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Jeffrey P. Haydon leading Ravinia into a new era, and a return to live performances amid a pandemic

The seasoned arts administrator had to immediately help stabilize the venerable Highland Park event’s shaky finances and begin determining if there were a way it could present much-desired, in-person performances in 2021.

Jeffrey P. Haydon, the newly appointed CEO and president of the Ravinia Festival, is photographed at the venue earlier this month.
Jeffrey P. Haydon, the newly appointed CEO and president of the Ravinia Festival, is photographed at the venue earlier this month.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

When Jeffrey P. Haydon took over as president and chief executive officer of the Ravinia Festival in early September, six months into the devastating coronavirus pandemic, he did not have the luxury of a soft landing.

The seasoned arts administrator had to immediately help stabilize the venerable Highland Park event’s shaky finances and begin determining if there were a way it could present much-desired, in-person performances in 2021.

The big news is that Ravinia will present a live season this summer that will have about the same duration as usual but will likely feature 80-85 classical, jazz, pop and family events compared to the 110-120 that typically take place in a normal year. The schedule is expected to be announced in early May.

“The board and I had a very passionate conversation where we all agreed that we wanted to open up Ravinia if it were safe to do so,” Haydon said. “Everyone realized that we have a mission and we need to fulfill that mission by bringing live music to people.”

Jeffrey P. Haydon decided to seek the position of president and CEO of Ravinia Festival because of his long admiration of the event.
Jeffrey P. Haydon decided to seek the position of president and CEO of Ravinia Festival because of his long admiration of the event.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Ravinia is the longtime summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a highlight of this year’s season will be a full six weeks of performances by the ensemble, with the maximum number of on-stage musicians capped at around 50 because of COVID-19 safety protocols. Seven concerts will be led by Marin Alsop in her first season as Ravinia’s chief conductor and curator.

Because Ravinia was not able to present a summer season in 2020, the organization suffered a $6 million deficit in its fiscal year ending Sept. 30. It made up that loss by borrowing from its endowment fund, the investment earnings from which it normally uses to help subsidize its operations.

“You’re robbing a little bit from the future when you do that,” Haydon said. “But I think everybody felt confident that was one of those one-time rainy-day moments where it made sense to do that.”

Haydon, a San Francisco Bay area native who grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, always loved music but didn’t want to be a professional musician. When he attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, he became involved with a student-run performing arts series, and arts administration has been his passion since.

He has enjoyed a varied career that included a three-year stint in the development department at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Most recently, he served eight years as chief executive officer of the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York. It presents an annual summer festival, which, though smaller than Ravinia, has a somewhat similar multi-genre thrust, including classical, jazz and roots music.

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is presented at Ravinia in 2018. Live performances will return to the stage of the Highland Park venue in July.
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is presented at Ravinia in 2018. Live performances will return to the stage of the Highland Park venue in July, following the cancellation of the 2020 season due to COVID-19.

Haydon decided to seek the Ravinia position in part because of his long admiration of the event. His wife is a fourth-generation Chicagoan, and when the two were discussing marriage, she took him on a tour of her favorite places in Chicago and one them was Ravinia.

“Obviously, the facilities here are second to none,” he said, “and seeing what Welz [Kauffman, former president and CEO of Ravinia] had done over the years to broaden the impact of Ravinia not only as a concert presenter but also in the community, that was a huge opportunity to say yes.”

Kauffman held the chief executive position for 20 years and oversaw $65 million in infrastructure improvements, including construction of the RaviniaMusicBox, an immersive multimedia space set to open this season. Haydon, who comes across on first meeting as even-keeled and down to earth — a seeming contrast to Kauffman’s sometimes outsized personality — had nothing but praise for his predecessor.

“I’ve really appreciated the guidance and mentorship that he’s given over the years. He has huge footprints to step into here, and I was really humbled by the opportunity to follow in those footsteps.”

With his hands full trying to reopen the festival in 2021, Haydon said it is too soon to discuss his longer-range vision for the festival. But he did voice strong support for the Steans Music Institute, Ravinia’s well-regarded summer training program, and its community education initiative, Reach Teach Play.

“The fact,” he said, “that Ravinia values its work in the community as an advocate for the importance of music as an equal part of its mission to me is very inspiring, and very few other arts organizations have that.”

The festival has delayed the announcement of this season’s line-up in part because of last-minute determinations of what performers will be available.

“We have a number of pop artists that are booked already,” Haydon said. “I would say the big, big headliners, those are all circling around right now. Just in the last couple of weeks, they are more seriously trying to figure out how they might tour.”

At the same time, the festival is dealing with the many COVID-19 safety measures that have to be considered. It has partnered with Northwestern Medicine and consulted with an array of other organizations that present outdoor events from the Chicago Cubs to the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass.

If current Illinois Department of Public Health protocols hold, seating capacity will be 25 percent when tickets go on sale for the first half of the season. But Ravinia officials hope that maximum will be relaxed to some degree by then as vaccinations increase or at least by early July when the second round of tickets are expected to become available.

“You can’t create a 100 percent risk-free environment — it wasn’t that beforehand and it won’t be that afterward,” Haydon said. “But how do we do it where people feel comfortable?”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.