Time for Her Solo

I’d like to be a fly on the wall during negotiations between the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Ravinia Festival. Ravinia president Welz Kauffman has been musing publicly about declining pavilion attendance for the CSO, hinting that the number of symphony concerts at the park will be cut back. That can’t be music to the ears of new CSO president and Kauffman’s onetime boss, Deborah Card, who earlier this month took over the job Henry Fogel had held for 18 years. But if the two of them sit down across a table to hash it out, we’ll have a world-class charm face-off. Like Kauffman, Card is enormously personable, which ought to come in handy in the top ranks of the elitist, mostly old boys’ world of symphony management. She’s stepping in at a difficult juncture: Besides the dustup with Ravinia (which she says may end in a few less concerts and a few more rehearsals), she’s facing tough negotiations with the musicians’ union, lingering acoustical quirks arising from the dicey, $120 million transformation of Orchestra Hall into Symphony Center, a long-term slow decline in attendance, and daunting fiscal problems. Although the orchestra will report a balanced budget for the year that concluded June 30 (accomplished with the help of a larger-than-usual draw from its $160 million endowment), it lost $6.1 million the year before and is projecting a deficit of about $4 million for the year just begun.

Card didn’t beat out 109 other candidates for the job on charm alone. Raised in California, she became a serious violin student after a third-grade teacher opened a cabinet and spoke the magic words: “What instrument do you want to play?” A Stanford graduate, she earned an MBA at the University of Southern California and joined the operations staff of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where she rose to orchestra manager. From 1986 to 1992 she served as executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra–where she hired Kauffman as general manager. In ’92 she became executive director of the Seattle Symphony, and in 11 years there she orchestrated an impressive turnaround, reversing a budget deficit, raising $160 million for a new concert hall, and more than doubling subscription sales, annual donations, and the number of concerts.

When she arrived in Seattle the symphony was “the poor-boy institution,” Card says. The local arts council greeted her with a lecture along the lines of “your problems and financial woes are impacting the entire arts community.” By the end of her term, the symphony–in its new downtown home, Benaroya Hall–had become “a centerpiece of the city,” she says. This was accomplished by “listening to your audience and finding out what the barriers are.” She began packaging concerts in special-interest series (chamber music, baroque) and target-marketing them, and she made Seattle’s one of the first orchestras to sell tickets through a Web site. But her most significant change may have been to the oddball scheduling. Performing in shared space at the Seattle Center Opera House, the orchestra was doing what it had done for 100 years: presenting concerts “mostly on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday,” Card explains. It was a no-brainer: once they moved into Benaroya Hall, the orchestra began to perform weekends.

It won’t be that easy to goose attendance here (running about 82 percent in Symphony Center). Card’s goal is to build an “even broader community sense of pride and joy in the orchestra.” She doesn’t want it to be “perceived as something only other people do.” She’ll be looking at the way concerts are marketed and at a price structure that has been diced into confusion over the last couple of years. (Jane Quinn, vice president for marketing and communications for the last three years, resigned earlier this month; the job is open.) She’ll have to negotiate the gray areas between her responsibilities and those of music director Daniel Barenboim and figure out what to do about Symphony Center’s sound; a consulting firm will report on its study of the auditorium acoustics in the fall. She says her early meetings with the musicians were “great,” and Chicago Federation of Musicians steward Stephen Lester says they, in turn, are “thrilled” about the arrival of Card and her “more collaborative management style.” Still, the prospect of union contract negotiations is enough to make her “think about being a gardener.”

“We don’t exist to pay musicians,” she says. “We exist to give concerts. Our top priority is getting more people in those seats. It’s in the musicians’ interest to have the institution be healthy; they’re not going to be better off if the staff is demoralized, underpaid, and leaving, or if educational programs go away because we can’t afford them.” In the last two years, however, CSO education and outreach programs have been slashed, and the administrative staff has dropped from 153 to 124. That’s still about twice the number Card had in Seattle, although she says some of the difference may be due to the fact that Seattle uses more contract labor. She’s also looking closely at pension costs. Musicians who retire now receive about $2,000 annually for each year of CSO employment; in the future, Card says, the pension plan may “look different.” Contributions to the pension fund will account for about $2.5 million of this year’s deficit, though the liability could shrink if the stock market comes roaring back. Another budget breaker is getting a permanent fix: the CSO is exiting early from 17,000 square feet of leased space in the Borg Warner building that housed administrative staff and archives. “As with any other business, we have to evaluate what we do, for whom, how often, what it looks like, how we package it, and how we market it,” Card says. “This much is certain: if we try to be an orchestra that does it exactly the same way it has always been done, we will go away.”

News Flashes

After artistic director Brad Nelson Winters was found murdered in his Lincoln Park apartment last week, there was discussion among members of Terrapin Theatre about the appropriateness of their next production. In the end they decided Winters would want them to proceed with Kevin Crowley’s Disgruntled Employees, a dark, sometimes violent comedy in which he had been cast. It’ll open two weeks late, on October 26, at the Athenaeum….Jennifer Bielstein is replacing John Adams as managing director of Writers’ Theatre. Adams is leaving to pursue his writing career; Bielstein spent the last eight years at Steppenwolf, where she was director of marketing and communications. Writers’, about to open in its new space at the Glencoe Woman’s Club, now has 5,000 subscribers, 30 percent more than last year, and will have 100 percent more seats than the 50 it had at its previous home, Books on Vernon….The King, the Lawyers, and the Cheese, a genuinely cheesy documentary by Brigid Maher about cartoonist Stu Helm’s battle with Kraft Foods over his use of the name King VelVeeda, will have its first public showings Saturday and Tuesday at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.