The Washington Post

New president Deborah Rutter is Kennedy Center’s breath of fresh air from Windy City

Chicago’s Orchestra Hall is white and gold and gleaming, and relatively small. The balconies arc near the stage, holding the 2,500 audience members close to the musicians in a reverberant clamshell of a space. The room is laid out on a human scale, each musician clearly visible from the seats, the conductor — Riccardo Muti, who has become one of Chicago’s most popular cultural icons — close enough to touch.

On a night in late June, at the start of the orchestra’s final subscription program of the season, the approachability and accessibility of the space seemed perfectly to reflect Deborah Rutter, the woman who had been leading the orchestra for the past 11 years. Rutter, 58, exudes an unflashy, easygoing appeal: reddish hair cropped in an angled bob, a trim build, a strong and comfortable laugh. In the cluster of concertgoers before the show, and at intermission, and as she threaded her way down to Muti’s dressing room after the final chords of a dazzling Mahler First had drained out of the auditorium, she seemed one of the crowd. She exchanged hugs and conversation and farewells with people around her so even-handedly that it was impossible to tell who was a friend, who a business acquaintance of long standing, and who was a member of the subscription audience that had come to feel involved with the orchestra’s, and Rutter’s, fortunes.

The evening was part of Rutter’s swan song in Chicago. On Monday, she will take over as president of the Kennedy Center.

New season, new chapter

Rutter’s career has played out entirely in the orchestral world. Three times — at the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Seattle Symphony and in Chicago — she has brought organizations out of dire financial straits into rude good health. The Kennedy Center offers a different kind of challenge. Its finances have been generally in good shape under departing President Michael Kaiser. Rutter’s main goal is to see whether she can bring the kind of intimacy and excitement that dominates Chicago’s Orchestra Hall to the austere, impersonal, monumental spaces of the Kennedy Center.

And it wouldn’t hurt if she could help the Kennedy Center’s primary resident orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, to a jolt of Chicago’s musical adrenaline.

Deborah F. Rutter (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Rutter takes nothing for granted.

“I don’t want to overpromise and under-deliver,” she said, six weeks after that Chicago concert. Now she was sitting in the Kennedy Center’s new Russian Lounge, a space pale and large and quiet and, on an August afternoon, empty of patrons: like her, waiting for the start of a new season, and a new chapter.

In Chicago, Rutter’s down-to-earth manner belies a track record of high-profile successes that many other orchestras are finding tough. When she took over the orchestra in 2003, it had been hit by recession and was dealing with a gradual decline in audience members and a tacit but palpable sense of alienation between the organization and its public. Rutter increased the budget, eventually negotiated a labor agreement (after a brief strike) and helped spur a 32 percent increase in donations in the past five years, culminating, just before her departure, in two individual gifts totaling $32 million.

Her greatest coup may have been wooing and winning Muti, who already had turned down the New York Philharmonic at least once, and who has proved to be just as committed as Rutter to bringing music into the community. One of those big financial gifts is $15 million to secure the Negaunee Music Institute, which is the official name of the CSO’s various and wide-ranging outreach projects. Its creative consultant is Yo-Yo Ma — another coup — who works with Muti on an initiative called Citizen Musician, exploring ways to extend music as a civic as well as artistic entity.

“I believe that these institutions have to be part of the solutions in our city, country, region, not seen as superfluous extras,” Rutter said in her Chicago office earlier this summer. “If we are seen as helping with some of these challenging issues, and it’s understood that we play a really important role, then we will have a seat at the table.”

In short, Rutter, like all really good arts administrators, merges idealism with practicality.

Classical-music background

Rutter represents a first for the Kennedy Center. It’s not so much that she’s a woman; Marta Casals Istomin, in the No. 2 post of artistic director, was responsible for much of the center’s programming from 1980 to 1990. But Rutter is the first Kennedy Center leader to come from the world of orchestras. She grew up in a family that loved music — her father, a lawyer, was a founder and remains a board member of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. She played the violin in her youth and majored in music and German in college, but ultimately decided she didn’t have the goods for a professional career. Eventually, she wrote Ernest Fleischmann, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s doughty leader, a letter in German, and he wrote back, corrected her grammar, and offered her a job.

“She’s absolutely passionate about music,” said JoAnn LaBrecque, the director of public relations at Wolf Trap, who has known Rutter since her early days in Los Angeles, and was in her first wedding. (Rutter has been married twice; her husband, Peter Ellefson, is a trombonist who is on the faculty at Indiana University.)

“She can work with musicians of the orchestra,” says Welz Kauffman, the president and chief executive of the Ravinia Festival, the Chicago Symphony’s summer home, “because she has such a strong musical pedigree. She can talk to them and it’s real; she knows what they’re talking about, and she knows the repertory.” Kauffman has worked with Rutter since she was an orchestra manager at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and followed her when she got her first job running an ensemble, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. (He recalls her technique for getting to know her board members: She cooked each of them dinner in her home. “She didn’t have them catered,” he said. “She’s a really, really great cook.”)

Even Muti acknowledges Rutter’s passion. “She loves music,” he said, shortly before the aforementioned Chicago concert. “She knows music. And she works until she gets what she wants.”

Is Rutter’s classical-music background a limitation, given the wide range of offerings and art forms the Kennedy Center produces? On the most practical level, it’s to everyone’s advantage to have someone in charge who intimately knows the field of one of the center’s biggest constituent companies, the National Symphony Orchestra, which never seems to attain quite the level one might wish for it as a putatively national ensemble. In the bigger picture, the message of bringing the arts — any arts — to as wide an audience as possible, the Kennedy Center’s underlying mission, is as essential to lovers of symphonies as lovers of theater — and a message that Rutter, again and again, has promoted in her previous posts.

“I sit in this seat here,” she said, “because in the third grade, somebody said, ‘What instrument are you going to play?’ And that opportunity, more so than the ones that my parents, who live for the arts, [gave me] — I landed here because playing the violin is how I found out who I was. And I believe that everybody deserves to have that opportunity. And it may be the banjo, and it may be acting, and it may be — in the case of my daughter, it’s singing. My daughter is a lunatic for this, she is a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and it’s the most important thing in her life.” (Gillian, now 16, went to South Africa with the choir this summer before moving to Washington.)

“I believe every child deserves this opportunity,” she continues. “And if you believe this fervently, then you’ve got to go to a place where you might be able to role model that a little better.”

Jesse Rosen, the president and chief executive of the League of American Orchestras, said of Rutter: “As the years have gone by, she’s statesmanlike.” Rosen worked under Rutter as general manager in Seattle, where she got rid of a deficit, more than doubled the number of concerts and the annual budget, and oversaw the construction of a new concert hall. “She has great skills at bringing people together, keeping conversations at a very, very high strategic level, and not getting bogged down in the weeds,” he said. “She has a wonderful graciousness about handling divergent points of view.” And if anything, he said, “she got nicer.”

A stroke of luck

Rutter is starting her vision for the Kennedy Center with a sense of place. She has inherited the center’s $100 million expansion project, announced more than a year ago, which will create a group of new performance and rehearsal spaces — nine, by Rutter’s count — south of the existing building. Scheduled to open in 2017, by the centenary of president John F. Kennedy’s birth, it was the one aspect of her new job that she plunged into before her official Sept. 1 start date. “A construction project has a timeline that you cannot fudge,” she said, joking that she already has spent more time with the construction client than with any member of the Kennedy Center staff.

Inheriting this project — the first major addition to the building’s exterior since it opened in 1971 — is a stroke of luck; Rutter gets to help guide the change and innovation without having to instigate it.

“It gives us an opportunity to position the Kennedy Center,” she said, “and make another statement about who we are. It’s also an opportunity to say what we think the relationship to audience and programming for the Kennedy Center as a whole should be. . . . What are the kinds of events and programs and activities, what questions are we trying to address?” she continues. “Knowing that audiences today want to have a little bit of insight about how art is created, how will we answer it in the new space?”

Rutter has been reluctant to say too much about her new position while her predecessor is still in office. (Kaiser, whose work as president she calls “extraordinary,” will step down on the last day of August.) But it’s clear that she’s ready to examine every aspect of the center’s work.

There’s its role in the national landscape. “We have the opportunity to explore and present, if not produce, everything that is a part of the performing arts in America,” she said, adding, “What are we missing? What parts of the American performing arts scene are we doing really well, what are the things that we still need to add to the menu?” Then, there’s its local role; among the Washington region’s other cultural leaders, she said, “there is real enthusiasm for collaboration.”

There’s the way its constituent companies work together — all the more significant now that the Washington National Opera is an official part of the mix. “We have the Ring coming up,” Rutter said, referring to WNO’s production of Wagner’s opera tetralogy in 2015-16. “How are we going to make that something that the whole center comes together around, rather than that big behemoth that’s over there?” She adds, “I need to bring some uniformity” to the planning process as a whole.

And there’s the way that people experience the building.

“I want to make sure that we scale the place in a way that remembers it’s about the individual artist, as well as ‘Lion King,’ ” Rutter said. “That also goes to how the audience feels. Like, ‘I’m just this little person walking down the hallway.’ You want to feel like you’re [significant].

“I have to think about what that means,” she added. “I haven’t figured that out yet.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the number of times Deborah Rutter has been married.

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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