CSO leadership aims to hit the right note

Written By By Andrew Patner For Sun-Times Media Posted: 01/26/2014, 02:37am
Array Jay Henderson of Northfield (left) with Dan Doherty | Photo courtesy of Dan Kuruna

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the world’s greatest orchestras. One of the most financially solid arts organizations in the country. A flagship of the city’s vibrant cultural life.

Still, the first half of 2014 is a crucial time for the group’s board leadership and senior staff. They must find a new administrative leader to replace Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association President Deborah Rutter, who leaves in July after 11 years here for the top job at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Her departure also accelerates an intense long-range planning process that has been going on behind the scenes at Orchestra Hall for the last several years.

The change in leadership raises questions too. Who is the right person to lead the CSO in an era where society is more digitized and classical music more marginalized? What is the long-term future of the orchestra at a time when many other classical music institutions are facing challenging times?

And where does the orchestra’s internationally renowned music director, Riccardo Muti, a commanding and demanding figure who is hugely popular with audiences and donors, and Rutter’s great catch, fit into the search and planning for the future?

The orchestra has taken the first step for a post-Rutter world: A committee made up of Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association trustees, senior staff members and three orchestra musicians recently was appointed by board Chairman Jay Henderson, according to sources close to the process, and had its first meeting last week. An international search firm, Spencer Stuart, has been retained and has started identifying and interviewing candidates. Henderson, a vice chairman of accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, is keeping a tight lid on the process.

Celeste Wroblewski, the symphony’s vice president for public relations, said in a statement that “the process for [the search] is proceeding as planned” and that the association, Henderson and Rutter “have nothing further to announce at this time.”

Rutter remains in charge of day-to-day operations at the CSO and planning activities outside of the search through the end of the season and fiscal year, June 30. She takes her post at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 1. The 2014-15 season announcements for the orchestra itself and the various Symphony Center Presents series are set for Feb. 3. She will soon lead a long-scheduled retreat on long-range planning with senior staff.

Still, it is an interesting dynamic, as Rutter will not be in place to initiate any of the longer-range plans that are made.

Conversations with several trustees, life and former trustees, and musicians underscore the challenges and opportunities of finding a chief executive for an organization in a strong position financially and artistically.

“What would be ideal,” said one longtime trustee who did not wish to be named during the search process, “would be someone just like Deborah was when we found her” in 2003. Then, as Deborah Card, she headed the Seattle Symphony — also for 11 years as it turned out — and had just built a new hall there.

“A person as comfortable with artistic content as the business side, practical but idealistic, with a fundraising track record and an ability to connect with both the general audience and new audiences. And who is not afraid of a future that has a lot of question marks dancing around in it,” the trustee said.

The new leader will most likely follow Rutter’s emphasis on developing new audiences and better connecting with the digital age.

“One of Deborah’s strongest legacies is that she has developed a culture of openness to innovation in all areas,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, the national industry group, in a telephone interview from his New York office. “Connecting with communities, artistic programming, technical and digital advances, building partnerships. These are levels that many other organizations are working to get to.”

Since becoming board chairman 15 months ago, Henderson has spoken in enthusiastic but general terms about the association’s long-term strategic plan, which is not public information (he did leak the name: Vision 2020). Two trustees who have spoken with Henderson said that he sees the plan and the search for a new president as closely related and reinforcing each other. Henderson has said publicly that the plan focuses directly on securing revenues and building audiences.

While orchestras in a number of cities — Minneapolis, Louisville, Detroit, Nashville among others — have faced strong challenges, including strikes and bankruptcies, the CSO has been able to navigate its labor issues (a new contract with musicians was signed in fall 2012). It also benefits from a still strong tradition that the Chicago business and professional services community has of board service and funding.

The CSO essentially breaks even on an operating budget of just under $74 million. Gifts for operating expenses approach $30 million a year, with endowment and project donations bringing donor income to $52 million last fiscal year. Ticket sales also set a record last year of $22.3 million. The association’s endowment is at a comfortable $257 million. Still, rising costs and a debt load from mid-1990s building expansion coming due may create pressures in the future.

Rosen identifies three major areas that orchestra managers in general need to focus on in the new century: digital presence of both information and music; adjusting to national and local demographic changes; and enhancing the aesthetic experience.

The upcoming retreat is expected to take up such topics as marketing, digital expansion and evaluation of the new “Sounds & Stories” Web portal, the significant commitments made to community and education work under the banners of Yo-Yo Ma’s Citizen Musician program and the Institute for Learning, Access and Training, and ways to reach a wider audience through recordings while satisfying the musicians demands for compensation.

Observers seem to agree that Rutter leaves only one major piece of unfinished business: finding a long-term solution to the orchestra’s summer appearances. Despite chilly relations between the CSO and the management of its historic summer base at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, the orchestra did end up renewing its contract with Ravinia for five years. “There were just no options yet that would satisfy the need to provide steady summer employment for the musicians,” said one former trustee.

The search for president has an added twist: Muti. One of Rutter’s greatest accomplishments was recruiting the conductor to the CSO podium. Muti’s presence and strong bond with the orchestra and audiences is a major factor in the CSO’s current success.

But Muti also is a highly demanding figure with strong opinions. The opportunity to work with the charismatic musician will be an attraction to applicants. Muti’s own sense of the candidates will surely play a major role in the decision the board makes. (Muti has said repeatedly he will renew his contract here past 2014-15, and he also has mentioned several specific projects for the following five years, but has not yet signed a deal.)

“A productive relationship between CEO and music director is one of the defining attributes of being an orchestra leader,” Rosen said. “A music director is first and foremost a performing artist, and it’s the management leader’s responsibility to provide all of the things that allow this artist to give great performances.”

The CSO has a lot of things working in its favor: strong trustee commitment, a solid staff, early efforts at developing new forms of audience-building and digital presence. So even as the association board plans its long-term future, the challenge will be to find someone who can execute that vision while preserving the legacy of a 123-year-old orchestra that must find new ways to grow.

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