Music, and work, never stop for New York Philharmonic's Borda

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
·4-min read
FILE PHOTO: A string quartet made up of musicians from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra play first public performance since March in New York

Music, and work, never stop for New York Philharmonic's Borda

FILE PHOTO: A string quartet made up of musicians from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra play first public performance since March in New York

By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

NEW YORK - Deborah Borda, 71, is used to making history.

She became the first woman to manage a major American orchestra when named the New York Philharmonic's executive director in 1991. Her resume is filled with the top posts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

A former professional violist, Borda has called these pandemic months "the single biggest crisis" the New York Philharmonic has faced in its 178-year history. The orchestra canceled its 2020/2021 season, anticipating a loss of $20 million in ticket revenue.

After the orchestra's last concert on March 10, Borda thought the music would stop for a few weeks.

"Eight months later, here we are," said Borda, who was named president and chief executive of the New York Philharmonic in 2017.

But Borda is optimistic: "I always say, 'We survived the Civil War, two World Wars and the Spanish Flu epidemic, so we will be back.'"

Borda spoke to Reuters about how her work and life philosophy guides her through the pandemic. Below are edited excerpts.

What was your very first job?

In 1975, I was the manager of a group called Boston Musica Viva, which specialized in very avant garde contemporary music. I was the entire management: I was the finance director, the marketing director, the personnel manager, the tour manager, the fundraiser. I was a mini-CEO. The problem was, I had no staff to delegate to, and that's a very formative experience.

What is your biggest work-life challenge?

Work-life balance. Running these iconic large-scale institutions is more a way of life than a regular job. You're essentially on call 24/7 because in the performing arts, things happen day and night. You might have a soloist getting sick or a financial problem or a tour issue.

What compounds that is that so much of our work takes place at night because performances are at night. You go to the office during the day, you go to the performances and then very often you entertain people after the performance, whether it's fundraisers or musicians. It's a job you live.

How do I deal with it? I simply try to enjoy it.

Who are your mentors?

The (former) general manager of the San Francisco Symphony, Peter Pastreich. Peter believed in me, promoted me throughout the organization and advised me throughout my career.

The Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen is an aesthetic mentor to me. He's somebody I talk to on a regular basis about the aesthetics of music.

What's the best piece of job advice you've received.

Always be honest. That's how I try to live my life.

How have you found yourself thinking or doing things differently in 2020?

My life has totally changed. I used to sometimes only see my place when it was time to sleep. But now I'm working at home, keeping our team together through constant Zoom meetings, working twice as hard to communicate. It is endless.

You would think that without us putting any concerts on, there'd be less to do, but I've never been busier in my life, from trying to raise additional money, to making decisions about cancellations and looking at the future of David Geffen Hall (which is undergoing a multi-year renovation).

I'm working 12-hour days on a regular basis, six days a week sometimes.

Now that you are working from home, what is your set up?

I've always liked to keep a home office. I do a lot of writing. I need to do that outside of the hurly burly of the regular office. I upgraded my printer and my laptop, but,

otherwise, it was all set.

We figured out where to do interviews for TV. I'm in a small room that has a very mellow color to it. There's a watercolor of a very restful island in Maine behind me, so it doesn't look corporate.

What advice do you have for those who are trying to navigate this changing world today?

Try to believe there will be a future because there is going to be a future.

(Editing by Lauren Young and Richard Chang)