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Abstract: At the turn of the 21st century, the Los Angeles Philharmonic should have been a more successful orchestra than it was. Its fortunes had slipped sadly since the heyday of the 1980s. Ticket sales were off, and it faced a deficit of some $7 million. Its innovative Finnish-born director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, had alienated some of the orchestra's core constituency with his enthusiastic programs of contemporary music. Despite a generous operating budget, it had one of the smallest endowments among its peers. The LA Philharmonic, while considered good--even excellent--in international circles, did not enjoy much of a reputation in its home city.
There was one bright spot--the Philharmonic was scheduled to move into a new building in 2003. Supporters hoped that the Walt Disney Concert Hall (WDCH), as it was called, would trigger a renaissance of the blighted downtown at the same time that it put Los Angeles on the nation's cultural map. Even WDCH, however, was a mixed blessing. Construction of the building, designed by the iconoclastic Frank Gehry, had languished since an original donation of $50 million from Lillian Disney--widow of Walt, creator of the Disney empire--had jumpstarted the project in 1987. Despite these challenges, Deborah Borda--an experienced orchestral administrator coming directly from the prestigious New York Philharmonic--had accepted the position of LA Philharmonic executive director, starting January 1, 2000. She recognized that the orchestra was in a difficult situation, but she also saw unique potential-especially in the new hall. With enough planning, strategizing and plain hard work, she hoped to use the WDCH opening to engineer a turnaround for the orchestra. She would have to revitalize marketing, development, and concert programming, and possibly make some personnel changes.
Borda had three years to remake the organization and set the stage for a renewal. If she succeeded, no one would remember the tough decisions that preceded a memorable opening. If she failed, the classical music world--and Los Angeles--would hold her responsible.