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Retiring Ravinia CEO talks about how concerts might resume

Days away from retirement, Welz Kauffman says Ravinia can watch and learn from the “experiments” going on in Europe.

Welz Kauffman, is exiting after 20 years as CEO and President of Ravina. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Welz Kauffman, is exiting after 20 years as CEO and President of Ravina. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Orchestras cut in half with plexiglass between musicians and two seatings for socially distanced patrons with assigned arrival and departure times. Temperature checks for performers and audience. Live choirs? Maybe not.

If the coronavirus pandemic drags on for another year, Ravinia, the nation’s largest outdoor music festival, will either need to cancel a second straight season or figure out a way to let the show go on safely.

Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman has given a lot of thought to what happens next, even though he’s just days away from retirement after a 20-year tenure.

On Friday, he talked about ways Ravinia might resume next summer, even if there is no coronavirus vaccine, having learned from what German pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach has already done by dividing the Berlin orchestra.

“Christoph … did a 7 o’clock, one-hour concert with half the orchestra and the audience socially distanced. There was no intermission. There was no food and beverage. There were no bars for the public. Those folks left. Musicians left the stage. They disinfected everything for an hour. Then, they let the new audience in and they brought the new orchestra in and did another concert. That’s one creative way of going at this,” Kauffman said.

Orchestras are one thing. Choirs are quite another.

“Now, we know that, if you’re speaking, that six feet of social distancing works. But if you’re singing, it’s more like double that. How do you actually make that happen?” Kauffman said.

“Ricardo Muti in Salzburg with the Vienna Philharmonic did a Beethoven 9 with the chorus set up that way. … . Ravinia has the great opportunity to watch Vienna and watch Berlin and watch Stockholm and watch Oslo and watch Madrid, Tokyo and Singapore and see what they’re doing and learn from those things.”

Kauffman noted the Beach Boys, a Ravinia mainstay, have started doing live concerts.

“They’re such smart guys. ... They know their audience, which tends to skew a little bit older, are going to behave. If there are rules about masks, if there are rules about social distancing, they’re gonna follow those rules. Entry, exit — all of that,” he said.

“They did some concerts in Nebraska and Iowa. They’re gonna keep doing that. These really are experiments. In Germany, they’re doing regular size, regular occupancy, small-club performances with temperature checks and trying to keep people safe. Ravinia can learn from all of that as it unfolds.”

Kauffman said he wasn’t “hired to be a change agent,” but that’s what he turned out to be, both in expanding Ravinia’s musical horizons and changing the physical plant.

On Friday, Kauffman reminisced about the hard sell backstage after a concert in Las Vegas that persuaded Carlos Santana to come to Highland Park shortly after Kauffman took the job.

“I said, ‘I’m gonna work at Ravinia. I would love to have you there. I know you haven’t been there.’ And he said, ‘I won’t come.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘My audience won’t go there. It’s a classical music house.’ He didn’t say it in a mean or derogatory way,” Kauffman recalled.

“I begged and begged and begged and begged and begged. And he came. And it was the fastest sellout we ever had.”

And who can forget the young-and-old pairing of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. Kauffman compared the fire between them to conductor/pianist Daniel Barenboim and cellist-extraordinaire Jacqueline du Pré.

“Amazing, fiery passionate couple on-stage, off-stage. You have that kind of connectivity. With Tony and Gaga, you have a friskiness and an affability and a connectivity and a kind of unspoken, ‘We know what we’re gonna do.’ Both shows were not completely different. The play list stayed pretty much the same. But how they approached each song … was completely different,” he said.

As for the $60 million in structural improvements made during his tenure, Kauffman said Ravinia is a gorgeous place but it needed a facelift.

“One can rely on places looking a little shabby chic. But when they get to be a little more shabby than chic, you’ve got to watch out because [at] concert venues, everything needs to work. It can’t just be terrific performers on stage,” he said.

“One of the things I really wanted to get rid of, which was kind of a pet peeve of mine. Those shush-ers that would walk around the line with those big signs. … They would frighten children. Kids would cry and say, ‘I don’t ever want to go back to Ravinia.’ … How do you quiet down a lawn audience? ... Having video screens. If people can see the concert, they’re in the concert. And if they’re in the concert, they don’t talk.”