Chicago Symphony Orchestra names Jeff Alexander as new president

SHARE Chicago Symphony Orchestra names Jeff Alexander as new president

Jeff Alexander | PHOTO BY EAST SIDE EPIX STUDIOS

BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Nearly nine months after Deborah F. Rutter announced that she would be leaving her post as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association after a hugely successful 11-year run, the CSO parent organization announced her successorWednesday.

Jeff Alexander, a conservatory-trained French horn player who has headed the Vancouver Symphony Society in Canada for the past 14 years and spent 16 years prior to that with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, 12 of those as general manager, will follow the popular Rutter, who took up her new positionTuesdayas president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Like Rutter, Alexander is a less-known figure coming from a respected medium-sized orchestra.

The announcement was made by Jay L. Henderson, chairman of the CSOA board of trustees, who also appointed and chaired the 20-member search committee that selected Alexander. The committee included three musicians as well as two senior staff members.

The announcement followed aWednesdaymeeting of the CSOA trustees where concerns were expressed about the importance of filling the position of vice-president of artistic administration with the current vice president, Martha Gilmer, about to leave the CSO after a remarkable 35 years in various positions, to head the San Diego Symphony.

Alexander has received a waiver on his contract in Vancouver to start in Chicago on January 12, 2015. Despite the lengthy search, in this specialized field it is hard to find major candidates who can take up a new position right away.

“Jeff Alexander brings a unique leadership combination to the CSOA,” Henderson said in a statement. “Passion for and knowledge of symphonic music, a strong track record of leading orchestral organizations, a proven commitment to community engagement and the ability to develop effective long-term relationships with the key stakeholders of orchestras. The board of trustees is delighted and confident that we have identified the best person for the job — one who will continue to enhance the CSOA’s distinguished legacy and its worldwide reputation.”

Trustees were told at the Wednesday meeting that CSO music director Riccardo Muti was especially pleased with Alexander’s personal connection with and knowledge of music.

Muti, in a statement, said Alexander “is a person with many fine qualities, and his sincerity and genuine enthusiasm for the music and for the orchestra are evident. He brings a new perspective that in working with the musicians and the music director will allow the [CSO] to reach even greater levels of achievement.”

CSO bassist, Stephen Lester, chairman of the CSO members committee, in a statement said, “The musicians . . . are pleased to welcome Jeff Alexander as president of the CSOA. In Mr. Alexander, the CSO has a proven, effective President who is keenly committed to high artistic standards and who will support the vision of our music director, Riccardo Muti. He has shown a lifelong commitment to managing orchestras and brings a wealth of experience to Chicago. We look forward to his arrival.”

Alexander’s own statement said that he was “extremely honored” to be chosen for the position. “As has the rest of the world, I have for many decades greatly admired and been inspired by Maestro Muti and” the CSO.

Since the 1960s, the top executives of the CSOA have been powerful figures who have served lengthy terms; none has left to head another orchestra. The late John S. Edwards held the post for 17 years until his unexpected death in 1984. Henry Fogel, now dean of the College of the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, had the job for 18 years until resigning in 2003 and becoming president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras. Rutter went to the multi-component Kennedy Center.

Each of Alexander’s three predecessors was also involved in hiring a CSO music director who became the marquee name of the orchestra during each of their tenures. Edwards brought Georg Solti, who brought the CSO to the world; Fogel put his money on the controversial Daniel Barenboim, and Rutter first persuaded the eminent Bernard Haitink to serve as interim principal conductor while she lured the renowned Italian Riccardo Muti to the full position.

Alexander, though, would not be putting this sort of stamp on his time here for at least six more years as Muti’s second five-year contract carries the conductor through the end of the 2019-2020 season, when he turns 79. And Alexander is the first top CSO administrative hire in modern times where the music director, in this case Muti, played a major role in making the choice. Alexander began his Vancouver job the same season as did that orchestra’s current music director, Bramwell Tovey, who last year set his own departure date for 2018.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is the third largest orchestral society in Canada and the largest performing arts organization in Western Canada, including its home province of British Columbia. Its budget of $13.3 million is dwarfed by that of the CSO ($74 million) and it receives 28 percent of its funding from federal, provincial and city government, the same proportion of the budget as its private fundraising, a tremendous contrast to the U.S. model. Government support is a negligible part of the CSO budget, which depends on private fundraising and ticket sales. Annual donations account for 40 percent of the CSO’s annual operating costs with another 30 percent coming from endowment income and specific project support.

In addition to a general record of accomplishment and fiscal responsibility, the Vancouver society under Alexander launched the $25 million VSO School of Music in a new 25,000-square -foot space with more than 1,300 students served by some 90 teachers. Education and outreach to a range of communities also have been central to both Rutter’s and Muti’s agendas in Chicago.

Alexander also comes into a job where a major strategic plan, “Vision 2020,” developed during Henderson’s chairmanship and that of his predecessor, William Osborne, is already in place and being implemented. The plan has never been made public but is focused equally on artistic and civic relevance and fiscal stability. Alexander was involved in creating and putting into place Vancouver’s own plan unveiled in 2002.

Alexander also launched a summer residency for the VSO in the B.C. resort town of Whistler in 2012, with an orchestral training institute set to launch there next summer. Rutter has stated that her one piece of unfinished business in Chicago was developing a better direction for the CSO summer residencies at Ravinia Festival on the North Shore. She did initiate a three-performance annual CSO-produced series at Morton Arboretum in west suburban Lisle, and with the CSOA commissioned a feasibility study for funding, building and launching a summer performance pavilion in the western suburbs.

In his 16 years in Cincinnati, an orchestra with twice the budget of Vancouver, Alexander was heavily involved in both hands-on management and planning and directing both international and U.S. tours. Touring has been a major emphasis for the CSO under Muti. Alexander also managed a large recording program with Cincinnati, another area revived by Rutter who created the house-produced label, CSO Resound. During his time in Ohio, Alexander was also manager of the highly regarded Cincinnati May Festival where the Cincinnati Symphony is the resident orchestra.

Alexander is a performance graduate of Boston’s New England Conservatory. He has been married for over 30 years to Japanese pianist and teacher Keiko Alexander, a Juilliard graduate.

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