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."

So we're not talking about an infinite number of job candidates.

"It's not a big pool," League of American Orchestras President/CEO Jesse Rosen. "These are extremely challenging jobs. Relatively speaking, the orchestra field is a small one compared to the legal profession, doctors, what have you. You start out with a small universe, and when you get into these top jobs, the challenges are in many respects larger than leading an orchestra at a tier below, so you have a relatively small pool of applicants."

At the same time, the required skill set is constantly evolving. Rutter said that when she took the CSO job, she wasn't constantly checking email to see whether she might have missed some urgent matter.

"If you look at anybody doing business in 2003 or 1993 versus 2014, the biggest difference is technology and the expectation for communication, decision-making, information-sharing and the immediacy that comes along with that," Rutter said. "The environment around us has changed so dramatically and so quickly; how do we keep up with that with an art form that is essentially hundreds of years old?"

Zarin Mehta, former executive director of the New York Philharmonic and, before that, executive director of the Ravinia Festival, said another key factor in the CSO search will be the incoming president's compatibility with the strong-minded 72-year-old music director, Muti.

"Let's face it, that person must be acceptable to the maestro," said Mehta, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Muti to take over the New York Philharmonic. "He's demanding but demanding in the right way. He's professional, and he wants things to go properly. He loves the (Chicago) orchestra, and he loves the city; I know, because he's told me. So the person that comes in is going to have to be a really strong partner."

A CSO spokewoman said Muti was unavailable to comment.

Muti's current contract runs through the 2014-15 season, and although negotiations on an extension have taken place — with the general feeling that both sides wish to continue this relationship — no agreement has been reached.

Capturing top talent to replace Rutter could add to the CSO's expenses as well. Among top executives at the "Big Five" plus the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Rutter had the lowest total compensation: $577,189, in 2012, the most recent year for which tax filing data was available.

Muti and Rutter have been of like minds in extending the CSO's reach far beyond the Symphony Center walls through performances in prisons, churches, community centers and other venues and audiences not traditionally served by the orchestra — as well as through the broad Citizen Musician initiative to establish music's relevance in more people's lives. Muti and Rutter brought in renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma (who performed with the conductor and orchestra at Symphony Center this weekend) as the CSO's creative consultant in late 2009 to spearhead many of these activities.

The organization's increased involvement in the city can be seen in the CSO's and Lyric Opera's partnership in the Chicago Public Schools Arts Education Plan, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel appearing recently with Ma and Lyric creative consultant Renee Fleming to tout new initiatives.

Lyric general manager Anthony Freud said such a collaborative spirit among Chicago's arts organizations and city no doubt makes the CSO president job more attractive. "I think it's a great job," Freud said. "It's a great institution, obviously a great orchestra, and it's a great city to live and work in the arts."

Rosen, who worked under Rutter in Seattle, said the orchestra's extracurricular efforts represent a cultural shift for the CSO, an institution formerly thought of as "a fixed icon."

"Now I think of it as a place that is continuously evolving, doing new and innovative things, and it has great momentum," Rosen said. "Deborah's leaving the Chicago Symphony in a very different place (than she found it)."

But CSO violist Max Raimi expressed concern that some of these efforts ultimately might be in conflict with the quest to maintain the highest artistic standards. He complained that when the orchestra played its inaugural concerts at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle last summer, it was performing film music and other watered-down repertoire rather than the classical music that shows the orchestra at its best.

"I don't feel that evangelical zeal anymore," Raimi said. "With all Deborah's strengths, I hope the new person has a real evangelical zeal toward the greatness of classical music. I do not feel it was a real emphasis in where the direction was going under her leadership."

Rutter said one can't lead the organization without a great passion for the orchestra's work.

"In order to do this job, you have to have stamina and dedication and an open heart and an open mind, and you have to really love the music, because it's not going to be fun all the time," she said.

Although she said she is not involved in the process to find her replacement, she has her hopes. "I believe in putting the city, the audience and the institution first and knowing that the goal is for it to be here forever, healthy artistically and financially," she said. "You need to find the right leader who can do that. Each new executive takes the institution however they find it and with a new set of eyes makes adjustments."

"It's just a lot of things to have to sort out," Rosen said. "They're tough jobs, and in some ways Deborah has made it harder for the person coming in because she really raised the bar."

Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein contributed.

mcaro@tribune.com

hgillers@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

Twitter @hgillers

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