The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association has selected Vancouver Symphony Society president/CEO Jeff Alexander to be its next president, pending a board meeting Wednesday, the Tribune has learned.
Sources close to the situation said Alexander, who has been leading Canada's third largest symphony orchestra since 2000, was chosen with CSO music director Riccardo Muti's backing after a lengthy selection process. In December the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., announced that Deborah Rutter, the CSO Association president since August 2003, would become its new president. Her CSO tenure ended June 30, and her Kennedy Center duties began Monday.
Rutter was widely praised for recruiting superstar conductor Muti after the departure of music director Daniel Barenboim, and for leaving the orchestra on solid financial footing even before the June announcement of $32 million in new grants to the organization. To fill her big shoes, CSO Association Board Chairman Jay Henderson assembled a 20-person search committee that included three musicians, two senior staff members plus trustees and donors. The organization also enlisted the Chicago-based executive-search consulting firm Spencer Stuart.
Another significant voice in the process was Muti, the marquee maestro who in February signed a new contract to extend his CSO musical directorship through August 2020.
Some in the organization speculated that Rutter's replacement might be named in early summer to allow for a transition period between the two presidents, but the process extended months past her departure. Sources said there ultimately were two finalists, and some on the committee favored one, but Muti held sway with his preference of Alexander.
A CSO spokeswoman declined to comment on Alexander's selection.
Alexander became president of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in September 2000, the same month that British conductor/composer Bramwell Tovey became its music director, so the two worked together throughout their respective tenures. Alexander's biography on the VSO website lists among his accomplishments the expansion and reformatting of the orchestra's concert series, growth in education and community programs/partnerships, the launch of the organization's first endowment campaign, the planning of 2008 Asian concert dates that marked the orchestra's first international tour in 17 years, and the 2011 opening of the 25,000-square-foot VSO School of Music.
The organization also reported an annual operations surplus for 10 of the past 11 years. The VSO's annual operating budget is more than $14.5 million, compared with the CSO's close to $74 million.
Amid the high-profile classical music administrators out there, Alexander could be characterized as a dark horse candidate given the Vancouver Symphony's solid but not world-class stature and its limited visibility on the global stage.
“I think it's not an orchestra on the level of the Chicago Symphony, but I would think somebody (already) managing an orchestra on the level of the Chicago Symphony wouldn't need to make that move,” said former CSO President Henry Fogel, now dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. “(Vancouver is) a solid orchestra that has performed really well in difficult economic times.”
In 2012 the New York Philharmonic made a similarly unexpected appointment in naming Matthew VanBesien, a St. Louis native then serving as executive director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia, as its president and chief executive.
Fogel called Alexander's reputation “strong, very strong” and said he was impressed with some of the Vancouver president's innovations, such as the use of video enhancements at concerts.
“I know him as a very imaginative and smart manager, and I think it's a great choice,” Fogel said.
CSO assistant concertmaster David Taylor said he's encouraged that the committee selected someone who had overseen an orchestra for 14 years, with another 16 years previously served at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, including 12 as general manager.
“He's clearly not a novice at his profession,” Taylor said. “They must have looked at what was going on in Vancouver and seen the results happening there that they hope will happen here.”
Taylor added: “This orchestra should lend a certain amount of clout to the new guy coming in. He'll become one of the most important orchestral presidents in the country for sure.”
Aside from some bumps around when new contracts have been negotiated for the CSO players, Taylor noted that the musicians and management have enjoyed a relatively harmonious relationship that he hopes will continue. “There's always the question that only time will answer, which is how he'll get along with us and us with him,” Taylor said.
In the meantime, he added, Alexander is coming into an excellent situation.
“We're in such a great position orchestrally at this point in time,” Taylor said. “We have what is clearly one of, if not the best, conductors in the world in front of us. We also have the enviable position of liking our musical director — and a lot. And the audience obviously loves him.”
Alexander's biography states that he majored in French Horn Performance as a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Before his time in Cincinnati, he was general manager of the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra in Texas and the artist-management firm Grapa Concerts in New York City.
Alexander could not be reached Tuesday.
It's unclear when he would take the reins of the CSO, but he'll have a full plate upon his arrival, including some high-level positions in need of filling. Martha Gilmer, the orchestra's longtime vice president for artistic planning and audience development, is set to begin her new job as the San Diego Symphony's chief executive officer Sept. 24, the same day that Nick Winter, the CSO's director of artistic administration since 2009, becomes the San Francisco Symphony's director of artistic planning.
Meanwhile, the busy fall season is kicking off, with Muti returning to town for three weeks of subscription concerts beginning Sept. 18 (with the free Concert for Chicago in Millennium Park Sept. 19) before the orchestra embarks on a European tour in late October that will include its first-ever visit to Poland (Warsaw) and a week-long residency in Vienna.
The CSO board, which includes more than 60 regular and ex officio trustees and about 80 life trustees, is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning to confirm Alexander's appointment.
Tribune critic John von Rhein contributed.