New York Philharmonic chooses veteran of the arts as leader

This fall, the New York Philharmonic will have a transformed home when David Geffen Hall reopens after a $550 million renovation. In the not-too-distant future, the orchestra will also have a new music director to replace the departed conductor.

On Friday, the orchestra announced another change: Gary Ginstling, executive director of the Washington National Symphony Orchestra, will replace Deborah Borda, a revered and dynamic Philharmonic figure next year, as president and executive director.

The appointment signals the beginning of a new era for the Philharmonic, the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, which works to attract new audiences as it recovers from the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. While the orchestra appears to have weathered the worst of the crisis, the pandemic has brought new urgency to questions about changing audience habits and expanding into the digital sphere.

Ginstling, who will join the Philharmonic this fall as executive director before succeeding Edge next year, said he wanted to seize the momentum of the Geffen Hall renovation.

“This is a unique moment in time where the orchestra is coming out of a really difficult period,” he said in an interview. “This new home will be truly transformative for the musicians, for the audience, for orchestras everywhere and for the city. There is a chance for the Philharmonic to make the most of this moment and set itself up for long-term success.”

The appointment marks a generational shift at the Philharmonic. Ginstling, 56, will take over the reins from Borda, 72, who led the Philharmonic in the 1990s and returned in 2017 to lead the long-delayed renovation of Geffen Hall. The return of Borda, one of the country’s most successful arts administrators, who in the interim helped transform the Los Angeles Philharmonic into one of the nation’s premier ensembles – moving it to a new home, stabilizing its shaky finances. and naming Gustavo Dudamel as its music director – was considered a blow to the orchestra, which at the time was struggling with deficits and fundraising problems.

Borda said that with the hall reopening and the orchestra on firmer financial terms after the long shutdown of the pandemic, she felt it was time to step away. She will step down on June 30, 2023, but will remain an advisor to Ginstling and the Philharmonic’s board, assisting with fundraising and other matters.

“We of my generation have done our best, but it’s time to really support and introduce a new generation of leadership that will bring fresh ideas about everything,” she said in an interview. “This was the right time.”

Edge began working with the board last year to find a successor. They were looking for a leader who could help guide the institution through a time of momentous transitions. After interviewing five candidates, the Philharmonic in May offered the job to Ginstling, who has managed orchestras in Cleveland, Indianapolis and Washington D.C.

“We wanted someone who had experience, but who was also young enough to have a long track,” Peter W. May, co-chairman of the Philharmonic, said in an interview. “He also impressed us with the way he did outreach to the community.”

After joining the National Symphony Orchestra in 2017, Ginstling experimented with new ways to reach audiences, including performing in a 6,000-seat arena designed for rock music. He has been credited with helping to increase ticket sales, subscriptions, and donations. He worked closely with Gianandrea Noseda, music director for the National Symphony, whose contract was recently extended through the end of the 2026-2027 season.

In New York, Ginstling will face family challenges. Even before the pandemic, managing orchestras was difficult. Labor costs have increased. Ticket sales plummeted as the old model of selling season subscriptions died out. Robust fundraising has become essential as donations represent an increasing share of orchestras’ budgets.

The pandemic has put new pressures on the Philharmonic, which has been forced to cancel its 2020-21 season, lay off staff and cut its musicians’ salaries by 25%. (The Philharmonic announced this week that it would soon reverse those cuts.)

For all the devastation, the pandemic also brought an opportunity, allowing the orchestra to expedite the renovation schedule by a year and a half (the hall is now scheduled to open on October 7). Over the past year, the orchestra has been left without a permanent home, moving between several different theaters, many of them smaller than the Geffen.

Ginstling, a clarinetist with degrees from Yale, Juilliard and the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he will continue the Philharmonic’s efforts to present a diverse roster of composers and conductors.

“If we’re in a post-Covid world, and I’m not sure we still are,” he said, “the biggest challenges are rebuilding the audience and finding ways to connect with our communities and in new and different ways.”

The Philharmonic is just beginning its search for a conductor to replace Jaap van Zweden, its conductor since 2018, who unexpectedly announced in September that he would step down at the end of the 2023-24 season. Conductors such as Dudamel, Susanna Mälkki and Santtu-Matias Rouvali, among others, have been mentioned as possible candidates, although the field remains open.

It is unclear whether the search will be completed before the end of Borda’s term. She said she was following “full steam ahead” and would continue to offer advice if needed.

In a statement, van Zweden, who last year said he would leave the orchestra because the pandemic made him rethink his life and priorities, praised Borda’s management of the orchestra.

“The future and safety of this orchestra is very important to me, and I am grateful to Deborah for leading me from a position of strength,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to welcoming Gary and working with him.”

The appointment is something of a homecoming for Ginstling, who grew up in New Jersey, the son of a Juilliard-trained pianist and a tax attorney. His parents signed up for Philharmonic concerts and he attended concerts with such giants as Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. He took up the clarinet in elementary school and later studied with a philharmonic musician.

“I have long had a deep love and passion for orchestras and orchestral music,” he said, “and it really started with the New York Philharmonic.”

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