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.”
Acclaimed rediscovered Holocaust-related work will have Midwest première
The Passenger, Bregenz Festival, 2010
By ANDREW PATNER
In an unusual joint announcement due to an odd conjunction of factors, Lyric Opera of Chicago Friday paired the unveiling of initial plans for a new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle several years hence (see my full Ring story below or here) with word that the company will stage a recently rediscovered and highly-acclaimed Holocaust-related opera next season.
Lyric Opera will present the Midwest première of Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1967-68 The Passenger in the 2014-2015 season with the same director and creative team that will create the new “Ring.”
After a concert performance in Moscow in 2006, ten years after the composer’s death, the work was given its world première at the Bregenz Festival in western Austria in 2010 under the conception and direction of David Pountney, who will also create the Lyric Ring cycle. The work had its U.S. première Saturday night at Houston Grand Opera. Lyric general director Anthony Freud had planned the HGO Weinberg production while head of that company before coming to Chicago two years ago.
The story of a chance encounter between a survivor and her Nazi overseer on an ocean liner years after the war, and its intense psychological aftermath, Weinberg based the opera on the 1962 novel of the same name by Zofia Posmycz, a Polish Roman Catholic from Krakow, who survived three years at Auschwitz after being arrested at age 18 for reading banned pamphlets.
Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud said, “As a son of a Holocaust survivor, I am instinctively suspicious of works of art ‘inspired’ by the Holocaust. Too many of them seem to me to be melodramatic, simplistic, or sentimental. This piece is an exception.” Freud’s parents were Hungarian Jews who met in England after the war. His mother survived imprisonment at Auschwitz. His father and paternal grandmother escaped continental Europe before the deportations started.
The Passenger will be presented at Lyric February-March 2015 in Polish, Russian, German, French, Yiddish, and English (as developed by Pountney for the 2010 world première. The original libretto by Alexander Medvedev is in Russian.) Projected English supertitles will be used. HGO will present the work in English in both Houston and this July in New York, in a co-production with Park Avenue Armory and the Lincoln Center Festival.
The Chicago cast, to be “almost entirely different” from the current Houston production, will be announced on January 27, along with full details of Lyric’s 2014-15 season.
Tickets for The Passenger will be available via Lyric subscription sales from February through July. Individual tickets will go on sale in August.
Goerke, Owens to star, Davis, Pountney to conduct and stage
Christine Goerke | Arielle Doneson photo
BY ANDREW PATNER
Things take time in grand opera.
And if you’re talking about a new staging of Richard Wagner’s mammoth Ring of the Nibelung, that can mean nearly a decade.
You read that right.
At a Friday morning press conference, Lyric Opera of Chicago announced top casting, the creative team, and dates for the second-ever new production of the four-opera saga in the company’s storied history. One part will be presented at a time in four successive seasons starting in 2016-2017, culminating in three week-long presentations of the full cycle in April of 2020.
That’s how long it takes to secure the leather-lunged voices required by this demanding music, plan and develop a new and cohesive concept of direction and design, obtain financial backing, and secure spots on Wagner devotees’ (often dubbed “Ringheads”) schedules who are needed for Lyric to sell about 11,000 cycle tickets to fill 43,000 seats for the 12 performances. (Lyric’s first "Ring," starting in 1992, had its full, sold-out cycles in the spring of 1996, created by the late German director August Everding and conducted by Zubin Mehta.)
Lyric launched this artistic campaign with a bang Friday, snaring the world’s most-talked about future Brünnhilde, American soprano Christine Goerke, for role of the sky-riding valkyrie who has inspired nearly 150 years of serious and satirized tough women in breastplates, heads topped by horned helmets.
As expected, Lyric music director Andrew Davis will conduct the new production with Lyric chorus master Michael Black preparing the choral parts.
Unlike New York's Metropolitan Opera, which brought in someone with little operatic experience -- let alone an understanding of Wagner -- autobiographical Québécois theatre artist and Cirque du Soleil stage director Robert Lepage, to create its Ring, Lyric has turned to the widely respected veteran British opera director, translator, and company manager David Pountney (below), to mold its 21st century Ring.
Pountney was joined Friday by the other members of the international creative team who have worked with him in the past creating sets (South African Johan Engels, who designed this season’s Lyric Parsifal), costumes (London-based Romanian Marie-Jeanne Lecca), and lighting (Frenchman Fabrice Kebour) for other successful projects including a recently rediscovered 20th-century opera dealing with the Holocaust. Lyric general director Anthony Freud also revealed Friday that this piece, Mieczysław Weinberg’s 1968 The Passenger, would be a part of the company’s 2014-2015 season. Lecca and Kebour will each be working at Lyric for the first time. (See my story above or here.)
Major role casting
Goerke has rapidly been attracting international interest since she opened the 2012-2013 Lyric season in the title role of the intense Richard Strauss retelling of Elektra. When she took up the key role of the Dyer’s Wife in another Strauss work, Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman without a Shadow"), this season at the Met to similar acclaim, the New York company’s chief, Peter Gelb, showered her with major new contracts, including for Brünnhilde in the first Met revival of the Lepage Ring in 2018-2019.
Goerke will by then have sung Brünnhilde in Chicago in Die Walküre in 2017 and Siegfried in 2018 (her character does not appear in the preamble opera which will start the project in 2016, Das Rheingold). Freud said that he had proposed a Chicago Ring to Goerke just before Lyric's Elektra opened.
So fierce is the competition for the tiny number of dramatic sopranos who can perform this works with volume, stamina, and high artistry that Toronto's Canadian Opera Company made a surprise announcement Thursday that Goerke will take up the role in a stand-alone 2015 revival of the Walküre from Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's earlier full Ring production. She has also been announced as taking up the role in Houston from 2015 to 2017. That cycle has gone through many changes since Freud, who came to Lyric from the top position at Houston, first planned and announced it there several years ago, however.
Owens was a standout success both vocally and dramatically as the evil dwarf Alberich in the Met’s hugely expensive and much-disparaged new Ring from 2010 to 2013. He has appeared successfully at Lyric in recent seasons in two company premières: as General Leslie Groves in Doctor Atomic by John Adams (a role he created) and in the title role of Handel’s Hercules, both staged by Peter Sellars. Owens also stars as another water goblin, Vodnik, in Lyric’s first production of Antonin Dvořák’s Rusalka next month. He is one of the most prominent African-Americans in opera.
Both Goerke and Owens, the latter participating in the pres conference via Skype due to scheduling conflicts, were visibly excited. Goerke emphasized her 'joy" at participating in developing a production and characterization from the beginning. Never boastful, Owens, who has long wanted to take on the lead male role in the cycle, said he was "still getting his feet wet" in Wagner and "still trying to know how to inhabit his sonic world."
"The biggest challenge for Wotan is to keep straight all the names of the children and baby mamas," Owens said with a warm laugh.
Davis, a Briton long resident in Chicago, established himself as a Wagner hand to be reckoned with with the first full Ring of his career during the Lyric’s 2004-2005 50th anniversary season. Wagner’s mythology-inspired, musically revolutionary Ring, Freud said Friday, “represents the high-water mark of our art form -- unique in its scale, complexity, fascination, and indeed in its ability to ‘hook’ an audience. Experiencing a Ring cycle is one of the most life-transforming artistic experiences the world has to offer.”
Even before the 2011 announcement of Freud’s hiring in Chicago, it has been no secret that another Ring was a company ambition and that Davis was especially eager to see a new "from-the-ground-up" production. Freud added Friday, “From the first conversation I had with Andrew upon my appointment as general director, it was clear that one of his greatest artistic priorities over the next ten years was to revisit the Ring.” Davis has also had great success at Lyric last season with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger and this season with Parsifal, two of the composer’s great and most substantial individual works.
Pountney (left) is a known quality around the world as well as at Lyric where his productions of Satyagraha by Philip Glass in 1987-88 and Kurt Weill’s Street Scene (2001-02) were moving and highly insightful. Lyric said it had secured major funding in support of the new Ring from local industrialist and philanthropist Dietrich M. Gross and his wife, Erika Gross.
Pountney and the production
High costs and technology yielding mixed results in recent New York and Los Angeles Rings -- the Met production cost over $16 million, much for a giant mechanized abstract machine and set of surfaces for video display that often broke down and made noise during performances. And over-the-top interpretation drew boos and grumbling in Bayreuth, home of the annual festival Wagner himself founded in Bavaria for his works. Look for this new Chicago Ring to be both more subtle and more carefully thought out. Pountney several times said that "the saga of storytelling is itself a great part of the story."
"The Ring is one of the great philosophical and cultural statements that we have, not least about love itself," Pountney observed.
Pountney is clearly thinking long and hard about the structure of the cycle and the way that the four pieces both fit together and have individual characteristics. He reminded attendees that Wagner wrote the librettos, or stories and texts, of the four operas "backwards" -- from the final Twilight of the Gods to the opening Rheingold, becoming "more mature" as a writer as he went -- but wrote the music "in the right order," from prelude to conclusion, growing deeper there in the opposite direction. "Time," he said both at and after the press conference, "is always moving both ahead and back in this work. Time is itself a subject of the cycle."
"One of the challenges of Wagner is in the way" through frequent narration by characters "he makes time stand still," Pountney said. "A director has to remember that he has to make things that will be interesting on stage for 20 minutes at a time. It's easy, in contrast, to make something interesting for just two minutes!"
Freud said he would and could not put a dollar amount on the full production, "in part because we literally don't yet know what we are looking in terms of design," but said that, "Just as added expenses provide great challenges so they provide new opportunities for major support."
When asked if the new production might require that the Civic Opera House stage be reinforced -- as the Met's stage had to be for its new set, at great cost -- Freud smiled and said that he did not think so. Davis let out what Pountney called "quite a cackle."
Pountney said that his team was meeting and talking regularly -- "We all four communicate almost telepathically at this point in our years of collaboration," designer Engels said -- and planned to "present drawings to the company for all four operas by December of this year."
Schedule and future announcements
The four-year scheduling pattern is a traditional one at Lyric, both as a means of building up the series over time and allowing the performers to grow in their roles and as way of sharing each of the first three operas with regular season subscribers, many of whom then might also purchase tickets to the complete 2020 cycle. Rheingold will be a part of the 2016-17 season, Walküre that of 2017-18 and Siegfried the 2018-19 season. The lengthy concluding opera, Götterdämmerung (“The Twilight of the Gods”) will be offered on some subscriptions at the end of 2019-20, followed by the three complete cycles in April 2020.
Tickets for the full Ring cycle will not go on sale until 2018, with pricing, further casting, and additional sponsorship to be announced at later dates. Tickets for th efirst opera, Das Rheingold, will be offered in 2016.
Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Lyric Opera of Chicago
Das Rheingold: performances begin October 1, 2016
Die Walküre: performances begin in early November 2017
Siegfried: performances begin in early November 2018
Götterdämmerung: performances begin in late March 2020
Three complete “Ring” cycles:first cycle begins in April 2020
Hat tip to Mr Whet Moser for being able to hear the second Eric Owens quote more clearly than those of us not sitting near the television speaker!