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Rutter was CSO's fixed point in 2013

Rutter's deft balancing of CSO finances, musical excellence and civic role made her one of nation's most admired arts execs

John von Rhein

December 25, 2013

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Any observer of administrative excellence at the top echelon of American symphony orchestras in 2013 had to conclude it was the Year of the Deborahs.

Both Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, and Deborah Borda, her counterpart at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, helped make their musical megaliths the talk of the industry — and themselves along with it.

Both succeeded through a combination of strong, visionary leadership and keeping the fiscal house in solid working order, without compromising the artistic quality on the front end that motivates people to buy tickets and make contributions. Both widely admired women shattered not only the glass ceiling but also lingering gender stereotypes in a male-dominated management field.

Rutter, 57, came in for further honors a little more than two weeks ago when the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., announced she will become the first female president of the nation's busiest performing arts center, in September 2014.

Her being named to one of the world's most prestigious arts management posts reminded us how much she accomplished during a CSO tenure that began in August 2003 and will end in August 2014, and how directly those accomplishments relate to the CSO's present standing among the great orchestras of the world. And the year just past proved to be a watershed for her as well as for the life of the institution she heads.

Riccardo Muti's charisma, prestige and transformative influence on the musical side certainly factored into the CSO's success in 2013, but it was Rutter who saw to it that the association is building a solid fiscal foundation to support the artistic operation, now and into the future. Beyond running a tight, efficient administration, she has been working hard to create what she calls "a shared understanding" among staff, board, musicians, patrons and the community of the CSO's concerns, needs and prospects.

Only a week before the news broke of her appointment in Washington, Rutter spoke to the Tribune about the orchestra's "dual agenda" — maintaining an "international standard of excellence (while) remembering that we are the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and therefore deeply rooted in the city. We are here, first and foremost, to serve our patrons and our audience, and Chicago itself. It is serving this city that best helps define our mission."

Although Rutter refrains from giving herself the credit, she said she believes the institution's pride in its connection to the greater Chicago community "came to real maturity" this year under her watch.

"The goodwill we have (achieved) throughout our community by way of the CSO's annual festivals; our Citizen Musician initiative; the educational and community engagement efforts of our creative consultant, Yo-Yo Ma; the CSO's Institute for Learning, Access and Training; and the direct involvement of our musicians in the community really has had a major impact on how Chicago feels about its orchestra," she said.

Goodwill can't be monetized with any specificity, but the rosy balance sheet the CSO association reported in fiscal 2013 most certainly can. Rutter kept the organization on an even keel when other U.S. orchestras foundered. Under her helm, the association scored record fundraising and ticket sales for the third consecutive year (ticket sales for the 305 events presented by the CSO association at Symphony Center rose to $22.3 million from the previous year's record amount of $21.4 million); increased total endowment assets by $37 million to $473 million; and increased net assets by $51 million to $266 million.

So impressed was Moody's Investors Services by the long-range financial plan outlined to them (though not as yet to the general public) by Rutter and her executive board that Moody's upgraded the CSO association's ratings outlook this year from negative to stable.

Given the creative zeal the CSO association president has brought to her job over the last decade, you can be certain she won't be serving out the rest of her term at the CSO as a lame-duck chief executive officer relying on subordinates to keep the organization functioning while she focuses on the challenges that await her in D.C. Rutter continues to emanate that rare combination of vision, enthusiasm, dedication and smarts — both fiscal and artistic — that recommended her for the Chicago job in the first place and that nailed the brass ring for her back east.

Indeed, she's the first to acknowledge there's still important work to be done here.

"It's important for Chicago to be a role model in this country about how an orchestra can be healthy in its own community as well as have an international presence," Rutter said. "To be successful with that, all of us — musicians, board, management — are going to have to be on the same page. That's the work that lies ahead, to really strengthen our shared language."

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein