The Future Is (a Little More) Female at the New York Philharmonic

Maybe it was inevitable that the one leader in classical music who could upstage Deborah Borda was Deborah Borda. Ever since the New York Philharmonic appointed her president and CEO last spring, wooing her from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the orchestra world has been hoping she would bring some that West Coast magic back East. At any other time, the first full season she and music director Jaap van Zweden programmed together would have seemed bold, beginning as it does with a newly commissioned work by Ashley Fure and ending with a David Lang opera. But a week before the rollout, Borda’s old band beat her new one to the punch: The L.A. Philharmonic announced a yearlong centennial extravaganza that she also had a major role in programming. That L.A. season includes 50 commissions, nearly half by women and more than half by composers color, and it makes virtually every other orchestra in the world look timid or decrepit or both. “No orchestra has been this ambitious, ever,” trumpeted a Los Angeles Times headline.

East Coast Borda has taken up West Coast Borda’s challenge. “Historically, the New York] Philharmonic has flourished when it’s taken risks,” she tells me. When Borda took over, the framework for 2018–19 was already in place, but she and van Zweden dismantled the season and hammered it back together with a more cogent purpose in mind. “We felt the New York Philharmonic should be our city, about our city, and in our time.” Like every other arts organization, the orchestra is chasing the young (or youngish), and Borda insists the key is not to peddle outdated prestige or blandish with watered-down entertainment but to present art that is socially engaged. “Millennials are hungry for experience, but they need a different context, one that’s political and social,” she says.

The result is a season in which new music, especially the made-in–New York kind, has a major presence — not just as a condiment to be used sparingly between thick slabs Beethoven but in the form large-scale dramas. David Lang took a leave from teaching at Yale to fill Borda’s rush order for his prisoner the state, an updated retelling Beethoven’s political opera Fidelio. Lang’s fellow Bang on a Can co-founder (and fellow Pulitzer Prize winner) Julia Wolfe will revisit the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a multimedia work called Fire in My Mouth. And a Philharmonic tribute to the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen, an inescapable influence on the New York scene, will center on the world premiere his Agamemnon. When a fresh score does share a program with a blockbuster classic, the pairing serves as a challenge: Ashley Fure will have to hold her own with Stravinsky’s Rite Spring and Conrad Tao with Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony.

Like most large orchestras, the Philharmonic is a sluggish institution. Borda is nudging it forward, but it’s unfair to expect an immediate Errol Flynn leap into the future. Five world premieres, two by women, is not an astounding statistic, though more new music, and perhaps more it by women and composers color, will populate smaller events outside Geffen Hall. Van Zweden’s predecessor Alan Gilbert founded Contact! a tiny, roving series devoted to new chamber music that sometimes seemed only distantly