On Monday, one month shy of serving 11 years as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, Deborah F. Rutter will step down from her position to take on another high-profile managerial post, that of president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington D.C.
She is leaving in her wake widespread admiration for her strong, hands-on leadership and for balancing the orchestra's finances, artistic excellence and civic role. With much the same tenacity with which she wooed and won the elusive Riccardo Muti as music director, she renewed general confidence in the institution and pointed it toward what appears to be a stable, well-run future. Record fundraising and ticket sales over the last three consecutive fiscal years augur well.
Also to Rutter's credit, she brought in cellist Yo-Yo Ma to fill the newly created position of creative consultant, and she guided the scope of programming to include such successful series as Beyond the Score and MusicNOW. Earlier this month the board received the largest gifts in the history of the institution – a whopping total of $32 million from the Zell Family Foundation and the Negaunee Foundation. Muti's cachet helped enormously, of course, but it took Rutter and her committed board to bring it off.
A Tribune video crew and I recently sat down with Rutter in a box at Orchestra Hall to record her thoughts on a wide range of subjects related to the institution she has helped to revitalize. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.
Q. What is on your agenda as you prepare to close one chapter in your professional life and open another?
A. June is the time of year when we're paying attention to the final (business) of the fiscal year – what I call "dialing for dollars." I'm speaking to donors on the phone, sending emails to governing members who have not yet renewed (their contributions), and so forth. I'm also working with individuals and departments within the CSO to make sure the directions we have laid out for next year, and for our long-range plan, are proceeding as expected.
As far as the Kennedy Center is concerned, I am having conversations with board and staff members and future donors. I have way too many balls in the air at the moment! But I find that's sort of how my life works best.
Q. What is it like saying goodbye, after 11 years here, to the staff, board, musicians, donors and the music director whom the CSO might never have engaged if not for you?
A. I don't feel like it's a permanent farewell. You never lose connection in this business. You know you will see your colleagues again. I know I will stay close to this orchestra, which has meant so much to me, and I will stay close to everybody here in Chicago, because it has been such a transformational time for me personally.
Q. Tell us how the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association's search for your successor is coming along and what the timetable for identifying and installing that person might be?
A. I advised Jay (Henderson), our board chair and head of the search committee, and others close to the process, that it's very important for them to keep it as confidential as possible, so that candidates can come in, get a sense of the people and the place, and not feel that they would be exposed to speculation.
Based on my observation, they are going to take the time to find the right person, just as we took the time to find Riccardo Muti. That is more important than living by a specific agenda. It (would be) terrible to have somebody come in and not have it be the right match. I know that they are moving as quickly as possible to make sure Muti has a partner and that the staff and orchestra have leadership.
Q. Among the long-range strategic plans initiated under your watch, and your successor will be charged with helping to carry out, is an intense revenue and audience-building plan called "Vision 2020." Can you tell us how that plan (details of which have not been released to the public) is coming along, and how your successor might impact on it?
A. "Vision 2020" was set in place in 2010 with the idea that it would be a 10-year plan to ensure and secure this institution for next 100-plus years. (It is not about) making short-term decisions or tactical changes to our business model that could have a negative effect in the longterm.
"Vision 2020" is about looking at our role locally, nationally and internationally, how we connect with audiences in the concert hall, in our community and through the media world. It has a number of different strategies. As with any plan, you need to be able to make changes and adjustments as you go along – it is not an absolute procedure you must follow or all hell will break loose. It is about saying, "These are our priorities, and this is how we believe we should embark on them."
My successor will have a road map of the concept of what we want to do, based on conversations with Muti and our institution. It is imperative that the new person work with the team to say, "This makes sense, this doesn't make so much sense, let's do this a little bit differently." I think there's a great opportunity to personalize (the plan) with a new leader, also to build on the ideas that were put into place at the start.
Q. Any assessment of your achievements as CSOA president would have to include your efforts to develop new audiences, form new partnerships in the community, increase the orchestra's presence throughout the area, make a 123-year-old institution viable in the early 21st century. What personal beliefs have driven those efforts?
A. At my core, I believe in this art form, and I believe in the live performance experience. I believe that if you are coming together as a society, as a culture, you have to understand how this art form can live today. Whether the music (was written) last week, 100 years ago or 200 years ago, it is being performed with the heart and soul, the technical capacity, of people who are alive today.
So it is really important that we understand who our audiences are, and how they are going to participate in the music-making. We have to stay current (with respect to) programming, our use of electronic media, the experience of being in the concert hall, also the experience of hearing music outside the concert hall. My effort (has been) to sustain and nurture this institution and figure out how to make it more meaningful (to more people).
Our board is really committed to the long-term success of this institution as an artistic institution. Are we a financial institution? No: We are a living, breathing arts organization. Finances are there to sustain us over time. One of the hardest-working and most engaged board committees is the finance committee. They know exactly what's going on, they help make very difficult decisions. Rather that telling me what to do, they help talk through what problems there are and what alternatives we have to look at.
Q. It's generally agreed that one of the hallmarks your management style has been an openness to innovation. How has that impacted on the institution?
A. In rehearsal and in performance, our musicians take risks. They put themselves out, they test ideas, they figure out what they want to do at the concerts – that's what makes it exciting and interesting for us audience members. Our institutions have a tendency not to want to take risks, because there's not a lot of room for error. But we must test new ground. We cannot rest on our laurels and say, "It used to work this way, so we will continue to do it that way." Nothing in life is like that, so we as an institution have to take as many risks and be prepared for failure, just as the musicians are.
Q. What was your greatest disappointment of these 11 years?
A. I still wish we could take our audiences on a little bit more of an adventure with contemporary music, because without contemporary music we'll never know what future listeners will really be interested in. I want to challenge our audiences to open up their ears just a little bit more – to allow us to experiment just a little bit more with programming that way. How many of us go to restaurants and order the same dishes every single time? Why can't we do that with our concerts a little bit more?
On the other hand, our MusicNOW contemporary series (at the Harris Theater) is one of the things I am most proud of. What our composers in residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates, have done with the concerts has been really fabulous. We need to bring more of that adventurous spirit from that audience into Orchestra Hall.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to offer in parting?
A. My sense of achievement in Chicago is that I can feel the city owns and loves and is proud of this institution – not in an aloof way that says, "That's the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra," but, rather, in a very personal way that says, "That's my great Chicago Symphony Orchestra."
Many times our former principal conductor, Bernard Haitink, has said to me that there are three great orchestras in the world: Berlin, Vienna and, most importantly, Chicago. We have to remember that. We have to support this orchestra, because it is a role model for other orchestras, in the country and around the world.