Replacing Rutter: It pays to know the CSO's pedigree

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We posed the question to Drew McManus, the experienced, Chicago-based arts consultant ( "By and large, it has been shaky," he replied via email. While careful not to name names, he cited recent shifts of managerial leadership at the New York Philharmonic, Atlanta Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Dallas Symphony and Indianapolis Symphony as examples.

"New York," McManus said, "is still in a 'wait and see' mode.

"Atlanta did not do well at all — an ugly labor dispute with lots of animosity.

"Philadelphia gutted employee pensions and, in what some might define as an abuse of bankruptcy privileges, they eased decades of poor board governance and equally poor executive leadership decisions without really acknowledging or modifying those root causes.

"The situation at the Minnesota Orchestra (which recently resumed operations after a disastrous 15 month lockout) should go without saying, but it is almost certainly the worst self-induced disaster of the post-downturn era.

"Seattle managed to avoid a nasty labor dispute and transitioned out of a difficult artistic leadership change: I would put them in the tentative 'good' column.

"Dallas has a great artistic product that has grown considerably during the current tenure of music director Jaap van Zweden. But in order to really maximize that potential, they must resolve a long-standing power struggle among board factions that made for a revolving executive door.

"Indianapolis is a good example of how things can fall apart when you go too long without an executive in place.

Counsel from Zarin Mehta

Zarin Mehta, former executive director of the New York Philharmonic and, before that, executive director of the Ravinia Festival, said that it will be vital for Rutter's successor to achieve a strong working symbiosis with the CSO board, staff and Muti.

"The (CSO) board has always been supportive, and that makes the president's job — I wouldn't say easier — but it allows him or her to focus on what a president should be doing: serving the music and community," he said. "I think Deborah's been superb with that. She's been very creative. The person coming in has to build on what she has brought to the table."

While some American orchestras have engaged executive directors from outside the classical music world, doing so would not be advisable for the CSO, Mehta warned. At the same time, he discounted the notion that Rutter's replacement must necessarily come from an elite U.S. orchestra such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Cleveland.

"Look at Deborah — she didn't come from a top 5 or even, I would say, a top 10 orchestra, and she's been wildly successful here," he said of Rutter.

Hard-fought labor negotiations have historically been a fact of life at the CSO, where failure to reach agreement on a new contract resulted in a 48-hour strike by the musicians in September 2012.

Mehta agreed the orchestra's next executive director will have to be a tough but fair contract negotiator who can balance the union's and the players committee's desire to maintain an edge in wages and benefits over other top U.S. orchestras — commensurate with the CSO's artistic pre-eminence — with the need to maintain fiscal responsibility in the long term.

"The (Chicago) players are demanding because they want to remain the best (in the world)," Mehta said. "It's not really a disincentive to anybody to come here because of the labor market," since the potential for labor-management contention is "everywhere" in today's tight arts economy.

Mehta's parting advice to the CSO search committee? "I just hope they get somebody who has a very high musical standard that will match (that of) the city, the orchestra and Riccardo (Muti). That's what it's all about, as far as I'm concerned. Everything else pales by comparison."

Twitter @jvonrhein

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