Twice in a week, Deborah Borda has redefined the future of America’s orchestras

Twice in a week, Deborah Borda has redefined the future of America’s orchestras


norman lebrecht

February 14, 2018

A week ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic rolled out its centenary season, by far the most ambitious, forward looking, socially progressive and egalitarian program the country has ever seen. The season had been planned down to the last detail by the orchestra’s former president, Deborah Borda, before she left to become chief in New York.

Last night, Deborah unfurled the new season at the New York Philharmonic with the incoming music director, Jaap Van Zweden. Once again, the season had Borda’s career hallmarks – political awareness, social justice, new music and lots of roles for women.

These two launches set a clear blue ocean between the two Borda orchestras and the rest. The LA Phil and the New York Philharmonic are looking resolutely to the future, searching for broader audiences, determined to fill the hall and challenge the mind.

Most of the rest are doing same old music, same old faces, same old audience.

The Borda pill will either galvinize or terrorise the sector, it’s too early to tell. But America orchestras now have a clear-cut choice. They can adopt the Borda blueprint and try to sell it to their blue-rinse board of directors, or they can carry on regardless, booking seats in God’s waiting room.



  • Doug says:

    Or they can get back to basics, honor tradition, celebrate true artistry. You leftists are pathetic and politicize EVERYTHING. This amounts to nothing more than Maoist cultural revolution. How many millions were cast aside in pursuit of that Utopia? If you really want a broader audience…SELL STARBUCKS.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Van Zweden includes classics in his NY programming. He would never pander to the masses on the expense of what he perceives as artistic quality.

    • Sue says:

      I totally get your frustration, but I’m unsure whether this relates to the topic at hand. Dr. Jordan Peterson knows all about ‘the cultural revolution’ now taking place in the western world.

    • William Safford says:

      Maybe you should back off of the Starbucks. You’re getting jittery and incoherent.

    • Marc Parella says:

      Screw tradition… artistic programming should be about artistic vision and innovation. I am a composer and I’ll always support the idea of composing. Composers have long been ignored for whatever reason and frankly the medium needs much innovation.

      Now is our turn.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Innovation without tradition is not possible, because innovation without grounding in aesthetic and technical abilities leads to nonsense:

        And then, what is innovation? The reason that audiences cling to ‘old warhorses’ is not because they are ‘safe’, but because they appear to ‘speak’ to them. But I am all for including new music in programming of classical music; however, replacing the usual repertoire entirely would destroy the performance culture: musicians learn their skills through the existing repertoire, not through innovative new music. And composers who ignore tradition deny themselves a learning trajectory.

      • Anon says:

        Audiences want innovation AND art that speaks to them on all levels. Emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.
        Retardation into traditional classical music is more a RE-action to the lack of contemporary composers (the disconnect began roughly with Schönberg‘s unworldly intellectual masturbation of twelve tone music) being able to address and express themselves for the fellow hun holistically.
        Bottomline most sane people attending a concert want to leave it with a sense of lifted spirit, emotional satisfaction and intellectual enlightenment.
        To call my argument ‚reactionary‘ doesn‘t make this truth go away.

        • John Borstlap says:

          This is true, but there is enough more or less new music out there which symphony orchestras don’t like for the reason that they are afraid to be considered ‘reactionary’ by the critics (not by audiences). Those notions of ‘progressive’ and ‘reactionary’ are entirely nonsensical and remnants of a naive, ignorant period. We live – already for a long time – in the cultural situation which was correctly predicted by Leonard Meyer in the sixties (!): a culture chacterized by a fluctuating stasis where things exist next to each other and where art from the past is a natural part of the present.

          Leonard B. Meyer: ‘Music, the Arts, and Ideas’, University of Chicago Press 1967.

          • BillG says:

            Critics are a dying breed. There influence is shrinking along with their lack of presents on in the popular press.

        • BillG says:

          Exactly so!

      • Anon says:

        *fellow human*
        (damn artificial ‚intelligence‘ of auto correct)

  • anon says:

    We shall judge by the balance sheet in 2020.

    Borda is not as progressive as one might think, she cancelled both of Alan Gilbert’s contemporary music initiatives, the NYPhil Biennial and the Contact! series.

    The NYT and the New Yorker both had gone gaga over the idea when it first came out;

    Well, ideas come and go as each successive administration try and drop new things.

    We’ll see in 5 years.

  • Stephen says:

    I would be far more sceptical than this blog header is. Orchestra management and audiences in the United States are among the most old fashioned, dowdy and conservative in the world. They often look, talk and present themselves like something directly out of a retro film, right out of the 60’s, clothes, hair styles, mannerisms, uptight attitudes and all. I have worked closely with most of the main and secondary U.S. orchestras and the same bland, highly political, unimaginative and uncreative management types are to be found everywhere to some degree. True, the L.A. Philharmonic is more cutting edge, but for the simple reason that they reflect their audience. L.A. is not the typical mainstream U.S. city. The same is true, but to a lesser extent, for the N.Y. Philharmonic. It is not because of Deborah Borda. As a manager, she is just reacting to the profile and tastes of the audience that she serves and in L.A. her initiatives may work. Try that in other U.S. cities and the probability of failure and audience rejection would be very high. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Detroit and so many others represent, for this most part, conservatism and very parochial musical tastes. Most world cities and countries have moved on from such conservative tastes and have become curious and adventurous. The U.S. often seems like it is in some sort of time warp, stuck in the 50’s and 60’s, it’s glory years, and they seem unwilling to embrace new attitudes, new programmes, new ways of experiencing music. They are now so similar to the former Soviet Union, who in its waning years looked, felt and behaved like something out of another era.

    • Will says:

      Wow, excellent analysis Stephen, totally agree.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The cultivation of the regular, ‘oldfashioned’ repertoire is not necessarily ‘conservative’, since these works are contemporary forever. A defensive clinging to them and reluctance to embrace the new, the trendy, the things that appear to carry all the symbolism of progress, diversity and emancipation of women, gays, blacks, underpaid insurance staff and truck drivers, would not have given (for some people) the impression of parochialism if the musical tradition (and thus, the entire information and education culture around it) had developed normally in the last century. That classical symphonic performance practice has at some places acquired the patina of a defensive museum culture, is not entirely the fault of orchestral managements. And then, my impression is that many USA orchestras also include the lighter stuff in their programming, like film scores. Typical of these scores is that their sound is close to that of the classical repertoire, so it is possible that it functions as an introductory tract to the real stuff.

      It would be a disaster if these so-called ‘parochial orchestras’ with their so-called seventies hair cut staff would kick-out the centre of the orchestral repertoire: the classics, to be replaced by Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, or Elliott Carter – they would merely join the decline of standards which can be witnessed everywhere else in US society. The best these orchestras can do in the circumstances, is exploring the Future Symphony Institute for rejuvination of their gut feeling that the classical repertoire offers the best garantee of preserving the standards of a musical culture. As will be clear from the FSI website, this does not at all exclude new creation.

    • Allen says:

      If my memory serves, Andre Previn said something similar in the 1980s. I think he might have been talking about Pittsburgh, but I can’t say for certain.

    • Sue says:

      Would those ‘management types’ in orchestras you’ve described resemble in any way the ‘corporate’ types in the educational institutions who promulgate cultural marxism and postmodernism?

    • Anthony Boatman says:

      Many of us run orchestras in smaller cities, and our core audiences tend to skew older with more conservative tastes. It is our primary responsibility to serve our communities by attracting and entertaining our audiences. Most people do not come to concerts to be “educated” or “chalenged,” but to relax, have a good time, and leave smiling and awaiting the next performance. I remember when Edo deWaart became music director of the Minnesota Orchestra and devoted much time to contemporary music. The audience voted with their pocketbooks and ticket sales nose-dived, putting the orchestra in financial distress. Here, we do program 2-3 contemporary works per season, but never lose sight of the fact that what our audience wants is Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and other “safe” composers. And they respond enthusiastically.

      • John Borstlap says:

        As said before, the sole real reason of audiences’ conservatism is the inaccessibility of so much new music, with a ‘language’ which does not relate to the central performance culture. It is a problem of musical language. And it is an old problem, which is always confused with the time lag that something new needs to be understood. In pre-1914 times, a work by Debussy or Ravel or Strauss needed ca. 10 years to become truly accepted (with exceptions of pieces which were immediately popular like Rosenkavalier or Faun Prelude or Rhapsodie Espagnole). Schönberg’s pieces when he ‘changed’ the language never became widely understood and never will. And the name of the new has now got such bad reputation that even very traditional 20C composers like Benjamin Britten often are treated with suspicion.

        Complaining about audiences is not helpful, but building a bond of trust with the audience is. That does not ened to be programming only soft, easy-listening music…. but one needs inventive, musically-sensitive programmers who do understand something of the 20C new music problem.

      • Brian Bell says:

        Mr. Boatman, I have witnessed and understand your challenges, but when have you programmed relatively unknown but extremely accessible music like the Grieg Symphonic Dances? The Vaughan Williams Third Symphony? The MacDowell Second Piano Concerto? None of these pieces can be construed as a “challenge” to the most “conservative” audiences, but I submit to you that many an orchestra hasn’t played any of these three works (two of them written in the 19th Century) in decades. They deserve a much better fate. The orchestral repertoire is vast, and there is truly no excuse to digging about and finding those pieces that deserve to be dusted off every few decades. Your audience will then come to concerts in the hopes of discovering a new friend they have never met before. Like Willem Stenhammar, like George Chadwick, like Carl Nielsen, like Eduard Tubin, like…
        And then, just perhaps, the symphony orchestra concert may not in the danger we fear it to be.

        • John Borstlap says:

          An ENTIRELY correct comment. Often regular programming is mere routine. But that is also a result of not having a repertoire expert / explorer whose job it is to spend his entire time on searching unknown repertoire. Artistic executives are also dealing with quite other subjects than repertoire, and have also other interests than the purely artistic.

    • Winger says:

      Oh my goodness is this true.

      I have worked at a large handful of orchestras, and the leadership, staff, board, even to a surprising degree, rank-and-file musicians have been staggeringly conservative, hidebound, afraid of change, and ultimately uninterested even in the non-traditional activities they already do. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming into anything risky or slightly unusual, and they don’t invest in any follow-through. Only a small handful of staff have their eyes on the future, and they are not valued and are driven out – inevitably to move on to more exciting artistic endeavors. It is really, really demoralizing.

    • BillG says:

      Composers should write tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.
      Thomas Beecham

    • Karl says:

      Classical music has been my profession. It is what keeps me alive. Yet, I do my listening at home. The only concerts I attend are those where my friends are performing. I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in going to concert to hear standard repertoire. I would love to hear a live performance of the music of Mennin, Schuman, Piston, Braga Santos, Raff, Bates, Currier, Auric, Holmboe and hundreds of other composers. For me, there is great music out there and its not all standard repertoire.

      It seems to me that those that program concerts are also programming their audience. Is it working? As a Stanford University study pointed out, some years ago, most orchestras were spending not just the interest from their endowments, but the principal of those endowments. That same study indicated that when it comes to the major US orchestras, they spend one dollar on development for every fifty cents they raise. It would seem that something has got to change.

      Are concert halls filled to capacity? Is there enough interest in the standard repertoire that one can charge ticket prices needed to sustain the enterprise?

      How do you get someone into the concert hall? For me, you give me the opportunity to hear something I can’t hear at home. Its just like a restaurant. I will go to an expensive restaurant to get a meal I cannot prepare as well at home.

      My concern is that most programming “initiatives,” are likely to be things like watered downed nonsense like a symphony based on rock and rolls songs!

      • BillG says:

        I have access to classical music at home. It’s on a good part of the day. Yet, there are distractions here. I attend the Dallas Symphony concerts, I get enjoyment from the music and enjoyment watching the orchestra members perform the music. I am quite happy to hear the same stuff at home and at the Meyerson Hall.

        Around two thousand or so years ago a wise or Roman said, “De gustibus non est disputandum.” He was right.

  • MacroV says:

    Given lead times, I would think much of this new season is likely the work of the prior administration.

    Borda’s first term in New York wasn’t exactly marked by innovation; I distinctly recall an “American Classics” initiative which basically came down to pairing Barber’s” Knoxville; Summer of 1915″ with Beethoven’s 5th, or Hanson’s 2nd Symphony; never really got more adventurous than that. Whether that was her, or Masur, I don’t know. I trust it will be different now.

  • Bruce says:


  • Edgar says:

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. That said, New York certainly needs something vibrant at Lincoln Center, with NYCity Ballet searching for a new chief, and the Met Opera becoming more and more a monument to its once glorious past by each passing day. My dream for the NYPhil: tear down the entire structure of Geffen Hall, and build a completely new venue. The same goes for the Met. Will that happen in conservative, parochial Manhattan? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, let’s give team Borda/Van Zweden their chance. It is hard enough to provide audiences with a first rate music experience in a hall as terrible as Geffen Hall…

    • John Kelly says:

      +1 though I think tearing down BOTH Geffen Hall (a must) and the Met (good enough sound it “just” needs bums on seats) is a tad overambitious. Good fantasy though.

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    Our host has certainly figured out how to incite the base! Impressively crafted post.

  • Joan Rutkowski says:

    I may as well move to Los Angeles because there are so many performances I want to take in. Borda’s influence is monumental – her vision, her ideas, her care and concern are earth-shattering. If the classical world is to exist in the future, it must make the necessary changes and it would seem that the Borda Formula is where it is.

  • Mark says:

    It seems to me — so take this as opinion/speculation, rather than as an attempt at dogma — that at least part of the problem is the result of a very successful effort to raise performance standards for 18th and 19th century music. Prior to the last third of the 19th century and the first third of the 20th, many (even major) arts organizations did not have permanent orchestras of ~100 players under contract for the entire year. Instead, they hired musicians on a per-concert basis from a large pool of otherwise underemployed performers, some of whom thus played only part-time.

    While we have, in general, much better orchestras now than existed most places in the 1890s-1920s, we also have to find the money to pay all the musicians year-round, which means we have to attract audiences year-round. (Without audiences, it would be harder to find donors to make up even larger deficits.)

    Also, what we now think of as classical music used to be written, at least partly, as popular entertainment. Why is Tosca still the last Italian opera to enter the popular repertoire? Why is no one writing new music for ballet that is as popular, even as purely concert works, as some early Stravinsky works?

    In short, composers aren’t writing new music that simultaneously (a) requires the standard forces that have been assembled and trained for 19th century repertoire, and (b) speaks to current popular tastes and ability to comprehend their musical language. So concert audiences, understandably, gravitate to more familiar fare, whether that means traditional repertoire (the three Bs) or new music in a similar idiom (film scores). One of my co-workers, when exposed to a Mahler symphony in my office, remarked that it reminded him of John Williams!

    Perhaps different financial arrangements need to emerge. Music written for less than a full orchestra, or for different instruments entirely, should not require paying the full orchestra when it is performed. That means orchestra musicians would lose some of their (illusory?) financial security, in order to make the risks of non-symphonic music more affordable. Perhaps more composers should learn that music people can hum on their way home after a premiere isn’t always a bad thing. Perhaps performers should be allowed, or encouraged, to encore pieces that audiences show enthusiasm for.

    Yes, unions will need to be more flexible; so will conductors, orchestra managers, and composers.

    Just brainstorming here. Ideas gladly welcomed.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The hummability of tunes in postconcert mood is a very simplistic way of describing the problem of musical language. I can hum every theme of Debussy’s La Mer, but it would be crazy to expect the average audience member to do that – even if he/she loves the piece. Hummability is no indication of musical quality, as we know from entertainment music.

      “Why is no one writing new music for ballet that is as popular, even as purely concert works, as some early Stravinsky works?” These pieces are outbursts of genius by a young man who thought it all out by himself in a psychologically rather isolated position, suddenly being brought into the daylight by an impresario of genius who spotted the chances with this little mousy chap with weird glasses. Stravinsky lost his compass after emigration and struggled ever since with composing, although he wrote many a masterpiece in exile. For composers nowadays, however gifted some of them may be, it is extremely difficult to withstand the pressures of a modern world which appears to require her reflections, and to come-up with a music that relates to the central performance culture and its aesthetic traditions, fearing that he will be condemned as a reactionary, or rightwing extremist, or fascist (Hitler did not like modern music so oldfashioned music must be fascist, which is strange because vegetarism never got the Hitler curse). Overcoming so many barriers, educational (conservatories breed total freedom except to write traditionally), psychological, technical (it is not easy to write authentic and good traditional music that is not kitsch imitation), political, aesthetic, and on top of that the suspicions of performers, has become too hard and thus, much new music is written for an entirely different circuit: the established ‘modern music circles’ with their specialized ensembles and specialized audiences.


    With all due respect, I simply find so incredible that a person who can make consensus with her audience can be give so much merit. If we want to fill in the concert halls then let’s just play film music, musicals and radio hits…that formula could work mainly everywhere except Germanic countries which in a way still have this form of art as part of their folk roots.
    In my
    I urge you all to rethink about the basic question, what is the role of music? If the main purpose is to transmit a message then we could target the question to a more concrete question, what is the role (or the message) of classical music?

    Trying to adapt to what consumers want it is basically delegating a power to the audience that they don’t necessarily should have. When they come to witness a concert they should rely on the taste of the organizers, that is what they are being paid. When the audience molds the artistic output is when I feel that this gets out of control.

    A musician spends hours practicing, pondering, discovering, evaluating. It is a very ungrateful job that the only reward it could possibly have is acceptance, but acceptance of a certain standard, to get closer to a goal.

    When we have people taking advantage of this quest thinking only in programming trendy things, crowdpleasing programs, beautiful conductors is when we truly kill this form of art. This in a way is a form of art that belong to a certain culture and we are tying to impose it the whole world. Not every country loves opera, not every country has hundreds of successful composers.

    If we want to keep this alive the only true way is that the administration truly sells this journey to the audiences. We are so much thinking of what will the audience like that we forget that the institutions should have control of this. After all, those who are thinking of making money out of classical music are just delusional (except smart people like Borda).

    Please, reconsider what is going on with this industry, classical music is not a business, is some people’s life, some people’s quest…don’t mess with it like Borda or Parrott….treat it with respect, the same respect you have when you see a Van Gogh or a Picasso in a museum….

    don’t kill the greatest heritage of western culture through “smart programming”.

  • Don Hohoho says:

    Social justice programming is sure to offend a great many people, illiberal and liberal combined. Anyone who loves classical music will reject such an intrusion. Great music is great music, regardless of who makes it, that’s what matters. If only Borda got that.

    • John Borstlap says:

      But what if audiences want to have their social convictions be confirmed in the concert hall? How to educate listeners in advance that the concert hall could also be an alternative or compensation to what they experience outside the hall? How to avoid the impression that the concert hall is a hub of authoritarian suppression of minorities and a fossile of undemocratic times, when bloody dictators inspired scandalous Eroica symphonies and narrow-minded bourgeois thinking, sporting a hypocritical beard, cobbled together four reactionary symphonies in a row that are STILL played?

  • Joan Rutkowski says:

    Sorry, but classical music has always been political. Just take a look at Verdi, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bernstein and on and on. Political correct is just that but true musicians follow their heart and their form of ethics.

  • BillG says:

    There is a reason it’s called “Classical Music.” As the Alex Ross said of most 20th century and perhaps now 21st Century music, “The Rest is Noise.”

    Regarding Borda, Kurt Masur said one reason he left the LA Phil was Borda, working for her was worse than the STASI. He should know.

  • Sharon says:

    As a non musician I believe that classical music audiences may be attracted to the type of music and rhythms that they hear not only in film scores but also in pop music. Promoters of pop music know that the more that people hear a certain song on the radio or internet the more they will like it and have that song going through their minds. And what attracts people to most pop music, not only rock? They will tell you “the beat”. I do not know enough about music technically to analyze this but I wonder if general classical music audience is attracted to pieces with a steady rhythm like they are used to in pop songs from the nineties, eighties, seventies, sixties, and even fifties and forties.

    • M2N2K says:

      Besides rhythm, melody and harmony are other basic elements of music, and most of the time neither one of these is enough: listeners are usually attracted to a good combination of at least two or, better yet, all three of these elements.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    The industry needs more Bordas. She seems to have a vision that is unique for each of the organizations and communities she has worked in and a proven record of success. That is why she is in demand.

    Quoting Masur is misleading. I’m sure he would be hit with #metoos if he were around. Borda most likely showed him who was boss.

    As far as programming, the NYP and the LA Phil can be more experimental. Their communities and the orchestra balance sheets can absorb the experimentation and the lack of earned revenue.

    But for a small market orchestra, too much contemporary programming will only lead to a deficit at the end of the season. Too risky and not in line with what the market will bear.

    In larger cities, the small chamber music groups are leading the efforts for contemporary music and doing a good job at it. Let them do what is needed to find and sift through the composers whose work should then be programmed downtown.

  • Gary says:

    I’m sure she has restructured her salary. She’s an expert at that. As for the innovative programming at the LA Phil, perhaps Salonen should be given the credit. Since The Dude arrived it hasn’t been the same.

  • Jasper says:

    Masur was forced out as the NY Phil Music Director (partly because of his age) by the nefarious collaboration of Deborah Borda and Paul Guenther (chairman of the board). Borda and Guenther were then left in the lurch when Riccardo Muti declined an offer to succeed Masur. In haste, they named Lorin Maazel (nearly as old as Masur) as MD. The whole episode was a disgrace.