Putting the search for Deborah Rutter's successor in historical perspective, a common thread emerges of challenges met, opportunities missed and varying responses to shifting economics and demographics outside the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Each executive director's successes and failures depended to a great extent on that person's management style and personality; who was music director at the time; how powerful that music director was; the nature of the board and board committee leadership; and many other factors.
Most crucial of all, of course, was how effectively each executive director and, by extension, the board leadership, dealt with the need to reinvent an old business model to cope with a rapidly changing landscape of shrinking, aging audiences, declining revenues, rising costs, an increasingly militant union, the growing marginalization of classical music, and other challenges that have beset symphony orchestras over the past four to five decades.
Georg Solti's 22-year tenure, 1969-1991, was administered by two executive directors, John S. Edwards and his successor, Henry Fogel. With Solti's dynamic music-making producing sold-out concerts at home and in Europe's cultural capitals, as well as a spate of Grammy-winning recordings and many other successes that lionized him in Chicago, the Edwards administration and board were largely content to polish the orchestra's powerhouse image, ignoring the wolf at the door. Edwards dealt with mounting deficits by siphoning off funds from the endowment, a sure recipe for catastrophe. In 1985, when Fogel took office, the CSO had the lowest endowment of any major U.S. orchestra, about $19 million.
Soon after Fogel settled into the front office, the orchestra announced its first budget surplus in more than a decade. Fogel went on to define the scope of his job more broadly than any manager in the orchestra's history. His mighty Chicago forum made him arguably the single most powerful orchestra boss in the business. The signature achievement of his tenure was the $120 million renovation and expansion of antiquated Orchestra Hall as Symphony Center. But the project failed to achieve what it was supposed to do — improve the dry acoustics — and in some respects made the sound worse, a problem orchestra members and audiences alike still have to live with. And the enormous bonded indebtedness the board incurred to pay for the project will haunt the administration for years to come.
Daniel Barenboim was Fogel's choice to succeed Solti, and both men used their clout to get the gifted Argentinian-born Israeli pianist and conductor hired as music director, on the expectation that Barenboim would usher in a new golden age for the orchestra. That never occurred.
Fogel's luster was further undermined by factors not of his making. A severe downturn in the national economy following 9/11 caught him and the board unprepared. Their triumph in balancing the books for 14 years turned to ashes in 2002 when the CSO suffered the worst fiscal crisis in its history, a $6.1 million deficit.
Fogel stepped down June 30, 2003, after 18 years as executive director and, later, president of the CSO Association. He left the orchestra amid a troubled economy that had brought with it slipping attendance and a deficit of more than $4 million. The board rewarded him by retaining him as a well-paid consultant for years after his departure.
Rutter — who at the time went by Deborah R. Card — succeeded Fogel on Sept. 1, 2003. She came in with fresh perspectives for the orchestra, envisioning it as a great cultural institution that belonged both to Chicago and the world, an orchestra she hoped to make more fully invested in the needs of its community than ever before. The trouble was that the equally strong-willed Barenboim was not in full accord with her vision insofar as his own contributions were concerned. He certainly wasn't the team player her administration needed if it was going to get things done. Indeed, Barenboim openly voiced his antipathy to participating in civic outreach and maintaining a high personal profile in the city.
Barenboim gave up the CSO podium at the end of the 2005-06 season. Rutter immediately set about wooing, and finally winning over, Muti, a much sought-after Italian supremo who she was convinced could lead the orchestra to renewed glory at home and abroad. Rutter created the conditions for Muti and the orchestra to renew acquaintances and fall into a mutual love affair that blossomed into the happy musical marriage that exists today. The Muti-Rutter matchup has been no less successful in terms of philosophy, style and interpersonal chemistry. Whether the same strong bond of mutual trust and admiration will prevail between the music director and Rutter's successor, only time will tell.
Inquiries to arts consultants, trustees and musicians as to possible successors to Rutter resulted in a common response: What the Chicago Symphony ideally needs is an executive with many of the same qualifications she brought to the CSO when she was hired a decade ago. A bright, community-minded leader/team player in his or her 40s who is equally savvy in artistic and financial areas. An energetic executive who can build on Rutter's achievements while injecting fresh ideas and vision into the orchestra's long-term strategic plan.
By that litmus test, are there many big-budget orchestra execs worth considering? Frankly, no. Rutter was a standout.
Judging by the performance of nearly every one of her colleagues at the first and second tiers of U.S. orchestras to date, nearly everyone would be a mediocre choice, at best, according to seasoned observers.
Indeed, only one potential candidate in Rutter's league emerges from the current crop of orchestra CEOs, and that is Brent Assink, executive director (since 2000) of the San Francisco Symphony.
Industry professionals consider him one of the best in the field.
Like Rutter, he's proactive in educational and community engagement initiatives. What's more, he has put the SFS at the front ranks of innovation in electronic media and could be expected to enlarge the CSO's presence in that area, which the orchestra needs to do.
Would salary be a major consideration in luring Assink to Chicago?
His annual compensation at the SFS stands at around $600,000, according to the most recent tax filings available. (He also recently received a $250,000 "longevity" bonus as a reward for 14 successful years of running the San Francisco orchestra.) That means he's making only about $22,800 more than Rutter's reported $577,189 salary, but a million or so less than Deborah Borda, chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. (Lots of luck to the CSO board if it thinks it can woo Borda away from the phenomenally successful combo pack she created in LA with Walt Disney Hall and music director Gustavo Dudamel.)
Recent exec shifts
How have other major U.S. orchestras handled a Rutter-like transition at the top?
We posed the question to Drew McManus, the experienced, Chicago-based arts consultant (adaptistration.com). "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."