, younger women started to imagine their physicality in different ways. Because remember, conducting is a very physical business. There’s a physicality, and the epitome of conducting is a man. That’s not our physicality as women. We have to find our own way. This younger group of people has been able to imagine that and feel very comfortable in this new physicality, and they’re wonderful to watch on the podium because they don’t conduct like men. They conduct like they conduct.
Denver: With progress being made there, it’s come a little bit slower– with diversity– because when you go to these concerts, 90% of the people are going to be white. Most of the faces on stage are going to be white. What has to happen to change that?
Deborah: This is a real issue, and it takes a long time. In Los Angeles, the idea behind YOLA– Youth Orchestra LA, which is the El Sistema of Los Angeles – the idea behind Youth Orchestra LA or El Sistema Los Angeles was to involve hundreds of kids and their families, not to train them to be musicians– although some became wonderful musicians and are becoming wonderful musicians, but to train them to be great teachers or firemen or doctors, but to have a love of music so that later on in life, and these are all from minority communities. Youth Orchestra LA, which is a series of music schools throughout Los Angeles, is all based in minority communities. We don’t have a YOLA Beverly Hills is what I’m trying to say. There is a YOLA LA.
It’s thinking about things in that way, and that kind of change takes a long time. The other thing that we’ve learned is – and you can see by the way in Los Angeles that audiences are starting to change. And also to have a Latino who’s the head of the music program… Gustavo Dudamel is your music director – that also makes an impression, although it didn’t happen overnight. It actually didn’t happen overnight. Change will become evolutionary. I personally believe that what is going to need to happen to make a difference is you can’t simply hope to take one minority, place them in an orchestra and think they can succeed in a training program. Research has shown us that you need a nucleus, so people to support each other, to interact, to fit within the organization. My hope is that in the future, the major American orchestras are going to undertake massive fellowship programs where 10 people are welcomed into the orchestra for a period of a number of years, two or three years. Maybe they’ll eventually win a place in the Chicago Symphony, the NY Philharmonic, or another orchestra. But I think that is the way we’re going to have to go at it because they way we’re going at it now simply isn’t working, and we have to admit that.
Denver: You come from a very politically active household. The tribute you talked a few moments ago about Venezuela, it really had an impact on you, in joining at the intersection of the artistic and the social, and you are certainly doing a lot of that here in New York right now. Tell us about the “pillars program” and some of the other things that you’re doing.
Deborah: When you think about the New York Philharmonic season, we start in September, and we chug along until June… doing four concerts a week most weeks out of the year. You need to, first of all, give a shape to that. You can’t just do isolated: one week Beethoven symphony; next week, Brahms symphony; next week, a Mahler symphony, etc. It doesn’t, I believe, hold together. But there’s another issue, which is: We have to find a way to attract millennials to attend our concerts and to interest them, and many of them have not had any music education. But they are interested in social events, social causes.
I felt, and Jaap felt that if we could take some of our concerts and place them within the context of what is the zeitgeist of the times… and put them in a broader cultural milieu, that we could start to bring in audiences who might not otherwise have thought about coming to the Philharmonic. So, this year, I’ll talk about just two of our pillars – we call them pillars – they’re really initiatives. “Pillars” is just a shorthand for it. The first, which has already taken place, was called “New York City Stories: Threads of Our City.” And we centered it on the world premiere of a piece by a remarkable woman composer, Julia Wolfe. It was a piece about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and how 147 young immigrants of all different backgrounds were incinerated in the course of eight minutes. A very moving piece. It had video and choirs. It was really something. But that wasn’t enough. What we did was to partner with other institutions – Museum of the City of New York, the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island, etc., to open a discussion about: What has immigration meant to the City of New York? What has truly shaped the vibrancy, the robust nature of our society of New Yorkers? It was a fascinating discussion held all over the city. I believe that really caught people’s imagination, especially right now as we’re talking about shutting down the Mexican border and not allowing regular immigration to happen– which has so strengthened our nation.
And the proof of this was in the final night of this very contemporary piece – actually in the final nights, you could not get a ticket. People were standing outside David Geffen Hall saying, “Anybody got a ticket?” We’ll close the season with something called “Music of Conscience.” That will be our final pillar. This initiative is about music that has been written in response to times of social turmoil. We will bring back… we did the New York premier of John Corigliano’s First Symphony. It’s called the “Rage and Remembrance.” In one-two-month period at the height of the AIDS epidemic, he lost eight friends and wrote this work.
We did the premiere, the New York premier actually, at the Philharmonic back in the ‘90s. When we did it, we had heard about this project called the Quilt Project where people were doing quilt squares for people they had lost. So, we got a quilt square from the Project; it had to be a certain size, and we put it up in the front of what was then Avery Fisher Hall. We invited people to sign. We didn’t know what had happened. I was backstage before the concert. Our house manager came to get me. He said, “Deborah, you have to come out front and see what’s happening.” I said, “I’m busy…” He said, “Please come out in front with me.” So, I walked to the front of the Hall, and there was a line snaking around the entire Hall. This was everybody…everybody who had lost somebody or knew somebody. And at the end of the first night, the panel was completely filled. We had a fresh one for every single night, and we’ll bring that panel back – one of the original panels, for people to see.
But we’re also partnering with a number of other organizations, like Gay Men’s Health Crisis, etc. to look back at the history. What did the response to the AIDS epidemic mean? And how did it change our nation and the face of our artistic institutions, our academic institutions, our lives? We’ll end the season with an opera that we’ve commissioned called “Prisoner of the State” by a wonderful American composer, David Lang. Beethoven wrote a single opera, Fidelio. It’s of course about an authoritarian and a tyrant who unjustly imprisons an activist, and how his wife eventually gets him free. This is a 21st century take on Fidelio, “Prisoner of the State,” and I think a fascinating commentary to think about in this very tumultuous political time.
We’ll open up with, of course, a standard of social protest, Beethoven’s “Eroica,” was supposed to be dedicated to Napoleon but then he decided he was a creep! We’ll pair that with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony, which is a fascinating work. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the Shostakovich opera, was a tremendous success. A couple of days after it opened, there was an editorial in Pravda. People believed that Stalin himself had written this editorial, and it said that this was a horrible piece of music. It was a crime against the State and that the composer had better be careful because he was about to be sent to Siberia. Shostakovich went to his apartment and basically stayed there for a month in terror. During that time, he composed the Chamber Symphony, and what you can hear in the Chamber Symphony is his fear of the KGB coming and knocking at his door. So, there’s a moment that keeps coming back in the orchestra: You hear, “Clunk, Clunk, Clunk.” The strings make this funny sound, and it’s his fear he’s writing out and giving actualization to this fear that he was about to be taken to Siberia. He was not, thank goodness! I think placing things in that context– it’s interesting, it’s timely, and it makes music, as we say, a human right.
…what we wanted to do was to invite people who might not think about coming into the Hall; and who we wanted to invite are the people who serve New York– firemen, teachers, the workers at Lincoln Center.
Denver: Just great stuff, Deborah! In addition to putting all this music in that social context, you’re also trying to make this music more accessible, and one initiative to do that is something called Phil the Hall. Explain that program for us.
Deborah: There are so many New Yorkers who haven’t been invited into the Hall. Many people would invite themselves and buy tickets, and that’s great. But what we wanted to do was to invite people who might not think about coming into the Hall; and who we wanted to invite are the people who serve New York– firemen, teachers, the workers at Lincoln Center. So, we have put on instead of…actually,during this period, we were supposed to be on a national tour… Jaap and I decided, “Okay, let’s not do this national tour. There are Philharmonic tours all over the world. We don’t need another national tour. Let’s have a tour at home. Let’s stay here, and let’s invite these New Yorkers into our concert.”
Every ticket is $5. The place is going to be packed. They’re one-hour concerts. So, they introduce people. It’s got Gershwin, it’s got Beethoven, it’s got two of our… we have a wonderful program for very young composers, and these kids are incredibly talented, and they’ve written little three-minute pieces. And just to welcome people, we’ve invited wonderful musician and music teacher, Nia Franklin, who is Miss America. She is going to be the host. We are currently debating on whether she’ll wear her crown or not. I can tell you, it’s a very hot topic. We’ll probably take a vote this afternoon. I think the crown’s cool, but you know… Who knows…
People won’t give to an organization they don’t believe in; and isn’t that the critical question?
Denver: Making the finances of these venerable institutions work is such a difficult thing to do. You certainly, as you said before, stepped into challenging circumstances at the LA Philharmonic. I think they were into the banks about $9 million when you arrived. These challenges continue to go on. What’s your approach to managing finances of an arts institution like the New York Philharmonic?
Deborah: It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty straightforward, but one of the places you have to start is that even if we sell out David Geffen Hall… or if you sold out Walt Disney Concert Hall, that covers only about half of the cost of putting on a concert. Why is it so expensive, you might ask? Well, we have the orchestra salaries. We have the staff salaries. We give healthcare and benefits to the people who work for us. You have to sell tickets. You have to market the orchestra. You have to produce the concerts. You can only sell about two thousand or so seats, and you don’t want to charge $500 a ticket because it’s simply too expensive. You have to have some responsibility in that.
So, we are genuinely a not for-profit organization. When we’re doing great, we’re losing money. So, you have to think of it first of all in that context and really educate your board to understand that, because the future of the orchestras will not be in earning more money. It will be in philanthropy. But I think, in addition to that, the next step is to really build a vision that the institution shares and moves towards. And when people share a vision, they’re inspired by it. They move towards it. You can then put the kind of mechanics in place that can raise the money that you need. Now, there’s a lot of footwork. Raising money is not just that you go have lunch with some rich person, and they give you money. There is all sorts of… there are annual funds and bequests, endowment drives. So, you’ve got to work at the technical side of that. In fact, when I was teaching at the Kennedy School, I taught a course called Philanthropy 101 which helped people think about how they organize the technical side of it. People won’t give to an organization they don’t believe in; and isn’t that the critical question?
Denver: You mentioned him before… I want to circle back if I can, and that’s Frank Gehry. He and you had such a relationship, and he had such an impact on you. Tell us something about that relationship.
Deborah: I, back in the ‘90s, really felt it was critical that we do a massive renovation of Avery Fisher Hall, and I was working towards getting it done, and it was not going – I will be honest – it was not going smoothly. One morning, I was sitting at my breakfast table in New York, and there was an enormous article in the New York Times Sunday section that was a picture of what this new Walt Disney Concert Hall was going to look like that they were going to build in Los Angeles. And when I looked at it, I gasped. This is simply the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my life. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was: I was jealous. Then lo and behold, a year or two later, the Los Angeles Philharmonic came to me, and actually they used Frank Gehry to recruit me.
So I flew out. … You don’t turn down a call from Frank Gehry, or at least I don’t. I flew out to California. They actually offered to fly to New York to meet me. I wanted to go see a studio, which is a thing of beauty. So, I flew out, and it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. And in fact, I just came back from Berlin where we celebrated Frank’s 90th birthday. He is in great shape. He is more creative and sharper than ever. It’s one of the most important friendships of my life.
Conflict does arise, and conflict isn’t unhealthy. It’s only unhealthy when we hide from it. Or, when we’re bullies in how we deal with it. For me, you’ve got to let it be there; you’ve got to talk it through, and you’ve got to be really honest. That is, I think, the center of conflict in a conflict resolution is not being honest. That sometimes means incurring the conflict. Another thing that I find helpful is the introduction of humor once in a while.
Denver: You know, when you work around people who are passionate about their work and their music, conflict often arises. How do you deal with conflict?
Deborah: Conflict does arise, and conflict isn’t unhealthy. It’s only unhealthy when we hide from it. Or, when we’re bullies in how we deal with it. For me, you’ve got to let it be there; you’ve got to talk it through, and you’ve got to be really honest. That is, I think, the center of conflict in a conflict resolution is not being honest. That sometimes means incurring the conflict. Another thing that I find helpful is the introduction of humor once in a while. People… often in these conflicts that we have… nobody is going to be executed over it. People aren’t even going to lose their jobs generally. Somebody’s dishonest…they could lose their job. Honesty in any place that we work in our lives in society, to me, it’s just at a premium.
Denver: What’s the corporate culture like here? What do you think makes it an exceptionally special place in which to work?
Deborah: I would say the corporate culture is changing here. I’m only back just over a year. My task has been to free people from how they did things in the past, and to be willing to go beyond just thinking, “Well we’ve done it this way, and we’ll continue to do it this way…” and to challenge them to think about how they can change and what would be the most beneficial way for the organization to change and to grow. Culture change doesn’t happen overnight. I feel there’s a strong feeling in the orchestra and the staff that if we are going to thrive in the upcoming years… reimagining ourselves being more flexible, being more creative, being more welcoming is going to be important. So, we’re at the start of that journey. I’m not going to put out an advertisement for what it’s going to be because it’s just the start. It’s an evolutionary question.
Denver: Let me close with this, Deborah. They talk about coming home again and coming back to the New York Philharmonic for you is really coming home again, and your first concert was here when you were four years old. Leonard Bernstein was conducting, which I must say was a pretty good way to start. What has music meant to you and, in turn, this institution?
Deborah: Actually my first concert in those days – that’s how old I am – the New York Philharmonic played at Carnegie Hall. My mother took me to the concert, and I remember we sat at the very, very top, and as we climbed the stairs, because I was tiny – each stair felt like it was three-feet high. We finally got up to the top. I was there, and the concert started, and I only know it’s Leonard Bernstein because I went back and checked, because when I sat and I looked at it, I thought I didn’t know if there were real players on the stage because they looked about one-inch high. So, I thought maybe it was a toy orchestra.
But I loved the sound. Of course, the sound is great at the top of the Carnegie Hall. I was hooked. I loved it. My parents listened to the classical music station in New York, WQXR. I always wanted to have that on, and then I had a little – one of those little tiny records that kids used to play, what are they called, the little small ones? And I had an arrangement of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik” by Mozart, and I listened to that until I wore it out. As soon as I could play an instrument… I didn’t want to play the violin. I wanted to play the flute, but you had to get in line at school to claim your instrument, and by the time I got there, all the flutes were gone. There were two choices: Violin or French horn, and I thought the violin was easier to carry. There we have it. Music, I can’t put it into words what it means to me. It’s just so… I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I listen to music all the time. I go to concerts all the time. …I’m just so grateful I have music in my life, and I can’t imagine my life without it.
Denver: Or this institution, I guess.
Deborah: This institution is about music.
Denver: Deborah Borda, the president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. There is always something going on up here. Where do people go for tickets, upcoming events, Phil the Hall, maybe become a member?
Deborah: We have a great website. Just go right on the internet and just… you don’t even have to do anything but type in New York Philharmonic, it’ll pop up. There are tickets available for concerts at all different prices. During the summer, we give free concerts throughout the boroughs. Of course our most famous one is the big Central Park Concert where we’ll have over 50,000 people on the Great Lawn. You can go on our website because I’m not remembering the day in July that that’s happening, but that’s always a great New York event.
Denver: Fantastic! Thanks Deborah. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Deborah: Denver, thank you so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.