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The once and future president: Deborah Borda will return to the New York Philharmonic

Deborah Borda will step down as CEO and president of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to return to the same job at the New York Philharmonic, which she left in 1999. (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

On a day when many arts lovers were waiting for news of the federal budget, the New York Philharmonic made a bombshell announcement, naming its new president and CEO: Deborah Borda.

Borda, 67, is currently the president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which she has elevated to one of the country’s most important and successful orchestras in her 15-year tenure — with a new, acclaimed and architecturally significant concert hall.

Before Los Angeles, she had the same job — at the New York Philharmonic.

With this announcement, the Philharmonic has managed to turn around what has been seeming an increasingly woeful narrative. When we last tuned in this past January, the orchestra had lost its president and two other high-level executives within a span of about a week, leaving it with an incoming music director, Jaap van Zweden, who won’t take over until 2018; the prospect of being homeless for a couple of years while the hall formerly known as Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall, is renovated; and, reportedly, lagging fundraising.

But with Borda’s return (she takes over in September), the orchestra has suddenly landed the leading orchestra administrator in the country — one with a proven track record in fundraising for a major new hall and expanding an orchestra’s activities, and budget, to new heights.

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Why would Borda want to return to a job she already had? Speculation is already running rampant. Her last stint at the New York Philharmonic was a mixed experience. She was the first woman to run a major American orchestra when she took over in 1991, but she had a contentious relationship with Kurt Masur, the music director for her entire tenure. Does this return offer her a chance to realize her vision for the orchestra in the company of a new music director?

Or did she want to live in the same city as her longtime partner, Coralie Toevs, the chief development officer of the Metropolitan Opera? Or did the board just offer her a boatload of money?

The answer is likely some combination of all three, but perhaps outweighed by the thrill of a challenge. The New York Philharmonic, for all of its longtime foibles, is widely seen as one of the pinnacles of the orchestra world, the peak of a career. And it’s in such dire straits right now that only a real visionary can help fix it. No one doubts that Borda could be the person to turn it around; still, it would certainly be a major coup for her were she to pull it off.

It’s almost a shame that Borda, who has been instrumental in implementing more new music and new initiatives in Los Angeles (and who was reportedly frustrated by Masur’s lack of commitment to contemporary work), won’t overlap with Alan Gilbert, who shared many of those interests, but who will step down as New York’s music director at the end of this season. However: van Zweden has generated a lot of international excitement, and while he hasn’t made new music a major focus at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, he is said to have considerable interest in it.

Indeed, next season in New York he is leading the American premiere of Philip Glass’s double concerto for two pianos with the Labeque sisters. The piece had its official world premiere with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2015, and its French premiere the following year — conducted by van Zweden, who may have played a role in bringing it to New York. It’s the first time the Philharmonic will play a piece by Glass on a subscription concert. Van Zweden led a subscription concert in Los Angeles this past weekend that was warmly reviewed in the Los Angeles Times — only days before the New York Philharmonic announcement. We may be seeing shared interests already.