On Tuesday, the Kennedy Center announced the appointment of Deborah Rutter, the president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, as its next president; she will succeed Michael Kaiser in the fall of 2014. Throughout the classical music field, the news was received with a mixture of surprise and delight; Rutter is admired, respected, unflashy, and has a superb track record without a history of blowing her own horn. Having spent much of Tuesday talking to Rutter’s friends and colleagues for my story in the Washington Post, I sat back the next day and thought about what this appointment might mean for the Kennedy Center in the long run.
Is the Kennedy Center sending a signal with the selection of Deborah Rutter as its next president?
It’s not that she’s a woman, though it was certainly high time for the Kennedy Center to be led by one. It’s that she comes from the classical music world.
The statement that classical music is in trouble rubs a lot of people the wrong way. And yes, we have more recordings, composers, and ensembles than ever; more talented musicians than ever; and more concerts than ever. The field, however, is facing some challenges, particularly the large-scale institutions -- opera houses and orchestras -- that have long represented the major players, and that account for the bulk of spending, hiring, and ticket-buying. (Remember that a bad audience at the National Symphony Orchestra is still geometrically larger than a good one at the Atlas or Dumbarton Oaks or Vocal Arts DC.) And those large institutions are a cornerstone of the Kennedy Center -- now more than ever, since both the NSO and the Washington National Opera are under the center’s umbrella.
Yet classical music at the Kennedy Center is one area that could use some work. I should perhaps exclude the opera company; WNO’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, is certainly committed to change, outreach, expanding the company’s mandate and offerings, so in a sense the company deserves a grace period until she has had time to implement her vision.
But the National Symphony Orchestra remains a cipher: a big, well-paid orchestra that somehow never seems quite able to live up to its potential. Christoph Eschenbach’s arrival as the Kennedy Center music director brought a high-profile presence and bolstered morale, and for a while it appeared that Eschenbach and the NSO may have been developing the elusive chemistry that neither the orchestra or the conductor had been able to establish with their last few partners. But his vision as music director appears to be plateauing. One of his strengths -- by his own reckoning -- lies in cultivating lasting personal relationships with other artists. Some of these artists have gone on to big careers (Renee Fleming, Lang Lang), and some have not, and Eschenbach’s critics are fond of invoking the quirkier ones as figurative sticks with which to beat him.
This criticism misses the mark, however. The real point is not the quality of Eschenbach’s collaborators; it’s that these collaborators seem to represent the sum total of what he brings to the table. At the Kennedy Center, we haven’t seen new concert series, or experiments, or even large-scale composer cycles beyond a focus on Beethoven. All we’ve seen is Eschenbach collaborating with a number of different artists, including NSO musicians, which is in itself a fine thing, but after a few seasons begins to pale as a stand-in for actually finding new ways to connect with audiences and move the organization into the 21st century.
Above: An excerpt of the piece “Alternative Energy,” by the CSO composer-in-residence Mason Bates. “[Co-composer-in-residence] Anna Clyne and I wanted to really reimagine the format” of the CSO’s already successful MusicNOW series, Bates said. “We wanted to bring in video program notes, immersive stagecraft and lighting. Deborah gave us complete freedom to do whatever we wanted. Sometimes to continue the success of something you have to reimagine it.”
Eschenbach, however, presents as someone eager for collaboration; and collaboration is one of Rutter’s fortes. It would be interesting to see what she may or may not be able to tease out of Eschenbach in terms of perking up his role as the Kennedy Center’s music director. Rutter has had mixed experiences with conductors. In Chicago, she oversaw the departure of Daniel Barenboim and managed to win over as his replacement Riccardo Muti, an artist with many parallels to Eschenbach (in his 70s, perceived as having limitations as a conductor, with some baggage in his past including a not-too-happy tenure at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra), but who has proved, in Chicago, to be an unlikely innovator. In Seattle, she was saddled with Gerard Schwarz, the controversial conductor who led the orchestra for more than 25 years despite artistic and personal limitations that led to a situation of considerable hostility and tension with a number of the musicians. In one situation, she took measures to improve things; in the other, she made do.
Given that Eschenbach’s tenure is still relatively new, the NSO has appeared to be on an upswing for his first couple of seasons, and Rutter will want to demonstrate her ability in other areas besides classical music, working with the orchestra may not be one of her first priorities. Indeed, her initial impact on the Kennedy Center could be as simple as a sea change in a corporate culture that has been marked for some time by an air of secrecy, protectedness, and power to one that, to judge from Rutter’s track record to date, could include openness and collaboration. It will be fascinating to see what a simple shift in personality at the helm might or might not be able to bring about. And if it means the long hoped-for rise in the NSO’s profile somewhere down the road, so much the better.