Photo by Todd Rosenberg
My (radio) guest tonight: Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (above), in the first of two parts of a new conversation (recorded last week) reflecting on his recent activities, and on Schubert's orchestral work -- the subject of his focus in Chicago from now through June.
Riccardo Muti announced today that he has renewed his CSO contract through 2019-2020. You can read my Chicago Sun-Times report here.
See you on the radio!
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Saturday January 25, 2014 8:22PM CST
BY ANDREW PATNER
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the world’s greatest orchestras. One of the most financially solid arts organizations in the country. A flagship of the city’s vibrant cultural life.
Still, the first half of 2014 is a crucial time for the group’s board leadership and senior staff. They must find a new administrative leader to replace Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association President Deborah Rutter, who leaves in July after 11 years here for the top job at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
Her departure also accelerates an intense long-range planning process that has been going on behind the scenes at Orchestra Hall for the last several years.
The change in leadership raises questions too. Who is the right person to lead the CSO in an era where society is more digitized and classical music more marginalized? What is the long-term future of the orchestra at a time when many other classical music institutions are facing challenging times?
And where does the orchestra’s internationally renowned music director, Riccardo Muti, a commanding and demanding figure who is hugely popular with audiences and donors, and Rutter’s great catch, fit into the search and planning for the future?
The orchestra has taken the first step for a post-Rutter world: A committee made up of Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association trustees, senior staff members and three orchestra musicians recently was appointed by board Chairman Jay Henderson, according to sources close to the process, and had its first meeting last week. An international search firm, Spencer Stuart, has been retained and has started identifying and interviewing candidates. Henderson, a vice chairman of accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, is keeping a tight lid on the process.
Celeste Wroblewski, the symphony’s vice president for public relations, said in a statement that “the process for [the search] is proceeding as planned” and that the association, Henderson and Rutter “have nothing further to announce at this time.”
Rutter remains in charge of day-to-day operations at the CSO and planning activities outside of the search through the end of the season and fiscal year, June 30. She takes her post at the Kennedy Center on Sept. 1. The 2014-15 season announcements for the orchestra itself and the various Symphony Center Presents series are set for Feb. 3. She will soon lead a long-scheduled retreat on long-range planning with senior staff.
Still, it is an interesting dynamic, as Rutter will not be in place to initiate any of the longer-range plans that are made.
Conversations with several trustees, life and former trustees, and musicians underscore the challenges and opportunities of finding a chief executive for an organization in a strong position financially and artistically.
“What would be ideal,” said one longtime trustee who did not wish to be named during the search process, “would be someone just like Deborah was when we found her” in 2003. Then, as Deborah Card, she headed the Seattle Symphony — also for 11 years as it turned out — and had just built a new hall there.
“A person as comfortable with artistic content as the business side, practical but idealistic, with a fundraising track record and an ability to connect with both the general audience and new audiences. And who is not afraid of a future that has a lot of question marks dancing around in it,” the trustee said.
The new leader will most likely follow Rutter’s emphasis on developing new audiences and better connecting with the digital age.
“One of Deborah’s strongest legacies is that she has developed a culture of openness to innovation in all areas,” said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, the national industry group, in a telephone interview from his New York office. “Connecting with communities, artistic programming, technical and digital advances, building partnerships. These are levels that many other organizations are working to get to.”
Since becoming board chairman 15 months ago, Henderson has spoken in enthusiastic but general terms about the association’s long-term strategic plan, which is not public information (he did leak the name: Vision 2020). Two trustees who have spoken with Henderson said that he sees the plan and the search for a new president as closely related and reinforcing each other. Henderson has said publicly that the plan focuses directly on securing revenues and building audiences.
While orchestras in a number of cities — Minneapolis, Louisville, Detroit, Nashville among others — have faced strong challenges, including strikes and bankruptcies, the CSO has been able to navigate its labor issues (a new contract with musicians was signed in fall 2012). It also benefits from a still strong tradition that the Chicago business and professional services community has of board service and funding.
The CSO essentially breaks even on an operating budget of just under $74 million. Gifts for operating expenses approach $30 million a year, with endowment and project donations bringing donor income to $52 million last fiscal year. Ticket sales also set a record last year of $22.3 million. The association’s endowment is at a comfortable $257 million. Still, rising costs and a debt load from mid-1990s building expansion coming due may create pressures in the future.
Rosen identifies three major areas that orchestra managers in general need to focus on in the new century: digital presence of both information and music; adjusting to national and local demographic changes; and enhancing the aesthetic experience.
The upcoming retreat is expected to take up such topics as marketing, digital expansion and evaluation of the new “Sounds & Stories” Web portal, the significant commitments made to community and education work under the banners of Yo-Yo Ma’s Citizen Musician program and the Institute for Learning, Access and Training, and ways to reach a wider audience through recordings while satisfying the musicians demands for compensation.
Observers seem to agree that Rutter leaves only one major piece of unfinished business: finding a long-term solution to the orchestra’s summer appearances. The Grant Park Music Festival's free concerts in its new Millennium Park Pritzker Pavilion home are tremendously popular, providing great competition to orchestra concerts at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. Despite chilly relations between the CSO and the management of its historic North Shore summer base, the orchestra did end up this season renewing its contract with Ravinia for five years. “There were just no options yet that would satisfy the need to provide steady summer employment for the musicians,” said one former trustee. The CSO has since announced that it will self-produce several popular and family concerts at the Morton Arboretum in west suburban Lisle for the second year this summer.
The search for president has an added twist: Muti. One of Rutter’s greatest accomplishments was recruiting the conductor to the CSO podium. Muti’s presence and strong bond with the orchestra and audiences is a major factor in the CSO’s current success.
But Muti also is a highly demanding figure with strong opinions. The opportunity to work with the charismatic musician will be an attraction to applicants. Muti’s own sense of the candidates will surely play a major role in the decision the board makes. (Muti has said repeatedly he will renew his contract here past 2014-15, and he also has mentioned several specific projects for the following five years, but has not yet signed a deal.)
“A productive relationship between CEO and music director is one of the defining attributes of being an orchestra leader,” Rosen said. “A music director is first and foremost a performing artist, and it’s the management leader’s responsibility to provide all of the things that allow this artist to give great performances.”
The CSO has a lot of things working in its favor: strong trustee commitment, a solid staff, early efforts at developing new forms of audience-building and digital presence. So even as the association board plans its long-term future, the challenge will be to find someone who can execute that vision while preserving the legacy of a 123-year-old orchestra that must find new ways to grow.
A full review to come, but this evening, Saturday January 25, at 7:30 p.m. is the last chance to catch the very belated Chicago première of Carl Nielsen's 1906 three-act comic opera Maskarade. The intrepid and admirably ambitious young Vox 3 Collective is presenting a brilliantly staged, lushly costumed, insightfully and passionately conducted production of the full work -- in Danish! -- with much very fine singing, all in the intimate, modern, acoustically friendly Vittum Theatre at the Northwestern University Settlement House in Noble Square on the Near Northwest Side. Details are here.
BY ANDREW PATNER
Claudio Abbado, the elegant Italian orchestra leader of musical refinement, taste, and curiosity who was principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1982 to 1985, died Monday at his home in Bologna, Italy. He was 80.
A former chief of La Scala, the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Abbado later continued a mostly busy performance and recording schedule as he battled stomach cancer and other illnesses for many years, becoming a deep source of artistic and personal inspiration for many. In Europe his performances with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, a sort of Continental all-star team that was one of many ensembles he created, gave him almost cult status.
Current CSO music director Riccardo Muti said in a statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the news of Abbado’s death. “His disappearance will strongly impoverish the world of music and art.
“I admire him for the strong courage he showed in the face of a long and terrible illness, and for the seriousness and profundity that characterized his life as a musician and as a maestro,” Muti said.
The eminent University of Chicago musicologist and Italian opera expert Philip Gossett in an email saluted “a great conductor and a great musician, brilliant in that universe,” with whom he worked personally in 1984 on restoring Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims to the repertoire. “Claudio worked closely with scholars, not a position that many conductors of his generation followed.” Although thanks in part to Abbado’s example, “they are more numerous in later generations,” Gossett said
CSO artistic vice-president Martha Gilmer, who worked closely with Abbado when he was the popular principal guest conductor here for three seasons during Georg Solti’s music directorship, recalled his “inquisitiveness. His commitment to a wide range of music, his constant searching were [all] an inspiration.
“The last time I saw him,” Gilmer said in a CSO statement, “he asked me to tell the musicians of the orchestra how much he loved and respected them and the time he had with them.”
His CSO performances of the Mahler symphonies and his Orchestra Hall concert versions of Alban Berg’s Modernist opera Wozzeck and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, both in 1984, were particularly memorable. Quiet but insistent in rehearsals, Abbado drew performances that often gave the sense of taking flight. He displayed keen attention at every moment and his various “shushing” signs with his left hand became a trademark.
Abbado frequently was seen as a logical successor to Solti in Chicago, going back to the early 1980s. When Solti did announce his intention to retire, Abbado was one of only two candidates for the post, along with Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim. There are many differing accounts as to Solti’s preference and any actions he might have taken, but then CSO executive director Henry Fogel favored Barenboim and after the announcement in 1989 that the latter would succeed Solti, Abbado returned to conduct the CSO again only to complete recording contract obligations for a Tchaikovsky cycle ending in 1991.
But he and Barenboim continued to work together professionally, particularly with the Berlin Philharmonic when Abbado then succeeded Herbert von Karajan there. In a radio interview Monday with the BBC World Service, Barenboim, who was a boy when he first met Abbado, praised him for being “the first conductor to see the ability of young people to produce great music, to start these orchestras. No one did that before. And he was the first, even before the [Berlin] Wall came down, to bring musicians together from East and West. As a performer with him and in these areas that he pioneered I always think of him as a ‘soul brother.’”
Abbado often took political positions that he perceived as anti-fascist and socially committed, including bringing music to factories and spending his own money for tree planting in Milan. Always slender with, for decades, long, dark hair and a toothy grin belying his shy, serious side, he cut a handsome figure. Chicago baritone and composer Wayland Rogers recalled singing under him in the Chicago Symphony Chorus: “I can’t forget those open, welcoming arms, which embraced the music. All of the women and at least half the men in the chorus were in love with him.”