Skip to content


Orchestrating Change

Chicago’s symphony needs younger audiences, deeper pockets and a new conductor, and Deborah Card is making that happen.

Photo: Wayne Cable

WOODWINDY CITY: Card has cut costs in Chicago and signed a new labor contract with musicians.

By Bob Cook

As a student in the Stanford in Vienna program in 1976, Deborah R. Card remembers being awestruck by the Musikverein, the golden palace that serves nominally as the home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and emotionally as one of the world’s centers of classical music. “It was overpowering.”

Although Card, ’78, had studied violin and piano since early childhood, she had no illusions of performing at the Musikverein. (“To be great, you have to practice a lot,” and she wasn’t one to lock herself in a room eight hours a day.) Yet in April, Card returned to the Musikverein in a role that could turn the head of any musician there: she is president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. And if she’s no longer the wowed California undergrad, she’s still impressed. “I feel really blessed to be doing this.”

To look at the headlines—the ones that read something like “[Insert City Name Here] Symphony Faces Crisis”—“blessed” might not be the adjective that comes to mind for an orchestra executive. Since arriving at CSO three years ago, Card has had to negotiate a new contract with musicians and whittle away at a $6 million budget deficit. She has needed to court new donors because old standbys—human and corporate—have been dying off. Chicago has been hit especially hard as corporate headquarters move away from the city; CSO most recently mourned the departure of Bank One.

Card also has to find a replacement for music director Daniel Barenboim, who will step down when his contract ends in 2006. Barenboim, an Israeli pianist who was Georg Solti’s hand-picked successor, took up Chicago’s baton in 1991. He’s a legendary figure—known for his superstar conducting, his political activism in the Middle East and his marriage to tragic cellist Jacqueline du Pré. His departure stems from a reluctance to assume more off-podium duties—the fund raising and audience outreach that are increasingly important to an orchestra’s fiscal health.

So while Card, 48, may be thrilled to work in music’s most hallowed halls, she’s not naive about the challenges she faces.

Deborah Rutter grew up in Encino, Calif., playing violin while her brother played the clarinet. Her parents loved music, and her mother took symphony-management classes—to be a better volunteer manager of the youth orchestra in which her children played.

Deborah knew early she wasn’t cut out for a violin career, but she began college as a music major “to take advantage of the cheaper individual lessons.” She went to Vienna with the intention of staying a few months, but instead stayed for a year, earning credits for what became a major in German studies, playing with a community orchestra (“a bunch of old men and me”), and traveling to hear the great orchestras and opera companies of Europe. “There was nothing like it. Man, was I lucky,” Card says.

One summer in college she worked filing documents for a defense contractor. She remembers a family friend asked her, “Why are you working for Litton instead of the Hollywood Bowl?” It was a good question—one she answered by finding work in the education department of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1986, Card, newly armed with an MBA from the University of Southern California, got her first chief executive’s job with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Six years later, she was hired in Seattle, where the orchestra had accumulated a deficit of $2.5 million on only $9 million in revenue. It played only 95 dates a year—in part because it didn’t have its own hall.

To illustrate the point that orchestras should be seen and heard as often as possible, Card holds up a pamphlet-sized book that contains the work rules for musicians. “In a musicians’ contract, there are a number of services—rehearsals, concerts, educational services,” she explains. “If you have four rehearsals and four concerts, that’s eight services per week. In Chicago, we have 7 1/2. In Seattle, we had five. If you only have five services, you’re paying players to stay home.”

Card attacked Seattle’s financial problems not only by increasing services and cutting the budget, but also by cultivating the city’s new technology millionaires. As for the music, more emphasis was put on nontraditional works: Asian-themed pieces, for example, and appearances with popular artists like David Byrne, Frank Zappa and James Taylor.

Seattle’s endowment increased significantly, and its annual budget, by the time Card left, was $24.1 million. The number of annual subscribers increased from 17,000 to 40,000. And the orchestra got its own home, Benaroya Hall, which opened in 1998 and allowed the number of concerts to increase to 220 a year. The seed money came from Jack Benaroya, an early investor in the Starbucks coffee chain. To this day, Card makes a point of drinking Starbucks.

Chicago—one of America’s Big Five symphonies, along with New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Boston—recruited Card to succeed executive director Henry Fogel. He was leaving, after 16 years, to lead the American Symphony Orchestra League—the organization whose classes had trained Card’s mother. Card and her daughter, Gillian, now 7 and a student of violin and piano, moved to the Windy City in 2002.

At the time, the CSO reported a $6.1 million deficit on a $60 million budget, with $4 million of that deficit a one-time write-off on pension costs. The symphony had not lost its cultural cachet in the Windy City, but its audience was beginning to decline. The Chicago board wanted a high-energy person with experience in building audiences while staunching deficits. “In a field where jealousies and rivalries abound, it’s rare to find an orchestra manager as admired as the savvy, experienced” Card, Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein wrote of her hiring.

Indeed, Card can cut costs without chopping operations to the bone. When she got to Chicago, Card studied all operations to determine personnel needs. Sometimes eyeballing helped—seeing employees mill around in the gift store helped her decide the number needed there was only three. The CSO’s administrative staff numbers 105 today, reduced through attrition, from 126 at Card’s arrival.

Cuts had to be made on the musical side as well, particularly in what Card describes as “out of control” pension costs. A contract that ended in September 2004 was extended while labor negotiations continued through a mediator. At one point, the musicians were told to clean out their lockers in anticipation of a strike. But in November, the two sides signed a new three-year deal.

The musicians won limitations on how many consecutive days they must perform, but Card and the orchestra board got much of what they wanted. After a one-year freeze, the musicians will get raises, but they will have to start contributing to their own health insurance premiums, and their pensions will be capped at $63,000 per year. The number of musicians would be reduced by attrition from 114 to 106. Work rules were changed so that musicians would interact more with the community, specifically in more shows at schools. Card expects a balanced budget by the 2006-07 season.

The question for Card is not, is there an audience for classical music, but rather, how can the audience be energized? She has pushed for progressive programming, increasing after-work concerts and performances matched with food, wine and conversation with a local rock deejay. Card says that even in the few years she’s been in Chicago, the average age of attendees has dropped from the low 60s to the high 50s.

She believes orchestras—even those as storied as Chicago’s—must increasingly cultivate individual supporters. “We have to remember that every dollar we spend is a dollar that someone gives to us in the belief we’re going to do something good with it,” she says. “I have to be very resourceful, and be very efficient with it.”

The fan-friendly approach isn’t without controversy—as is seen in Barenboim’s decision to leave. There has been no public hint of animus between Barenboim and Card; but Barenboim, paid a reported $2.14 million a year, has made it clear that he didn’t like “nonartistic demands.”

A notably prickly maestro, Barenboim lives in Berlin, where he is music director of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, and spends time playing recitals in the Palestinian West Bank and organizing a youth orchestra of children from across the Middle East. Barenboim told Chicago Sun-Times reporter Wynne Delcoma, “There are expectations for music directors to do a lot of things concerned with fund raising, with social activities. I really have no interest in these things. . . . Those expectations require more time here and not less.”

Observers are watching closely to see if the CSO can find an extraordinary music director who also embraces a role in Chicago’s community life. It’s likely guest conductors will fill several seasons; CSO might not have a permanent music director until 2008. “It’s not like finding a new president of a university, where you have search firms and a population in place,” Card says. “Every time we talk to a conductor, we have to think, ‘What are the implications of this individual leading the orchestra?’”

BOB COOK is a Chicago journalist who has done commentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Comments (0)

  • Be the first one to add a comment. You must log in to comment.


Your Rating
Average Rating



Be the first one to tag this!