News & Politics » Our Town

Musical Chairs

New York, LA, Highland Park--everyone change places!

by

comment

For months rumors had swirled, and finally, on June 1 of last year, Zarin Mehta handed in his resignation as president and CEO of the Ravinia Festival. Three months earlier, Mehta had confided to the head of Ravinia's board of trustees, David Weinberg, that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra had been asking him since the fall of 1999 to be their executive director. Mehta recalls, "I kept fending them off, saying, 'No, no. I don't want to manage an orchestra.'"

After Mehta told him about the overtures, Weinberg pulled together four other trustees to form a search committee--just in case. "It was well-known throughout the music world that the New York Philharmonic was looking for an executive director," he remembers. "And one logical choice--probably the best, in our opinion--was Zarin. So with his knowledge I asked John Edwardson, the previous board chair, and three more longtime trustees to be prepared for that eventuality."

It was a wise move, because Mehta, who'd been at Ravinia since 1990, was having second thoughts. "Two factors were becoming more and more important," he explains. "To oversee the complete reconstruction of Avery Fisher Hall"--home to the Philharmonic--"appealed to me. I'd be involved with the planning and later with running the hall--in addition to the responsibilities of managing one of the world's great orchestras. Also, of course, I'd be in New York City, the capital of music and culture."

He flew to Milan to meet with Riccardo Muti, music director of La Scala, who'd been offered the music director's job at the orchestra that Kurt Masur was soon to leave. Muti ultimately turned down the job, which has yet to be filled, and rumor has it that the Philharmonic sweetened the pot for Mehta.

In May, Mehta accepted the post of executive director and told the Ravinia trustees that he would leave Chicago when the new season began in September. "Truthfully," he says, "in the end I felt I might get stale staying in the same environment for, say, 15 years."

Weinberg says people were sorry to see him go. "During Zarin's time, Ravinia had been successful," he says. "He had been successful--energetic, knowledgeable, willing to take risks."

Weinberg knew that replacing Mehta wouldn't be easy. "We realized that we couldn't possibly go after a clone," he says, "so we opted to keep the search interesting."

Mehta served as an informal consultant to the committee, as did Henry Fogel, chief administrator of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Weinberg won't say how many people were considered or who made the shortlist, but Mehta thinks that at least 15 from music organizations in different parts of the country passed the initial round. "It's fair to say that the talent pool for the top jobs is small--maybe two dozen," says Fogel, who moved into that pool 15 years ago when he left the National Symphony Orchestra for Chicago.

The criteria were daunting. "That person has to know music, feel passionate about it," Fogel says. "He or she must be relatively facile with numbers. And just as important, that person needs to have people skills, know how to build consensus and deal with the board of a not-for-profit outfit--political savvy, if you want to call it that." Mehta adds another qualification: "That person's relationship with major artists--that helps determine if a first-rate soloist like Yo-Yo Ma returns to your festival again and again."

Mehta had clearly met the criteria. He'd befriended a legion of conductors and performers, beginning many years ago when his father, Mehli, founded the first Western orchestra in India. And he'd worked as an accountant before becoming administrative head of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. "I would cite Zarin as Exhibit A of someone who met all those requirements," says Fogel, "and took his organization in new directions."

Mehta had signed on at a time when the popularity of classical music was dwindling and when the public increasingly saw Ravinia as elitist. He rattles off a list of changes he made during his decade-long tenure. "We renovated the Martin Theatre, turning it into a nice hall for chamber music. We expanded the season by adding jazz concerts and more pop events. And we beefed up the training curriculum at Steans Institute and got the 'Rising Stars' recital series going. In a way, I'm just as proud of the community-outreach initiatives that take jazz and classical music to area schools and bring kids to the park." These measures--and the celebrity performers he recruited--helped stem the slide in attendance. Last summer nearly 600,000 people showed up, a 13 percent increase over figures from the early 90s. There were 152 events, and the budget was close to $16 million. Mehta is pleased to add, "We didn't go into the red during my years."

The search for his replacement continued through much of the summer. The Ravinia staff was kept in the dark about who the front-runners were--even Mehta and Fogel weren't sure. The two names mentioned most often in the media were Robert Harth of the Aspen Music Festival and Steve Ovitsky of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Harth had the inside track, said one story, because Aspen was similar to Ravinia. Another story said Ovitsky had the better chance, because he'd headed the Grant Park Festival in the 1980s and knew Chicago's music scene. Both men were spotted attending concerts at Ravinia.

Then in late August, Weinberg announced the board's choice: Welz Kauffman, director of artistic plan-ning for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Fogel was one of many who were surprised by the selection. "Welz," he says, "certainly was the dark horse."

Kauffman is a native of Walnut Creek, a suburb east of San Francisco, and he's been interested in music as long as he can remember. "My older brother and sister both played the piano," he says, "so I took it up early too." His taste was eclectic from the beginning. He credits his parents with introducing him to Dave Brubeck, country music, and musical theater. His father, a high school English teacher, took him to see Hair between marches against the war in Vietnam. In high school he was cast in community-theater productions of Mame, Oliver!, and other popular musicals.

In 1977, when he was 16, Kauffman participated in his first summer music festival, as a piano student at Tanglewood. But he was also into rock and jazz, and he played bass in a band. "I thought about a career on Broadway until my voice changed," he recalls. "I became a piano accompanist instead." He took courses in music and political science at Occidental College in Los Angeles, toyed with the idea of going into law, and worked part-time for the Kurt Weill Foundation and Nonesuch Records. He also soloed in piano concerti with the college's orchestra, but says he didn't have the technique or the confidence for the long haul.

Toward the end of his college days, he landed a part-time position with the 1984 Olympics Arts Festival. "The festival worked with the LA Opera to bring productions in from Covent Garden as part of the cultural festivities surrounding the games," he recalls. "I saw Peter Grimes, Turandot, and The Magic Flute back-to-back. That was a turning point for me."

After graduation, Kauffman was asked by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's managing director, Ernest Fleischmann, to work for a year as his secretary. He said yes, eager to learn from an influential veteran. He sat in on meetings with Andre Previn, Carlo Maria Giulini, Simon Rattle, and other renowned conductors. "I was starstruck, to say the least," he remembers. And he was determined to follow in his mentor's footsteps.

Kauffman spent another year in the orchestra's marketing department, then left for the public-affairs office of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which was then planning its new museum in LA. "I switched because of my love for architecture," he explains. "I worked with the architect Richard Meier, and I was the point man in appeasing local home owners and politicians who were worried about privacy and traffic. I also found out what it was like dealing with the international media."

Two years later Kauffman was restless again, and he went back to music administration, as the general manager of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He says he helped oversee about 50 concerts a year while maintaining an "instructive partnership with my boss as well as the music director, Gerard Schwarz." This stint lasted close to five years, the longest tenure he's had with any organization.

His next moves reinforced his reputation as a fast-tracker. In 1992 he became the artistic administrator of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. "I'm most proud of the programs that tried to attract an economically and racially diverse audience to classical music," he says. "As part of Jimmy Carter's Atlanta Project, [conductor] Robert Shaw and the orchestra gave master classes and free concerts for neighborhood kids." A couple of years later he was hired by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to be its manager. "The innovation there," he says, "was the crossover concerts given by Bobby McFerrin."

In 1995 he took over as the New York Philharmonic's artistic administrator, reporting to both executive director Deborah Borda and music director Kurt Masur--whose rocky relationship made the orchestra's administration look like a two-headed monster. Worse, attendance was dropping, exacerbated, Kauffman points out, by the renaissance of Carnegie Hall. "Basically," he says, "we had to change the face of the orchestra." He believes he contributed to that change by organizing narrowly focused festivals that updated the orchestra's image. "First of all," he says, "we presented something called the American Classics Initiative, surveying major works between the 1930s and '70s." That was followed by large-scale, monthlong retrospectives of Beethoven, Brahms, Copland, and Kurt Weill, as well as a production of Sweeney Todd. The programs won kudos and set a new crowd-pleasing standard for other major orchestras. "I was particularly pleased with the British festival," he says, "which encompassed a Noel Coward musical as well as recent pieces by Thomas Ades."

Kauffman says he also enjoyed huddling with members of the new generation of composers who were given commissions, including Tan Dun, Wynton Marsalis, and Christopher Rouse. Helping out young artists soon became something of a mission. "We started to hold live auditions of artists in their teens and 20s under Masur's guidance--125 so far, and more than half later gave solo performances." He praises Masur for "replenishing and reinvigorating" the orchestra by replacing 25 members, mostly with young instrumentalists. "It was on its way back to greatness."

Kauffman spent four seasons in New York. Then in September 1999 Fleischmann's young successor at the LA Philharmonic was forced to quit, and Deborah Borda agreed to replace him, allowing the New York Philhar-monic to offer her job to Mehta. Then Borda asked Kauffman to join her team, and with the promise of a salary hike and the prospect of programming the LA Philharmonic, its chamber-music society, and the Hollywood Bowl, he packed his bags.

Kauffman says he knew about the Ravinia Festival and had often visited friends in Chicago, but he hadn't attended a concert there until he came here last June. "Zarin invited me to debrief him on the New York job," he says. Once he saw the park and the crowds, he says, "I felt such connection to the place, to the palpable family feel." When Mehta asked if he'd be interested in the Ravinia job he felt torn between his allegiance to LA and his desire to be the top man at one of the country's leading music festivals. But he was intrigued by festival programming that offered "something different each night," and in the end he threw his hat into the ring.

Meanwhile, the search committee had begun interviewing candidates. Kauffman came to Chicago twice for meetings with some of the trustees, and by mid-August they'd made up their mind.

Christoph Eschenbach, Ravinia's music director, soon gave his vote of confidence by renewing his contract for one more year (he's also believed to be in the running to succeed Masur in New York). And Fogel and Mehta agree that Kauffman--who moved into a Gold Coast apartment near some of Ravinia's trustees in October--has the stuff to guide the festival into the new decade. "Having worked his way up at all these places, Welz is extremely knowledgeable about repertoire and performers," says Fogel. "And he's imaginative--just look at what he's done in New York. However, he's been the number two guy up to this point, never having run an organization. Now that he's made the giant leap, he'll find out the challenges of being a leader, with every move scrutinized by the community and press."

Kauffman inherits a festival that's now renowned as North America's finest in terms of quality and variety, though some detractors find it too entertainment oriented. "I don't intend to fix something that's not broken," he says. "But I can imagine it's very difficult to make sure that it stays vibrant."

He does have plans. Like Mehta, he sees Ravinia as a "populist place that embraces the sorts of music the classical establishment might be less ready to accept." He says he intends to make American musical theater a top priority, and he wants to revive works of Sondheim and Gershwin. "Sondheim just celebrated a milestone birthday"--his 70th. "I'd love to honor him here." He's also keen on minifestivals built around themes and composers, like the ones he inaugurated in New York, and he'll be seeking joint commissions with other festivals from up-and-coming composers. And he envisions theatrical collaborations with local organizations. "They tell me this is a great theater town," he says. He's made a point of meeting with other arts administrators. "I had lunch with Barbara Gaines and Criss Henderson the other day to explore the possibility of us working with their company [Chicago Shakespeare]. I'd love to meet with folks from the Goodman and the Steppenwolf." He had breakfast with Fogel, who offered to introduce him to people at the Lyric Opera and other companies.

One has to wonder whether Kauffman, given his history of job hopping, will stick around. "I'd be shocked to see Welz leave in the next five years," says Fogel. "I can't imagine a position to be in that's any better for him." And Kauffman insists he doesn't see Ravinia as a stepping-stone. "I expect to be here for a long time," he says. "For me, Ravinia is the brass ring."

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

Add a comment