BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
When Martha Gilmer came to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as a student intern in 1976, Georg Solti was music director and John S. Edwards, the man who hired Solti, was general manager.
In 35 of the 38 years since then, Gilmer has worked closely alongside an additional four world-renowned music directors and principal conductors — Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink and now Riccardo Muti — and two prominent institutional chiefs — Henry Fogel and Deborah F. Rutter — as she rose to become vice president for artistic planning and audience development of the parent CSO Association, essentially the number two executive position. So identified is she with her work and its duties that CSO benefactors Richard and Mary L. Gray endowed her position, the only such administrative post at the organization.
So it was both a surprise to many and a logical move Thursday morning when the San Diego Symphony, the oldest orchestra in California, named Gilmer its next CEO, effective Sept. 24. She will succeed Edward “Ward” Gill, widely credited with turning the Southern California group around and securing its finances over the past decade, who is stepping down at 63. Gilmer’s initial contract is for three years.
San Diego, launched in 1910, has an annual budget of about $20 million and a full-time roster of 82 musicians. Jahja Ling has been music director in San Digeo since 2004. The CSO operating budget last year approached $74 million with 101 players.
“For 35 years I have called the Chicago Symphony Orchestra my artistic home, and it will forever have a place in my heart,” Gilmer said in a statement released by the CSOA.
“I have worked with the most dedicated and talented colleagues on the CSO administrative team, and worked alongside visionary volunteer leaders and donors. Importantly, I have been moved by the dedication and appreciation of the audiences that love the CSO and CSO Chorus as much as I do, in Chicago and around the world. All of this I take with me as I take on a new challenge with the San Diego Symphony.”
Gilmer moves to her first turn as a CEO at a time of transition at the CSO. Rutter, her boss for the past 11 years, left Chicago in June after a spectacular run to become president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and an international search is under way for Rutter’s successor. Gilmer had been a candidate along with Rutter to succeed Henry Fogel when he stepped down from the top job in 2003 after 18 years. CSO board chair Jay L. Henderson, a top vice chairman at PricewaterhouseCooper LLC, has kept information about the current search under tight wraps.
Henderson observed in a statement, “Martha Gilmer has been a revered artistic leader at the CSO for 35 years. Her work and reputation are recognized internationally, and her dedication to audiences and artists, as well as her commitment to presenting extraordinary music and pushing the boundaries of the art form, is exceptional. I know that the entire board and staff, as well as the CSO musicians, wish her the very best as she takes on a new challenge in her distinguished career.”
Muti, having extended his contract as CSO music director to 2020, will play an important role in selecting the institution’s new president who, along with the Italian conductor, will surely have ideas about the current leadership team at Orchestra Hall, well-respected but with a number of them holding positions going to back to Fogel’s tenure.
In a statement, Muti said, “For 35 years Martha Gilmer has played an important role in shaping the artistic profile of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her creativity and her passion for music come through [in everything she does]. She has been an invaluable partner to me. I am happy that San Diego, the beautiful city where we were together with the CSO on its most recent West Coast tour, will gain from her long experience, and I wish her much success in the future.”
Gilmer’s role has been large. In addition to working with the music directors, their ideas and complex personalities and overseeing all programming, she worked with and enlisted guest conductors and guest artists and created new ongoing programs to move the organization into the 21st century. She was a creator of the CSO’s Mead Composer-In-Residence program and directed it with each of its appointees: John Corigliano, Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas and the current occupants, Mason Bates and Anna Clyne. With her then deputy Matias Tarnopolsky and Thomas, Gilmer launched the hugely successful MusicNOW series of contemporary concerts and built up its large following of young people. With Gerard McBurney she devised and continues to produce the hugely popular Beyond the Score series, a mix of orchestral performance, theater and music education that has been exported to many other orchestras and she launched the Afterwork Masterworks series, offering early-start, no-intermission Wednesday evening concerts. With veteran “Classic Rock” WXRT program host Terri Hemmert, Gilmer co-hosts the ClassicEncounter series she created, bringing young professionals and baby boomers to orchestral music.
The multiple Grammy-winning CSO Chorus, the nation’s largest professional chorus, is under Gilmer’s guidance, and, with her staff she has also developed and overseen the classical, jazz, pop and world music offerings of Symphony Center Presents. Several collaborations with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago have been hugely popular as has the Friday Night at the Movies series.
In recent seasons, Gilmer introduced spring festivals — of Beethoven, Dvorak, keyboard music and other themes — that have proven popular with audiences and critics alike.
A native of Burlington, Wis., Gilmer is a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Music and held jobs between her CSO internship and staff position as operations director at Northwestern’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and marketing coordinator at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Her husband, William Gilmer, recently retired as band director at Willowbrook High School, and is the new conductor Des Plaines Park District Community Concert Band. Longtime residents of Oak Park, they have three sons.