NEW YORK – It is the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, led by giants like Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein, but the New York Philharmonic's recent struggles have sent shudders through audiences, donors and power brokers across the classical music world.
It has run deficits for most of this century. It is sometimes treated as an afterthought amid the rich cultural offerings of New York. And during the past two months, it reached a crisis point: An exodus of top executives threatened the Philharmonic's ability to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the long-delayed renovation of its drab Lincoln Center home, and left a vacuum just as the orchestra needs to plan the introduction of its next music director, Jaap van Zweden, in 2018.
So it was nothing short of a coup for the troubled Philharmonic to announce on Wednesday that it had poached one of the nation's most successful arts administrators to become its next president and chief executive officer: Deborah Borda, who helped make the Los Angeles Philharmonic the envy of the orchestra world during her 17 years at its helm.
It will be a homecoming of sorts for Borda, 67, who ran the New York Philharmonic in the 1990s after launching her career as CEO of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (1987-89) and, briefly, the Minnesota Orchestra (August 1990-May 1991).
"You know, the New York Philharmonic is a critical institution in this country, and when things aren't going smoothly at the New York Philharmonic, everybody notices," Borda said in an interview. "Any challenge is really an opportunity. And there are big challenges — I don't deny those — but those are great opportunities."
Borda's achievements in Los Angeles read like a to-do list for New York. She ushered the orchestra into its new home, the popular Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall. She bolstered the orchestra's shaky finances and proved herself a prodigious fundraiser, more than quintupling its endowment to $276 million this year. She signed Gustavo Dudamel as its music director when he was still in his 20s, and oversaw a successful introduction that made him an international star. And she deepened the orchestra's ties to its city while helping the Los Angeles Philharmonic earn a reputation for artistic risk-taking.
Oscar Schafer, chairman of the New York Philharmonic's board, said there was universal agreement that she would be the ideal person for the post after Matthew VanBesien, the orchestra's president, announced in January that he was stepping down. But few thought she could be lured back to the orchestra that she left almost two decades ago.
The turning point, Schafer said, came after New York's incoming music director, Van Zweden, proposed flying out to Los Angeles with Schafer last month to woo her in person.
The three met in a booth at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. "Halfway through the dinner, Jaap reached out, took her hand, and said, 'What will it take to get you?' " Schafer recalled.
Van Zweden said in a phone interview that "if there is anybody in the world who knows how to manage an orchestra, it is her — and more important, how to reach the public, how to make a connection with the city."
Orchestra management has become increasingly difficult, and the talent pool of people with a proven track record is vanishingly small. Its challenges include selling tickets in an era when the old model of marketing subscriptions to a season's worth of concerts is dying out; raising the donations that make up an ever larger share of orchestra budgets; dealing with rising labor costs and musicians protected by powerful unions; and forging connections with audiences when classical music's place in popular culture is increasingly marginalized.
The New York Philharmonic's difficulties are particularly acute. It has run deficits every year since its 2001-02 season. Its endowment is worth less than it was when Borda ran the orchestra in the 1990s, partly because the Philharmonic has dipped into it in recent years for budget needs. Even the much-needed renovation of David Geffen Hall poses danger: The Philharmonic will need to perform away from its home for two seasons during construction, risking the loss of even more subscribers.
The appointment of Borda promises to reassure the music industry and potential donors about the Philharmonic's future. She will assume her post in September with a three-year contract and an evergreen clause allowing it to be renewed.
She seemed to relish the challenges of her da capo return to New York.
"There will be challenges," she said. "It's uphill — but it's doable."