Violinist.com Interview with LA Phil CEO Deborah Borda: Building a Great Orchestra

November 19, 2013, 3:31 PM · When Deborah Borda took her job as Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic back in January 2000, she found near-empty halls at concerts; an unhappy board; financial problems aplenty, and a still-unbuilt Disney Hall.

What kind of magic happened, between then and now, that transformed the Los Angeles Philharmonic into the success it is, just 13 years later?

Because it's certainly a success: a leader in the industry, both artistically and business-wise. Gustavo Dudamel, who replaced Esa-Pekka Salonen as Music Director five years ago, routinely garners high praise from musicians and critics the world over. Walt Disney Concert Hall, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, has been a triumph of acoustics, architecture and organization-building. The LA Phil appears to be on solid financial footing, and everyone just got a big raise in September. The organization has become a home for experimentation, new music, and new programming -- the very definition of "culture."

In a time when so many see the sky falling on symphonic music, why is the LA Phil doing so well?

This is what I wanted to know when I went to downtown Los Angeles last month to speak to Deborah Borda in her office next to the gleaming metal edifice that is Disney Hall.

Deborah Borda
Photo courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic

If she has a secret formula, I wanted to find out what it was, and share it with the rest of the symphonic world. We obviously need it.

But like everything that seems like magic, the LA Phil's accomplishments are the result of a lot of well-directed work. They rallied around the future. They put a high premium on accountability and artistic excellence. They tried things that worked; they tried things that didn't work. They kept trying. They keep trying.

Here is my conversation with Deborah Borda, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic:

Laurie: You started as a violinist. What made you decide to play the violin?

Deborah: I started playing violin when I was seven. I actually wanted to play the flute, but I got in line, and all the flutes were gone! There were only violins left, and so I took the violin. It was hard at first, but I liked it, and that was how I became a violinist. And I've always thought, what great fortune, sometimes mishaps turns out so well! I can't imagine being a flutist and I can't imagine why I wanted to play the flute! The violin has so much more repertoire, so much more ability to play in orchestras.

Then when I was about 16, I switched over to the viola and enjoyed that very, very much. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I would have considered myself more of a violist than a violinist.

I played in a wonderful youth orchestra, the Greater Boston Youth Symphony, and they needed violists, and so I was drafted to play the viola because I could transpose into the clef. That was the reason -- it wasn't because I was big, because as you can see, I'm not a large person! But I enjoyed it because I was immediately one of the best violists, where I'd just been a good violinist. That was a great attraction, of course, being ever-competitive!

Then I went to New England Conservatory for a year, as a viola performance major, and I didn't like it at all. I really encourage people not to go to conservatories, but instead to get a liberal arts education. It's the one time in your life you have the opportunity to expand. Frankly, most of the music schools, with very few exceptions, are basically like trade schools. I believe to be successful, not just as a musician but successful in life, successful as a human being, you need to have a much broader palette to work with.

By the end of my first year, I left; I went to Bennington College, where I did major in music and loved it -- wonderful music department. Then I went to graduate school at the Royal College of Music in London. I came back to the states, free-lanced in New York and was doing well for a young person.

But then I was at Tanglewood one summer -- I enjoyed going to the rehearsals for the Boston Symphony very much. I noticed that there was a group of people backstage who seemed to be making decisions and running things, and they were wearing suits. I started to watch them and made inquiries, and I found out that they were managers. It just intrigued me, because I was always the person in my string quartet or on a job who made the arrangements and did the programming. At that point, I became interested. I didn't know yet that I wanted to do it; I was sort of transitioning. I had a wonderful first job at the Marlboro Music Festival, where I was the assistant scheduling director. And from that summer on, I knew that I would go into management. I would always be a musician, but I would be a musician manager. Like citizen musician: manager musician!

Laurie: How do you think those years of playing and working as a performer affected the way you manage?

Deborah: I don't know if they affect how one manages, except that I think of myself as a musician; that is who I am. It gives me the ability to make very strong artistic judgments, to be a key partner for whomever my music director is, in terms of programming. Since my passion is the music, it keeps music at the core. Although I always say: even though it's an art, it's important we run the place as a good business as well.

But first and foremost, I do think of myself as a musician, although I haven't played for years.

Laurie: How do you cultivate an effective board for a symphony orchestra?

Deborah: An effective board is an aligned board. It's a board that is aligned behind a vision of what the organization should be, and it's a board that is aligned behind a strategic plan that will move the institution towards that vision. It is also a board that is connected, informed, empowered and involved. Those are very important things.

How do you accomplish that? I think there are a number of issues.

By the way, as you recruit new board members, they do not necessarily need to be passionate about music. They need to like music, [and] they need to be passionate about their community and the importance of a symphony orchestra to the community. But we've just had, for the past five years, the most wonderful chairman of the board here, a gentleman named David Bohnett. Classical music is not his thing, but the Los Angeles Philharmonic, its position, how it's integrated into the fabric of the community, and specifically our education programs, meant so much to him. Eventually, he got hooked: he started coming to more and more concerts, he even came on tour with us. So here's a person who is not a rabid classical music fan, but he was excited by the organization.

It's also critical to have very active involvement of the board on committees. Our board has 50 people in it, so it's very hard to participate in a full board meeting. But when you do have those meetings, it's critical that those meetings provide real transparency for the institution and how it's working. They should also provide inspiration, talking about the vision for the institution, talking about the exciting programs that are going on. So it's a combination again of art and business. You can't ignore either side.

In recruiting board members, it's important to choose people who will be committed, then to involve them in the right kind of board meetings, and very specifically involve them in smaller committees, where they can work directly with the staff.

I also find that our annual retreat is very helpful. Once a year our entire board goes on a three-day retreat out of town, where we look at where we've been, assess where we're going and dream about the future. It develops not only an understanding of the institution and a camaraderie that supports the institution, but it creates what I call 'institutional alignment,' which is critical in these very difficult times.

Laurie: And what is 'institutional alignment'?

Deborah: 'Institutional alignment' is when every aspect of the organization -- board, staff, orchestra -- all perceive what the vision and mission of the organization is and work toward it in concert.

Laurie: Who decides that vision and mission in the first place?

Deborah: No one person decides it. You need leadership to achieve people uniting around it, but it is decided by a combination of people working together, and that makes it stronger. It's a combination of the executive leadership, the music director, the leadership of the board, sometimes community stakeholders, the musicians -- it's a complex mix.

Laurie: How do you tell if things are going off the path? Are there things to watch for, to tell if you are getting off-mission, or maybe getting an attitude problem?

Deborah: I think one of the critical mistakes of many not-for-profit institutions today is that they're not rigorous in their strategic and financial planning. When you see an imbalance or a dislocation in that area, that is one of the first flags that goes up.

Also, it's important, within planning, to set very specific goals. You need a 'road map' that lays out where you think the institution is going and when it will get there, in measurements that are quantifiable. When those are strayed from, you start to see the warning signs go up.

Laurie: What kinds of quantifiable things?

Deborah: Decline in audience, missing budgets, overestimating how much money you will earn or get donated each year, over-spending, constantly planning projects that don't bring in enough revenue and are very high on the expense side, not investing and thinking about how one needs to attract new audiences and putting programs into place -- any number of those things.

Laurie: How do you create that sense of mission in your organization?

Deborah: I think you create a sense of mission by constantly bringing people together and talking about it. For example, you could speak to any member of the board, staff or orchestra at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and they would tell you the two key core components that drive every decision we make, which inform all of what we do, are the words "innovation" and "excellence." We use those to measure every single decision we make -- "innovation" and "excellence."

So you establish ways that are shorthands that help people to own, live with and be inspired by these kinds of ideas. It sounds like a cliche but I will say it anyway: We talk a lot about how we will take a leadership role in designing what an orchestra of the 21st century is.

For example, we constantly ask: What is the intersection between the artistic imperative and the social imperative -- where do they meet? Gustavo Dudamel has said, 'Music is a fundamental human right.' That is a guiding principle for us. We think about it: In the 21st century, in a large gritty urban area, what is the transaction between a symphony orchestra and its community? As a result, we have developed the leadership program in the United States for the American form of El Sistema: Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, YOLA, which has been so successful. And not only successful here, but we've started a national affinity organization, Take a Stand, which helps other organizations, not just in California, but throughout the world, as they try to form their own nucleos (El Sistema centers).

Another example: We believe in generative art and in innovation, so we commission more work than any major symphony in the world; this year we had 14 world premieres.

Also, we believe in innovation in how we attract new audiences. So if you go to our website, you can see a really remarkable tool we're using called Concertmaster. We find many people have not received music education today, so we have a digital interaction that democratizes and makes it easier for them to come in. It's sort of a game that you play, with a whole series of questions: Which was your favorite Beatle? What was your favorite movie? And it gives you a choice. Then at the end it suggests three concerts that might interest you. So things of that nature.

One other thing: When we brought Gustavo Dudamel here and he had his very first concert as music director, it was not a big gala concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Instead, it was a free concert for 18,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl, and we called it Bienvenudo Gustavo. The first notes that he conducted as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, were actually for our baby YOLA orchestra -- fledgling at that point, the kids were about three and a half feet high, they were six years old! That was a template that other orchestras now imitate throughout the United States. And I take imitation as a really sincere form of flattery. We're trying to establish those templates on a regular basis, to be helpful to other orchestras.

Laurie: You came here in 2000; how has your sense of what the mission of the organization changed? How much do you allow it to change?

Deborah: In 2000, we were still over at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and we were in an incredibly challenged position. We had a structural deficit that was 15 percent of our annual budget, and an enormous accumulated deficit. If you sat in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on any night, you could have shot a gun off, there were so few people there. The board was not a happy board, the staff needed to be strengthened; there were many, many issues.

But those issues became possibilities because of the enormous opportunity that lay in front of us: the potential around the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall three years later. That gave us a chance to put a process into place, where the Philharmonic could literally re-imagine what the LA Philharmonic could be, in this very nascent, growing 21st century.

That was a process that the board was deeply involved in, the orchestra was deeply involved in, our music director, many, many committees. We worked on this in a multi-pronged way: looking at marketing, analyzing our finances, thinking about what would be the new model we would put into place. It was what we call a 'critical path review process.' What came out of it was that we would re-invent ourselves as a large-scale musical organization.

Frank Gehry always said, 'The Walt Disney Concert Hall should be a living room for the city.' And so he said to us, 'Deborah, Esa-Pekka, make it a living room for the city.' So we introduced a whole series of concerts that we had never done before: a jazz series, the world music series, a big holiday festival, many more educational activities, a songbook series, a Baroque series, an organ series, etc. etc. And these did two things: they enabled us to raise much more money, because there was of course a much broader spectrum of people who would be attracted to come to concerts. And the way people give money to an orchestra, is if they attend a concert, those are the people who will donate. So we had a much broader spectrum of people who were coming. And we also found concerts where we could literally make some profit, so it changed our business model as well.

So we increased our concerts to 92 in our first year in Disney Concert Hall, and this is just our winter season; we gave close to 200 in the summer. We have maintained that ever since. (The LA Phil now gives nearly 300 concerts throughout the year at its two venues, Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.) So, aside from the Metropolitan Opera, we have the single largest performing budget of any performing organization in the United States. People don't know that; it's an interesting factoid, though.

Laurie: How to you deal with failure? If something doesn't work, sometimes people really have a hard time moving on.

Deborah: I think that's a critical part of what we believe in. We do live by innovation, and innovation can be messy. Innovation doesn't always work. You have to be willing first, to try it. Then equally important as trying it is, when it's not working, be ready to say that. We have a number of projects that we tried because we thought they made sense, and when we saw that they didn't, we changed.

I'll give you a very good example: we launched a program called "First Nights," in conjunction with Professor Thomas Kelly at Harvard. It was a series that looked at premieres of programs or important seminal works in music; he wrote a book about it called First Nights, which is a wonderful book. The first concert was great, it was Rite of Spring and we had planted people in the audience to do a riot, etc. It turned out, though, that it was hard to sustain (the series), and a lot of our patrons wanted more of a purely musical experience. Or, a more didactic experience, but not that theatrical experience. So after two years, we rolled it up and called it quits, although we had invested quite a bit in it. On the other hand, the positive sides of it were: it really re-defined how we did all of our youth concerts, as we became much better at dramatic presentations, which are important parts of these concerts. Later on, the Chicago Symphony came and watched a lot of it; they were inspired by it. They took that idea, made it their own, and it's the program that's now called Beyond the Score, which is very successful. So that's a good example.

Our Theatercasts, which were very successful artistically, were simply very difficult to sustain financially through ticket sales. When you're competing against a grade-B movie, they have marketing budgets of $20 or $30 million -- we had $1 million. So we eventually stopped that. We do it now once in a while on a special basis. But again, the organization grew through that, and we'll figure out what the next thing is.

So those are two examples.

Laurie: When you decide something isn't working, how do you get it to be a growing experience, and not an experience where the people involved get bitter and upset…

Deborah: Oh no no no no. I think you create an atmosphere where they're encouraged to take risks. I'm a risk-taker myself. And we don't punish them when they fail. So long as there's an organized path through the process, which we're very careful about doing. We don't just do these things off the tops of our heads. We think: what is the goal of this project? How will we measure what its success is? What' the ROI, the return-on-investment? We think these through very carefully.

For example, the person who did our Theatercasts on staff is one of our great staff members, and it was not seen in any way as a failure on his part. In addition to that, the way we work here is, we have a very engaged team. No single person runs any project; everything is very cross-departmental. So every big project has a team that works on it, and the teams own these things.

Laurie: How big is the LA Phil's administration?

Deborah: 132. Because we also run the Hollywood Bowl, which is a 18,000-seat venue that starts up June 20 and runs until Sept. 20. During the summer, we have about 1,000 additional part-time employees for the Hollywood Bowl, to run the parking lots, the food concessions, ushers, cleaners. It's quite a big undertaking.

Laurie: Who have been your role models in your career?

Deborah: I'll tell you a role model who I never met but I've read a lot about: Eleanor Roosevelt. I became very interested in reading about her, and I've read a number of biographies about her. The reason I'm fascinated by her is, first of all, she was a woman who came from a background where women were not allowed to do anything. They were supposed to be wives and mothers and wear dresses and recede into the background. That was absolutely her upbringing, and yet she came to find herself as the single most powerful woman in the world at the time. We forget, looking back now, how important she was in mid-1920th century America and throughout the world. She was the single most admired woman in the world, and was also single-handedly so responsible for the breadth of social programs and intellectual depth that actually happened at that time in the country. So I found that personal transition very interesting. I was also attracted to the fact that she was so deeply idealistic; you could almost say it was naive, how idealistic she was. But she pursued her goals anyway, in the real world, but having absolutely the highest form of idealism. So I've been fascinated by that. I like to think that I can retain my idealism and lack of cynicism about music and the symphony orchestra world, but also pursue the furtherance of the symphony in a very practical way.

My two great inspirations of this decade have been Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel. Esa-Pekka was such a great thought partner, and together we were able to really envision, or start to envision, how we wanted to see a 21st century institution. He was just fabulous in driving towards that, and in his intellectual depth and perception. And Gustavo Dudamel. It's been wonderful, working with somebody who indeed is younger than I am, but who has such a strongly-held philosophic point of view. When he said to me, 'Music is a fundamental human right,' a light bulb went on in my head. I suddenly realized a whole different way that we could present symphony orchestras to the public, and a different way of thinking about the transaction between the community and the symphony orchestra.

Laurie: Do you have any words of encouragement for orchestras who find themselves in difficult times?

Deborah: In a time of what seems to be such profound disfunction within the industry -- the closing of the New York City Opera, whatever is going to happen long-term at the Minnesota Orchestra, and all sorts of other issues -- it's important that we retain a sense of belief in music and a sense of optimism that there is a future, and it's up to us to invent it.

Replies

November 20, 2013 at 01:33 AM · Thanks, Laurie - this is a very inspiring interview!

November 20, 2013 at 11:57 AM · Say, you got a nice article.Much thanks again. Really Cool.

November 20, 2013 at 03:59 PM · What a wonderful interview! Thank you so much, Laurie and Deborah. I really appreciate reading about this approach with innovation and excellence.

November 20, 2013 at 06:10 PM · Over the years we have seen several stories in the news about horrible cases of mismanagement by orchestra boards and antagonistic relationships between orchestra boards and musicians. Every now & then I would hear about an orchestra that gets it right & I'd encounter musicians who publicly express their gratitude for the work their board has done for their orchestra, even naming individual board-members… that'd be the L.A. Phil, time & time again.

November 20, 2013 at 06:18 PM · What a wonderful, inspiring story. And sadly, what a rare find. An administrator who actually cares about the art, and creating a viable business model at the same time so that the artists can thrive in the real world. Whatever she is getting paid, she is more than worth every penny. Thank you for this article.

November 20, 2013 at 06:47 PM · This is a really interesting and educational interview. Thanks in particular for giving a forum to a gifted music administrator. Administration is a difficult and often thankless job, and it sometimes seem like the bad ones get all the publicity.

November 20, 2013 at 10:29 PM · Eleanor Roosevelt - "how important she was in mid-20th century America and throughout the world," right?

November 21, 2013 at 01:42 AM · In Minneapolis, there must be someone like Deborah, but they didn't hire her; hence, the trainwreck that is the Minnesota Orchestra. The people at the Chicago Symphony also know what she knows: the difference between what is an artistic decision and one that is financial.

November 21, 2013 at 04:58 PM · Thank you for the great interview. I've got a board meeting coming up in a couple weeks. Our group has nothing to do with music, but there is so much here that applies to any non-profit that I am cutting and pasting and taking it with me.

November 22, 2013 at 02:12 AM · Excellent, Laurie! PLEASE keep up the good work!

November 24, 2013 at 01:38 PM · LAURIE,

An absolutely superb interview. Your skills as an interviewer should be used on a national cable network.

Classical music does not have anyone promoting the classical music agenda on the national TV. A 30 minute program of you interviewing the Lang Lang and others of the world would help build audiences in every community in the USA.

Go for it !

Bill C.

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