Chicago’s Rutter Takes the Helm at the Kennedy Center

Deborah F. Rutter, the new president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, its first female president, and only the third to hold the post, was in the middle of her first official day at work September 2 when she took time to talk on the phone.
“My office looks terrible. There’s boxes and stuff all over the place,” she said. “We had a staff meeting to meet everyone which was absolutely great. It was a very warm occasion. I was so impressed with the people here, and I’m really looking forward to the daily process of working together.

“Actually, the most important part of the day was of course deciding what my daughter would wear to school,” she said and laughed.

Even in a half hour phone conversation, you get the impression that Rutter doesn’t stand on ceremony much. She’s down to earth, accessible, moving from conversation about day-to-day living, moving to Washington from Chicago, talking about how to engage new audiences, about music and its “power to transform.” She’s at turns eloquent and vibrant, funny, professional and warm. President of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association for over a decade, Rutter was named to succeed Michael Kaiser who ended his 13-year tenure on September 1. When the Kennedy Center presented her to the press last December, Rutter exuded both confidence and affability, embracing with gusto the challenge of leading what is often considered the nation’s premiere cultural and performing arts center.

There was, of course, a reason for the confidence. She was something of a transforming agent in Chicago, spreading the reputation of the CSOA out into the city and community, persuading legendary Maestro Riccardo Muti to head the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as its 10th music director and displaying a bent for collaborative efforts, city-wide festivals, large-scale educational efforts, a gift for fund-raising and a passion for the works of contemporary classical composers . During her tenure in Chicago, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma became the first Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant.

Still, it’s plain that while under Rutter the CSOA became a force not only throughout the city of Chicago, but nationally and internationally as well, heading up the Kennedy Center is a different matter. That’s because of its various pieces—theater programming, jazz, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera, which came under the center’s wing only recently, Very Special Arts, Young People’s Program, the annual Kennedy Center Honors and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the last two of which result in very public red-carpet festivities and events.

“I realize the challenge,” she said, “and I look forward to it.” At the time of the announcement, she said “It’s an honor and a challenge to continue to build on the tremendous work that Michael Kaiser has done here for the past 13 years.”
While September 2 was her official first work day, she’s been busy meeting with people all along and scouting the city and the center. “We moved here and now live in American University Park, which we found to be a great place. It’s residential, it’s close to things, there are all kinds of things within walking distance. Our daughter Gillian goes to Sidwell, and she sings in a choir, which I think is terrific because that’s where you learn about working with others, about collaboration to produce beautiful music and sounds.” Her husband Peter Ellefson teaches at Northwestern and Indiana University and plays the trombone. Rutter herself grew up playing the violin and piano.

During the course of speaking with Rutter, I allowed that I hadn’t been interested in classical music when I was in high school, that I was a rock and roller. “Don’t kid yourself,” she said. “At one time or another, we’re all rock and rollers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fan of the Kinks, Sting or Dave Matthews, you listened to rock and roll at some point and it’s not forgotten.”
She said that she was “was amazed at the depth and breadth of the every-day programming at the Kennedy Center, and at the audiences’ interest in what the center offers.” “I was happy to be able to attend the NSO’s Labor Day concert which had to be moved inside to the Concert Hall because of the weather and it was absolutely thrilling to see how people were happy to be there.”

“There are so many tent poles, and silos, to the Center, the different departments, and one of the things I thought was that whatever event was going on—a concert, an opera, a ground-up musical, a dance or ballet performance, that the center’s various parts would interact and reflect individual productions—that a single project would resonate among and inspire the rest of the building.”

“Sure, I will miss Chicago. It’s a unique American city. It’s a tough place in many ways, strong and receptive, and all the myths and personas of the city are true,” she said. “But you don’t lose friends in this business. You will always see and connect with people who work in this field. And this city, as I’m beginning to see, has its own personality. It’s totally different.
“We have this historic place here. It’s connected to history, and it’s a monument as well as a performing arts center,” she said. “But there are always different ways to bring the arts to the community and the community to the arts.

She shared the experience of being at a concert for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “Truth to Power” festival at which Jason Moran, the Kennedy Center’s jazz director, performed original blues compositions with conceptual artist Theaster Gates. “Jason is such a gifted, innovative player and person,” she said of Moran.

That kind of collaboration attracts here as well. “I’m very excited about the “Little Dancer,” she said, referring to the Kennedy Center’s musical production about the relationship between the Impressionist painter Degas and the model for his famous ballerina sculpture which begins in October and coincides with a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.

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