CSO's search to replace Deborah Rutter

CSO president has set a high bar for successor

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Deborah Rutter

Deborah Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune / December 18, 2013)

Much has changed inside and outside the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since Deborah Rutter — then Deborah Card — moved from running the Seattle Symphony to becoming CSO Association president in 2003.

She inherited an organization that was significantly in debt from a massive renovation project, had experienced a sharp drop in attendance and ticket revenues, and had a music director, Daniel Barenboim, who was resistant to fundraising and community involvement and would announce his departure the following year. Now the orchestra is thought to be on its most solid financial footing in years, with one of the world's most renowned conductors, Riccardo Muti, serving as its music director to raise the artistic bar while drawing large audiences to programs at Symphony Center and beyond.

At the same time, orchestras nationwide have fought to remain relevant and viable amid increased competition from ever-expanding media and entertainment offerings, a persistently difficult economy and fundraising environment, and shifting behaviors among overscheduled concertgoers less inclined to commit to subscriptions than to buy tickets on a case-by-case basis.

So despite the great strides that the CSO is widely considered to have made under Rutter, when she departs at the end of June to become president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, her successor will inherit a plate piled high with pressing demands, issues and challenges.

"You have to interact and navigate through competing agendas and constituencies and inherent tensions," Mark Volpe, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's managing director since 1997, said of a job that "just gets more complex."

"Fundamentally what we do is we care and nurture for music and musicians and try and steward an institution to serve an audience, so at the very core it's exactly the same job," Rutter said in an interview Wednesday. "But the world around us changes."

To find someone who can finesse those changes, the CSO has appointed a 20-person search committee led by CSO Association Board Chairman Jay Henderson, vice chairman of client service for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. It includes three musicians (bassist/Orchestra Member Committee Chairman Stephen Lester, concertmaster Robert Chen and horn player Jim Smelser), two senior staff members (Development Vice President Karen Lewis Alexander and CFO Isabelle Goossen) plus various trustees and donors. The Chicago-based executive search consulting firm Spencer Stuart also has been enlisted, sources said, with work expected to be completed perhaps by Memorial Day.

Henderson's desire to reveal almost nothing about the search was evident in his referral of an interview request to the orchestra's PR department, which passed along a previously issued statement noting that the process "is proceeding as planned; we have no doubt that it will result in the timely selection of an exceptional leader for an exceptional orchestra and the association that supports it. We have nothing further to announce at this time, but we will alert our constituents, including the media, when we do."

CSO life trustee Joseph Glossberg, who is not on the search committee, said the organization is embarking on this search at an advantageous time. "The shape the symphony is in now, they ought to be able to get anybody they want," he said. "In my many years of being involved, I've never seen it in better shape."

Former CSO Association Board Chair William Osborn, a search committee member, agreed that the orchestra is operating from a position of strength.

"There are significant differences between the CSO where it is now and where it was when Deborah came in, and lot of it's because of Deborah," he said. "A lot of it's because of Maestro Muti. A lot of it's because of the musicians. A lot of it's because of the success we have had putting that all together. A lot of it's because of our global profile.

"There is a lot of difference today, and that is why I think the search will lead to someone who will continue to allow us to move the CSO into an even more important arena than it is today."

Rutter is leaving the CSO in stronger financial shape than many of its peers. The orchestra nearly broke even last year after two years of running a roughly $1 million operating deficit. Its operating budget hovers around $70 million, up $15 million from five years ago, thanks in part to a 32 percent increase in donations. And although the CSO still owes about $145 million for renovations on Symphony Center — which were undertaken by Rutter's predecessor, Henry Fogel — Moody's Investors Service removed a negative outlook from its debt rating in November.

"They're better off than most other large-budget orchestras," said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts consultant. "But they still need to watch their revenue like a hawk."

The bigger picture in the classical music world has been less rosy, as over the past decade, most orchestras in major U.S. cities have struggled to fill concert halls and grappled with labor conflicts and budget shortfalls aggravated by the recession. The Philadelphia Orchestra became the first major U.S. orchestra to file for bankruptcy in 2011, emerging from Chapter 11 protection the following year.

Its chief executive, Allison Vulgamore, had been hired away from her post as Atlanta Symphony Orchestra president in 2009, and that's generally the way these things work: The traditional U.S. "Big Five" orchestras (Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland and the New York Philharmonic) — and you can add the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the biggie list — generally seek their candidates from orchestras considered to be on a lower tier.

Volpe arrived in Boston from the Detroit Symphony. Matthew VanBesien took over the New York Philharmonic in 2012 after stints in Melbourne and Houston. Deborah Borda made a more lateral move from the New York Philharmonic to the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2000, though she'd been at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra previously. Cleveland Orchestra Executive Director Gary Hanson was a rare internal hire, moving up from associate executive director in 2004.

And Rutter came from Seattle, where her accomplishments included boosting audiences and finances and building a new hall for the orchestra.

"They did very well by Deborah," Volpe said of the CSO. "I would think it would be a similar profile (they're seeking)."

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's managing director added that although some such searches cast a wider net to consider candidates from, say, universities or nonprofits, there's a reason orchestras tend to hire from orchestras.

"If I were advising the Chicago search committee, I would think twice about pulling someone from outside the field," Volpe said. "It's such a distinct culture. There are elements that translate whether it's fundraising or marketing, but the culture backstage, the culture with artists … a little experience dealing with senior artistic figures and players is incredibly helpful, especially in Chicago that has such tradition."

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