Jeff Alexander ‘honored’ to be headed to Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago

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BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Even a chat about his childhood with Jeff Alexander, announced Wednesday as the next president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, reveals characteristics and themes of his life that make it clear why he was attractive to the search committee looking for a successor to the popular and highly successful Deborah Rutter.

Within moments, speaking by telephone from his office as president and CEO of the Vancouver Symphony Society in British Columbia, Canada, Alexander is talking about his passions for musical performance and for the nuts and bolts of administration. And about his mentors, going back as far as his first year of college: He speaks of them by name and, at 57, still refers to most of them, even ones with whom he worked for many years, as “Mr.” or “Ms.” And he speaks about all these things both calmly and warmly.

This is a man, after all, who met his wife of more than 30 years, pianist Keiko Alexander, turning pages for her at a recital when he was a senior studying French horn performance at Boston’s New England Conservatory.

Alexander will start his new position Jan. 12, 2015, and will make working visits to Chicago this fall as well. (Rutter is now president of the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.)

“I guess I have always had a curiosity about interesting things,” said the Bronx-born Alexander, who spent his early childhood in Manhattan and then grew up in New York’s suburban Rockland County. “I was a percussionist in elementary school, and one day in practice in junior high I heard the sound of the French horns. Even played by school kids in West Nyack, N.Y., the sound was so beautiful I told the teacher that I wanted to try out the horn instead, even though I knew that it was a very difficult instrument to master.”

The horn took him to the internationally competitive NEC for college where, in addition to studying with former Boston Symphony Orchestra horn chair Tom Newell, and his accidental meeting of his future wife, he was also in the habit of attending lectures by visiting speakers. He even did this at summer student music programs.

“At Round Top [Festival Institute], in Texas, there was a talk on the music business by the late Marvin Schofer, who ran the conductor division of Columbia Artists Management in New York. I did not even know at that time that there was such a thing. It was fascinating. I had a sense already when I went back to Boston for my last year [in 1979-80] that I might not be at the level required to be a top horn player, and then a talk by the longtime personnel manager of the BSO, Bill Moyer, really piqued my interest.

“And I thought: Here are some ways that I could combine my love of music with my interest and abilities in the more practical sides of things.”

In New York Alexander landed a job with a small but important presenter of concerts in Latin America. He could pay Alexander to run the office, but not to travel, even to Mexico. One day one of the agency’s clients, violinist Jaime Laredo, came into the office and suggested that Alexander attend the annual conference of what was then called the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras). He did, and interviewed for and landed his first orchestra management job, general manager — and only full-time staff person — at the Laredo, Texas, Philharmonic. “I learned marketing, fundraising, personnel management, all from the ground up.”

And he continued his training with music management institutes. At one in Austin, Texas, he heard Steven Monder — a legendary leader who had spent 37 years at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Pops, and May Festival by his 2008 retirement — speak about labor relations. At another he met the late Judith Arron (Monder’s general manager), who later led the revival of New York’s Carnegie Hall before her death from breast cancer at 56 in 1998.

“These were people I wanted as my mentors and who loved to mentor people.”

They hired him to run regional touring — “nine counties within 100 miles of Cincinnati” — and education programs. After Arron left for Carnegie Hall, Monder moved him up a step and eventually he succeeded her as general manager for 12 years and as director of the May Festival a bit later. The jobs also included handling the artistic side of things.

“Now every orchestra has a job titled ‘artistic administrator’ or the like. We had to do that work back then, but it was a part of other managerial jobs.”

He revived and organized domestic and international touring there and led a major recording program by both the orchestra and the Pops, some 60 records with Telarc and six televised concerts for PBS.

Alexander and his wife loved their 16 years in Ohio, but when a call came “out of the blue” to look at the top job in Vancouver, he went out for interviews. “We had just been out there on a vacation and thought, ‘wouldn’t this be a great place to live?’ and everything else just made it the logical next step.”

His 14 years in Vancouver were filled with accomplishment, too, with the building of a $25 million community music school, where about 30 of the 90 teachers of 1,200 students are Vancouver Symphony musicians, a point of particular pride since its opening in 2011. His wife takes an active role there as a piano and music educator and coach.

“I have had a wonderful life and career this far, and worked with wonderful colleagues, musicians, mentors and music directors at four orchestras. In many ways each of these positions has been a great preparation to come now to one of the world’s greatest and legendary orchestras led by one of the most important conductors of our time. Keiko and I are very eager and truly quite honored to be coming to Chicago. I look forward to meeting the musicians, the wonderful staff already in place, and more of the board members and supporters as much to see what I can learn from each of them as anything else.”

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