CSO’s new chief: a consensus guy, eager to hit the ground running

Sat Sep 06, 2014 at 4:33 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jeff Alexander was named the new president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association this week.

Jeff Alexander was named the new president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association this week.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opens its season September 18, all eyes will once again be on Riccardo Muti, as the orchestra’s charismatic music director ascends the podium and gives the downbeat for Beethoven’s mighty Ninth Symphony.

But another man is likely to have an equal and possibly even greater impact on the CSO’s fortunes over future seasons and the longer-term life of the orchestra.

Earlier this week, the CSO announced that Jeff Alexander would succeed Deborah Rutter as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, effective next January. The news—which leaked days earlier than the planned official announcement—had even veteran industry observers asking “who?” 
and Googling to find out more about the CSO’s new chief.

Of the two finalists for the job, Alexander, president and CEO of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, was clearly the dark-horse candidate. The scuttlebutt is that Muti threw his not-inconsiderable support behind Alexander, which effectively ended the discussion.

In contrast to his predecessor who was not shy about putting her face and name out in the spotlight, Alexander appears to be the rare top orchestral exec who is happy to leave the public role to the music director and orchestra and content to do his job quietly and effectively behind the scenes.

Alexander 57, interviewed here in June, when he caught the concluding program of Schubert and Mahler led by Muti. “I attended all three nights,” he said, speaking from Vancouver. “And loved every minute of it.”

“Clearly the artistic condition of the orchestra has never been better. It’s just spectacular and Maestro Muti is so fantastic.”

“There are financial challenges, as there are with every not-for-profit organization. I think that will be the initial focus—working with the staff and the board to increase revenue.”

Asked to cite some of the accomplishments of which he is most proud during his 14-year tenure leading the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Alexander mentions raising its profile through touring while stabilizing the orchestra finances.

“I’m proud of the fact that we were able to resurrect an international touring program,” he said. “I arrived here in 2000 simultaneously with Bramwell Tovey, our music director. One of the things we wanted to do was get touring on the radar again and we were able to do that. We had a wonderful tour of Asia in 2008 and a Canadian tour in 2009, and we went out to the U.S. West Coast most recently. I’m very proud of that.”

Alexander also points to his expansion of the VSO’s community engagement activities, especially the establishment of the orchestra’s own community music school with members of the orchestra teaching children. “It really has helped build an enduring relationship with the orchestra,” he said. “Children who took lessons at the school when they were younger are now coming to concerts and rehearsals, so we’re really building wonderful relationships through the school.”

“Marketing a symphony orchestra in the 21st century is quite a challenge,” he adds.  “One of the keys is to figure out ways to get people to come to a concert. And then once they do come, making sure they have a great experience and  will want to come back.”

He said the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is somewhat unique in Canada for being based more on the U.S. model, by relying more on private donations and endowment funding than public monies.

The Vancouver Symphony’s annual budget is $14.5 million and the endowment fund is about $20 million . “That pales in comparison to Chicago, of course, but we grew it to $20 million from only $4 million.” The Vancouver Symphony is currently carrying an accumulated deficit of about $700,000, yet Alexander has largely managed annual surpluses in his decade and a half leading the organization.

Before taking up his Canadian post, Alexander spent 16 years at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the final 12 as general manager. From 1982 to 1984, he served as general manager of the Laredo Philharmonic Orchestra in Texas, and from 1980 to 1982 he served as general manager of Grapa Concerts in New York City, an artist management firm. He is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he majored in French Horn performance.

While no one disputes the current artistic standing of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and consistent high quality of performances, programming in the Muti era has been more open to criticism. Contemporary music in 2014-15 is largely limited to the CSO’s composers in residence and American repertory is virtually nonexistent.

While citing a lack of familiarity with next season’s repertoire, Alexander said his instinct is to give the audience what it wants. “My general philosophy is to program concerts that audience members will enjoy,” he said. “And that can be accomplished in any number of ways. Of course, it’s important to program new music. But there has to be a balance and it has to be programmed in the right context.”

Alexander noted that some have focused on his coming from a relatively small arts organization to a high-profile behemoth like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with the unspoken question being is he up to the challenge?

“The inner workings of a large symphony orchestra are virtually identical,” he said. “You’re dealing with similar challenges and opportunities. Of course, Chicago is on a larger scale but I’m confident. I’ve been doing this for 32 years now and successfully. I’ll be ready to hit the ground running when I get to Chicago. And I’m very much looking forward to doing that.”

A commanding figure on the podium, Riccardo Muti is, by all accounts, equally controlling in administrative issues as well. As his hand-picked choice, will Alexander be able to say “no” to the mercurial maestro?

He laughed. “I think what’s important is that the president of a symphony orchestra and the music director have a completely open relationship. And maestro and I have spoken about that already.

“I think it will be my responsibility to work with him to help him achieve everything he wants to achieve for the organization. Of course, there will be times when we won’t be able to do that.

“But I really don’t think it’s a matter of saying ‘no.’ I think it’s a matter of walking through an idea or opportunity and together deciding if it’s the right time to try to accomplish that for the CSO. I see it really as a true partnership.”

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