CSO I: A Glimpse of the Future?

Now that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has completed the three-year, $110 million construction and renovation project that created Symphony Center, president Henry Fogel is planning a three-month sabbatical to begin in June. But some CSO insiders are scratching their heads over Fogel’s decision to name G. Michael Gehret, the orchestra’s vice president for marketing and development, as acting president in his absence. Several sources long associated with the orchestra say the more likely candidates were Vanessa Moss, vice president for orchestra and building operations, or Tom Hallett, vice president for finance and administration, both of whom deal with crucial day-to-day operations. Stephen Belth, the orchestra’s vice president for communications, said, “The decision was made after internal discussion among senior staff and in consultation with the board of directors.”

With the orchestra in residence at Ravinia, summer is usually a slow season for the CSO. Yet Gehret’s appointment to keep Fogel’s chair warm is considered a sign of his rising influence. Gehret arrived at the CSO almost five years ago from the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, where he served as director of development. When the CSO began looking for a new development chief, Gehret was a leading candidate, yet few thought he could be coaxed from his cushy post. Fogel made a generous offer, though, and Gehret moved east. By all accounts Gehret has done a good job raising funds for the massive Symphony Center project, and his responsibilities have broadened to include marketing.

Gehret was among the CSO staffers who pushed hard for the renovation project to include a plush penthouse dining room and lounge for the orchestra’s most generous contributors. To make space for the Club at Symphony Center, Fogel had to engage in an ugly battle with the Cliff Dwellers Club, which was forced out of its longtime home. Gehret insists the facility is essential to a big-budget nonprofit institution like the CSO. “I have been in development for a long time,” he says, “and the more you can do to make donors feel more positive about the CSO, the better off the orchestra will be in the long run.”

Fogel has no plans to leave the CSO, and sources say that if he were to vacate the presidency, the top candidate to replace him would be Ravinia’s executive director, Zarin Mehta, who now works closely with Fogel and music director Daniel Barenboim in programming Symphony Center. And in this age of faxes, beepers, and teleconferences, it’s unlikely that any weighty decisions will fall to Gehret during Fogel’s sabbatical. Still, Gehret’s appointment signals that, at the very least, he’d be a serious contender should the job open up in the future.

CSO II: Sticking With the Past

While CSO insiders may be interested in who’s filling Henry Fogel’s seat, Fogel himself is more concerned with filling seats in the concert hall, even if that means a bit of pandering. His last-minute decision to drop Exody, a new work by British composer Harrison Birtwistle, from the February 10 concert is a case in point. Birtwistle’s difficult composition was scheduled alongside Tchaikovsky’s popular Symphony no. 6 in B Minor (the Pathetique) on February 5, 6, and 7, concerts that had already sold well among subscribers. But as the dates for those concerts approached, CSO management apparently began to worry that the Birtwistle work was hurting ticket sales for February 10; Tuesday-night concerts typically draw fewer subscriptions. Union rules require that management get the players to approve any program changes made within three weeks of a concert, so the CSO sent orchestra members a memo asking that the Birtwistle piece be replaced by Beethoven’s Symphony no. 8 in F Major to help sell approximately 500 remaining tickets.

Orchestra members agreed to the change, though at least one musician thought subscribers were the ones getting the shaft: “Management screwed the subscribers and made them sit through the Birtwistle, while the largely single-ticket-buying audience got a different program.” Stephen Belth defended the move, saying that subscribers expect to be challenged more than single-ticket buyers: “The Birtwistle is a really difficult piece of music, and we were looking to fill the empty seats.” Ironically, the symphony dropped Birtwistle for Beethoven just as Fogel published a letter on modern music in the CSO program book, proclaiming, “Many people are writing either to praise the fact that we are programming more 20th-century music than we used to, or to encourage us to schedule even more.”

Ina Marlowe’s Urge to Merge

The local theater industry’s merger specialist has struck again. After Russell Vandenbroucke announced earlier this month that he will step down as artistic director of Northlight Theatre, Organic Touchstone artistic director Ina Marlowe reportedly wasted no time in approaching Northlight about a possible merger of the two companies. A source familiar with Marlowe’s inquiry says she suggested moving Organic Touchstone from 2851 N. Halsted to Northlight’s new 350-seat theater at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and placing her in charge of the combined operations.

Marlowe has long complained about the cost of operating on North Halsted, yet she managed to combine her original Touchstone Theatre with the ailing Organic Theater and then sell the Organic space at 3319 N. Clark for well over $1.3 million. Marlowe’s hefty bank balance may appeal to Northlight, which is trying to raise $2 million to cover the build-out of its new home, but what the company really needs is someone who knows the art of the stage, not the art of the deal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): G. Michael Gebret photo by Bob Adler.