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Deborah Rutter to Head Kennedy Center

Deborah Rutter; photo by Todd Rosenberg

Deborah Rutter; photo by Todd Rosenberg

WFMT Exclusive: Noel Morris speaks to Deborah Rutter from her hotel in Washington.

It’s the nation’s performing arts center. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to continue my work in a field I’ve devoted my life to, with an organization that has such a broad reach.

—Deborah Rutter

Chicago’s loss is the capitol’s gain, Deborah Rutter has taken a new post as President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

It is difficult to measure the impact this affable, unassuming (though tough as nails) woman has had on the city of Chicago. One has to dig and reflect, because she is not one to toot her own horn: first and foremost, she brought Riccardo Muti to Chicago; before him, principal conductor Bernard Haitink.

She brought on Yo-Yo Ma as creative consultant, she created a record label for the CSO, brought CSO concerts back to the airwaves which are heard nationally through the WFMT Radio Network; launched tours of Mexico, Asia, Europe, Russia (at the request of the State Department); created Beyond the Score, Afterwork Masterworks with WXRT’s Terry Hemmert, a record-setting crowd at Millennium Park, the contemporary music series, MusicNOW. That’s the short list.

Rutter was stealthy in her management style, cajoling, nudging—often with the most giant-sized personalities—bringing them together to share a common goal.


Samuel Ramey with Deborah Rutter hosting a worldwide webcast of the Verdi Requiem on the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth; photo by Todd Rosenberg

Rutter was a familiar presence, as the voice of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, saying to the public what needed to be said, though for her it was always about the music, and pragmatically speaking, leveraging the personalities who make the music. Perhaps that’s why she did what no other American orchestra executive could do: recruit Riccardo Muti as music director.

From the resignation of Daniel Barenboim, it took six years to hire a music director: three to get onto a conductor’s schedule, three more for there to be openings in that conductor’s schedule to assume responsibilities. During those first years, people close to Rutter noticed lots of travel: to Milan, to Rome, to Philadelphia, to Paris, to New York—anywhere Muti went, Rutter was sure to go. She had the patience of a spider, stopping in to say ‘hello,’ over time telling him more about the singular abilities of her orchestra. Once he actually came to Chicago, the orchestra and community were rapturous. She received an avalanche of inquiries and suggestions that perhaps she should hire Muti as the next music director. After that, everyone wanted to know if she had offered him the job. She once admitted to a friend, “I’m not going to offer it to him until I know he’ll take it.” After all, twice he had turned down Zarin Mehta of the New York Philharmonic.

Deborah F. Rutter will serve as artistic and administrative director of the Kennedy Center starting on September 1, 2014. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has a budget of $200 million dollars and presents jazz, dance, theater, musicals, popular music, folk and world music, as well as classical concerts; the center is home to the National Symphony Orchestra, The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, and the Washington National Opera.


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