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Welz Kauffman looks back on 20 years at Ravinia Festival helm

Kauffman is exiting his post as president and CEO of the Highland Park venue on Sept. 30, with plenty of fond memories and a trove of accomplishments — but no official final season, due to the pandemic.

Welz Kauffman will be stepping down as CEO and president of the Ravinia Festival at the end of September after 20 years.
Welz Kauffman will be stepping down as CEO and president of the Ravinia Festival at the end of September after 20 years.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

“I fell in love with the city,” Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman says of his first visit to Chicago in the late 1980s. In town to visit a close friend, Kauffman braved a cold February morning to explore the city.

“I got up early one morning and borrowed his bike,” says Kauffman, who at the time was living and working in Los Angeles’ classical music scene. “He was living just west of the Park West and I rode his bike down to the Gold Coast. And I just fell in love with the architecture immediately. I took pictures of apartment buildings I wanted to live in. [Laughing] Who does that?

“I just wanted to move there. ... From that moment on I knew that at some point I would work in Chicago.”

A decade later, Kauffman did return to the area, this time to Highland Park and the Ravinia Festival, where he would spend the next 20 years of his life, at the helm of the oldest outdoor music festival in North America. He is exiting his post on Sept. 30, with plenty of fond memories and a trove of accomplishments — but no official final season.

The 2020 season had no sooner been announced in March when everything around the world came to a halt due to the coronavirus pandemic. So too, Ravinia, which in May announced the entire season had been canceled. “There’s just no way we could make this happen,” a clearly saddened Kauffman told the Sun-Times at the time. It was the first shutdown for the 116-year-old outdoor summer music festival since the Great Depression forced it to close its doors from 1932 to 1935.

Kauffman started his music career in 1984 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which at the time was overseeing the first U.S. visit of London’s Royal Opera, “the crown jewel of the Olympic Arts Festival” for the 1984 Olympics.

“I was a driver and general chief bottle washer,” Kauffman recalls with a chuckle. His driver duties included chauffeuring Sir Colin Davis, who was conducting the troupe’s productions. “They brought 100-piece orchestra, 100-piece chorus, all of their technical and stagehands, all of their sets for three productions: ‘Turandot,’ ‘Magic Flute’ and ‘Peter Grimes.’ It was unreal.”

The opportunity opened a new world for Kauffman, who soon found himself mingling in the social circles of his world-famous passenger. Professional connections were made on the circuit and other job opportunities came his way on the West Coast, followed by the Atlanta Symphony and New York Philharmonic. He joined Ravinia in October 2000.

“Honestly, a lot of it was being in the right place at the right time,” he muses.

Pianist Lang Lang performs at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2009. The addition of video screens in the pavilion elevated the experience for concertgoers, CEO and president Welz Kauffman says.
Pianist Lang Lang performs at Ravinia with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2009. The addition of video screens in the pavilion elevated the experience for concertgoers, CEO and president Welz Kauffman says.
Tom Cruze/Sun-Times

Many would argue that Kauffman — who replaced Ravinia’s then-outgoing CEO Zarin Mehta — was the perfect choice for the leadership post of the highly regarded festival which was, nonetheless, in need of a new artistic vision, perhaps more in touch with all the possibilities of a new millennium.

Kauffman’s season programming of Ravinia over the years has been part wish list, part reflection of the times, part a strong desire to increase community outreach, he says.

Once heavily resplendent with classical music (Ravinia remains the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and jazz, the festival during Kauffman’s tenure emerged with a lineup boasting everything from pop, rock and hip-hop to blues, country and New Age, while still presenting one of the most intelligent and innovative classical/jazz programs under the stars.

More than $60 million has been spent on infrastructure improvements, including video screens in the pavilion, a completely redesigned dining/restaurant pavilion, and the construction of a new main entrance with its smart and functional underpass from the Metra trains that bring patrons to the festival’s front door. The high-tech, interactive RaviniaMusicBox Experience Center gives pre-concertgoers insight on music and music makers. Ravinia would also see a revenue increase of nearly $30 million over the course of his 20-year run.

“The video screens in the pavilion answered a question I got constantly which was, ‘We love the CSO, we like to see them, but they sit flat on the stage.’ The screens solved it. We had all these cameras so you could now see the pianist’s hands, the conductor’s face. Of course, there were detractors who thought it was dumbing down a classical music concert, but it’s now one of the biggest draws for those concerts.”

Diana Ross performs at Ravinia in 2016.
Diana Ross performs at Ravinia in 2016.
Patrick Gipson/Ravinia

Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett (who has appeared at Ravinia more than 30 times in his career), Common, Bob Dylan, John Legend, Duran Duran, Norah Jones, Diana Ross, ZZ Top, Roger Daltrey, 50 Cent, Queen Latifah, Little Big Town, Los Lobos and Santana are among the diverse artists Kauffman brought (or brought back) to Ravinia’s stage, broadening the scope of the festival’s music genres.

Added to the mix was an increased focus on commissioned works and U.S. premieres. Among Kauffman’s most memorable programming: Ramsey Lewis’ commissioned Piano Concerto for Jazz Trio and Orchestra in 2015, and 2009’s “Proclamation of Hope,” in celebration of the Abraham Lincoln bicentennial, both works also performed by the jazz icon. Others include the Bill T. Jones multi-genre “Fondly Do We Hope. Fervently Do We Pray” in 2009; the South African Zulu opera “Princess Magogo” in 2004; Craig Hella Johnson’s 2018 oratorio “Considering Matthew Shepard” (which returned to the festival lineup in 2019 due to popular demand), and the 2018 production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” under the baton of Marin Alsop, Ravinia’s newly appointed chief conductor/curator.

Education outreach has also been a hallmark of Kauffman’s tenure, including the Steans Music Institute summer student programs, the Lawndale Family Music School, and the implementation of Sistema Ravinia, a music training/outreach program for 3rd-8th grade students in Chicago and Lake County public schools.

Among the many infrastructure projects at Ravinia that came to fruition under the leadership of Welz Kauffman was the construction of a new dining/restaurant pavilion.
Among the many infrastructure projects at Ravinia that came to fruition under the leadership of Welz Kauffman was the construction of a new dining/restaurant pavilion.
Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“I wasn’t hired to be the change agent, but that’s what it turned out to be,” Kauffman says. “I didn’t necessarily think anything was wrong with Ravinia. I just thought they could be more right. Why weren’t we using Bennett Gordon Hall (the student/education-oriented theater on the grounds) for concerts, for example? It’s got the perfect number of seats, it’s air conditioned, it’s sound-proofed.”

For his successor, the lauded Jeffry P. Haydon, Kauffman is leaving a nearly booked 2021 season, “lifting and moving” much of the 2020 lineup of artists to next season, along with some new offerings to fill in the gaps.

“I did OK,” Kauffman says succinctly, when asked to sum up his Ravinia career. “Just from a diversity of audience standpoint — gay, straight, Black, white, old, young — Ravinia truly has something for everyone.”

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga performed a pair of sold-out shows at Ravinia in 2015.
Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga performed a pair of sold-out shows at Ravinia in 2015.
Miriam Di Nunzio/Sun-Times