Come this fall, the New York Philharmonic will have a transformed home, when David Geffen Hall reopens after a $550 million renovation. In the not-so-distant future, the orchestra will also get a new music director to replace its departing conductor.
On Friday, the orchestra announced another change: Gary Ginstling, the executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, will next year replace Deborah Borda, a revered, dynamic figure at the Philharmonic, as its president and chief executive.
The appointment signals the start of a new era for the Philharmonic, America’s oldest symphony orchestra, which is working to attract new audiences as it recovers from the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic. While the orchestra seems to have weathered the worst of the crisis, the pandemic has brought fresh 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 Borda next year, said he wanted to seize on the momentum of the Geffen Hall renovation.
“This is a singular moment in time when the orchestra is coming out of a really difficult period,” he said in an interview. “This new home is going to be really transformational for the musicians, for the public, for orchestras everywhere and for the city. There’s 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 the reins from Borda, 72, who led the Philharmonic in the 1990s and returned in 2017 to shepherd the long-delayed renovation of Geffen Hall. The return of Borda, one of the nation’s most successful arts administrators, who in the interim helped transform the Los Angeles Philharmonic into one of the country’s premier ensembles — moving it into a new home, stabilizing its shaky finances and appointing Gustavo Dudamel as its music director — was considered a coup for the orchestra, which at the time was struggling with deficits and fund-raising troubles.
Borda said that with the hall reopening and the orchestra on firmer financial footing after the long pandemic shutdown, she felt it was time to step aside. She will leave her post on June 30, 2023, but stay on as an adviser to Ginstling and the Philharmonic’s board, assisting with fund-raising and other matters.
“Those of us in my generation, we’ve done our best, but it’s time to really support and introduce a new generation of leadership who will bring new ideas about everything,” she said in an interview. “This was the right time.”
Borda began working with the board last year to find a successor. They were looking for a leader who could help guide the institution in 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 DC
“We wanted somebody who had the experience, but who was also young enough to have a long runway,” Peter W. May, co-chairman of the Philharmonic’s board, said in an interview. “He also impressed us in the way he’s done outreach in the community.”
After joining the National Symphony Orchestra in 2017, Ginstling experimented with new ways of reaching audiences, including by holding concerts in a 6,000-seat arena designed for rock music. He was credited with helping drive up ticket sales, subscriptions and donations. He worked closely with Gianandrea Noseda, the music director of the National Symphony, whose contract there was recently extended through the end of the 2026-2027 season.
In New York, Ginstling will face familiar challenges. Even before the pandemic, managing orchestras was difficult. Labor costs have risen. Ticket sales have declined as the old model of selling season subscriptions has died out. Robust fund-raising has become essential, as donations make up an ever larger share of orchestra budgets.
The pandemic put new strains on the Philharmonic, which was forced to cancel its 2020-21 season, lay off staff and slash its musicians’ salaries by 25 percent. (The Philharmonic announced this week that it would soon reverse those cuts.)
For all its devastation, the pandemic also brought an opportunity, allowing the orchestra to speed up the renovation schedule by a year and a half (the hall is now set to open on Oct. 7). Over the past year, the orchestra has been without a permanent home, roving among several different theaters, many of them smaller than Geffen.
Ginstling, a clarinetist who has degrees from Yale, Juilliard and the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he would continue the Philharmonic’s efforts to present a diverse roster of composers and conductors.
“If we are in a post-Covid world, and I’m not sure whether we are yet,” he said, “the biggest challenges are rebuilding audiences and then 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 maestro since 2018, who announced unexpectedly in September that he would step down at the end of the 2023-24 season. Conductors like Dudamel, Susanna Mälkki and Santtu-Matias Rouvali, among others, have been mentioned as possible contenders, though the field remains open.
It is unclear whether the search will conclude before the end of Borda’s tenure. She said she was proceeding “full steam ahead” and would continue to offer advice if it is needed.
In a statement, van Zweden, who last year said he would leave the orchestra because the pandemic had made him rethink his life and priorities, praised Borda’s stewardship of the orchestra.
“The future and security of this orchestra is very important to me, and I am grateful to Deborah for leading with me from a position of strength,” he said. “I really look forward to welcoming Gary and to 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 lawyer. His parents his subscribed to Philharmonic concerts and he attended concerts featuring giants like Leonard Bernstein and Zubin Mehta. He took up the clarinet in elementary school and later studied with a Philharmonic player.
“I’ve long had a deep love and passion for orchestras and orchestral music,” he said, “and that really started with the New York Philharmonic.”