New Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter is seen as ‘team builder’

December 10, 2013

In a field with its share of outsized personalities and internecine conflicts, Deborah Rutter appears to be an exception: one of those rare individuals everyone likes.

The news that Rutter, currently president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, would succeed Michael Kaiser at the Kennedy Center in the fall was generally met in the classical music world with equal parts surprise and pleasure — something all the more evident when the reaction was unrehearsed.

“I am so happy to hear that!” said Welz Kauffman, president and chief executive of the Ravinia Festival, who was accosted with the news as he was sitting down to lunch. “Good for her — and for all of you!” He meant, of course, those of us in the Washington area who will stand to benefit from the actions of the Kennedy Center’s next president.

Terms such as “team builder” and “strong collaborator” emerged frequently in descriptions of Rutter by those who know her — again, not a given in a field known for diva-like behavior. Some artistic administrators are best known for their programming visions. Rutter appears to be best known for spearheading major educational initiatives, eliminating deficits, and instilling a sense of fiscal responsibility in the organizations she’s worked for, from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to the Seattle Symphony to the Chicago Symphony.

She also has an ability to sustain long-term personal relationships with colleagues in the field — such as Kauffman, who has worked with her for more than 30 years, since she was the orchestra manager at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the 1980s. “I think the world of her,” he said. “She’s so smart. She’s so musical.”


Deborah Rutter is announced as the new president of the Kennedy Center by Chairman David Rubenstein at a press conference in the Eisenhower Theater, Tuesday. (Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post)

Another longtime colleague is the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who also first met her in her Los Angeles days, and who during her tenure at the Chicago Symphony took an active role with the orchestra as creative consultant, starting in 2009.

“What’s great about Deborah,” Ma said by telephone from Chicago, “is she’s the same person she was 30 years ago.”

Rutter’s career path is marked by a slow, steady ascent through the ranks of classical music administration. At the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, according to Kauffman, she “transformed” the organization by instituting educational programs. As executive director of the Seattle Symphony from 1992 to 2003, she wiped out a $2.5 million deficit, doubled the budget, and oversaw construction of a new hall. As president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, she helped usher out Daniel Barenboim and bring in Riccardo Muti through a search process that Andrew Patner, a Chicago-based critic for the Sun-Times and WFMT radio, describes as “a new model of how to hire a music director,” involving musicians, board and staff. She also oversaw a host of new initiatives, from sending performers into prisons to helping spearhead an arts education plan in all of Chicago’s public schools, with the full participation of the mayor and the city government.

“What’s funny,” Ma said, “is that she’s so collaborative that it’s hard to actually think of who” was responsible for actually implementing some of the orchestra’s most innovative programs.

“One of her biggest accomplishments,” he added, “is to turn vision into reality. If there’s a single thing [she did] there, she kind of broke down the four walls of the symphony center. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has always been” a jewel of the city. But now, “everyone knows what the Chicago Symphony Orchestra does in the community, in different neighborhoods; when they go on tour, they go visit orphanages. The musicians take this on with great pride. They call it ‘citizen musicianship.’ I think this is something that really puts into practice what musicians learn: you serve something bigger than yourself.”

While most of the accolades for Rutter focus on teamwork and outreach — both buzzwords in today’s classical music world — she has also done a considerable amount to empower artists.

The composer Mason Bates, named one of two composers-in-residence at the CSO in 2010, came in with big plans to reimagine the orchestra’s contemporary music series. “The MusicNow series had been doing well under Augusta Read Thomas and Osvaldo Golijov,” he said. “You can imagine that someone else would have been nervous about changing the recipe. We were given freedom to reimagine the format and program a really wide range of composers.”

He added that “the thing that struck me was how much she trusted the people that she worked with. . . . She would ask hard questions and challenge you about the direction you wanted to go in, but once you agreed that it was the right thing, she would set you free. . . . Since then I’ve been working a lot with big institutions and realized things don’t always operate like that.”

MusicNow regularly draws audiences of 800 to 1,000 people, impressive numbers for a new-music series. “I think people first and foremost think of the CSO as being an incredible standard-bearer for the repertory,” Bates said, “and of course they [are.] But I think it’s cool she’s empowered us to do something completely different than that.”

If Rutter has maintained a relatively low profile given her level of achievement, it is partly a reflection of her personal style. “Her focus really is work and family,” Patner said. “She’s not someone who’s looking to be in the society pages.” She has been a devoted mother to her teenage daughter, Gillian; her husband, Peter Ellefson, is a trombone player who teaches at Indiana and Northwestern universities. Her relatively low salary for someone in her position, Patner said, reflects “how she is.”

In Washington, she joins a number of other strong women leaders in the classical music field who have also expressed a strong interest in team building and collaboration — and who are excited to see her come here.

“She’s a class act,” said Jenny Bilfield, president and chief executive of the Washington Performing Arts Society, “someone deeply respected for her integrity and leadership. I’ve admired her from afar, and will look forward to having her as a colleague in D.C.”

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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