Albert K. Webster, Who Built Up the New York Philharmonic, Dies at 82

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

Albert K. Webster, who as managing director of the New York Philharmonic ushered the ensemble into the modern era, when major orchestras began to resemble corporations, died on April 3 at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.

The cause was complications related to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Sally Webster, Mr. Webster’s wife, said.

Mr. Webster held the Philharmonic’s top post from 1975 through 1990, mostly coinciding with Zubin Mehta’s music directorship. Mr. Webster’s accomplishments were unglamorous yet crucial: enormous growth in subscriptions, gifts and the endowment, as well as musicians’ salaries.

Beyond the Philharmonic, he helped create the American Arts Alliance and worked with the League of American Orchestras and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Nick lived and breathed the Philharmonic,” Deborah Borda, the orchestra’s current leader, said.

Albert Knickerbocker Webster — he was known as “Nick” — was born on Oct. 14, 1937 in Brooklyn, and grew up in Ridgewood, N.J. He graduated from Harvard University in 1959 with a degree in physics but was trained and active in music, performing with the Harvard Glee Club and spending two summers in France studying composition with the celebrated teacher Nadia Boulanger.

In 1962, Mr. Webster was hired as the assistant to the Philharmonic’s general manager, Carlos Moseley. At the time, Leonard Bernstein was the music director, and Mr. Webster’s first job was to move the orchestra’s offices from Carnegie Hall to the newly constructed Lincoln Center.

He was promoted to assistant manager in 1965, then left to run the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1971. The Philharmonic lured him back with an offer of the top post in 1975. Pierre Boulez was the music director, though only for a short time before Mr. Mehta was brought on in 1978.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his daughter, Kate Webster, and three grandchildren. His son, Albert V.B. Webster, died in January.

Mr. Webster had a hand in improving facilities for the orchestra’s Parks Concerts, and the creation of chamber music groups drawn from the orchestra. By the time he left, musicians’ minimum salaries nearly tripled. Subscriptions rose from 27,000 to 37,000. The endowment had risen from $9.8 million to $69 million and annual giving more than tripled.

During his time at the Philharmonic public attention was almost entirely reserved for Mr. Mehta. And that was how Mr. Webster liked it. “It’s not my style to be out front in that way,” he told The New York Times in 1979. “My style is to operate more quietly, behind the scenes.”


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