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What Deborah Borda Told Curtis’s Graduating Class: Be ‘Soldiers For Music’

May 16, 2017

Orchestra management veteran Deborah Borda, who takes over as president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic in the fall, gave the commencement speech Sat., May 15, 2017, at the Curtis Institute of Music.

While the graduating scholars of Haverford College heard this year from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Penn students from Sen. Cory Booker, the three dozen or so singers, pianists, violinists and other musicians taking degrees from the Curtis Institute of Music were implored by an industry leader to become “soldiers for music.”

Deborah Borda, who leaves as president and CEO of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to take the same spot at the New York Philharmonic Sept. 15., told Saturday’s audience of students, parents, faculty, and guests that “everything I took for granted as a musician first and then managing America’s great orchestras has changed.

“Orchestras can no longer rely on old-fashioned subscription models,” she said. “Music education is not guaranteed in public schools, and in a positive sense the entire history of classical music can all be streamed online for free. So the world I knew, and have worked in, and will continue to work in will not be the one you move through in your careers.”

Many of the students will be getting an immediate taste of a musician’s work life when the school orchestra takes off Wednesday for a two-week European tour.

In her 15-minute address, Borda, who trained as a violinist and violist, flattered her audience. “You are the elite of … the micro-kingdom of classical music,” she said. She prodded: “How much time have you spent on your life rather than on your technique?”

Most of all, she urged this audience of super-specialists to lift their heads from their musical scores to figure out how music fits in with larger society. Borda recalled the story of how Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel first came to the attention of the orchestra when then-music director Esa-Pekka Salonen heard the 24-year-old conductor in what she recalled him saying was “the best damn Mahler [Symphony No.] 5 I ever heard in my life.”

But it was Dudamel’s philosophy about the place of music in society that she said really changed her life. Borda and Dudamel helped affirm music education as core to what American orchestras do by establishing, in 2007, the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, inspired by the El Sistema orchestra-training program in Venezuela of which Dudamel was a product.

“He changed my way of thinking about music, audiences, social justice – something we don’t often talk about in music – education, and indeed the technique of life,” she said.