She’ll need to hit all the right notes

Chicago Tribune

Various heads in the classical music business nodded knowingly when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recently announced the appointment of Deborah R. Card as the orchestra’s new president. Her four-year appointment takes place on Sept. 1, and everyone seems to agree she is a smart choice to succeed Henry Fogel.

Indeed, in a field where jealousies and rivalries abound, it’s rare to find an orchestra manager as widely admired as the executive director of the Seattle Symphony (since 1992).

Technically speaking, Card isn’t the first woman ever to manage the CSO. That honor falls to the long-forgotten Anna Millar, who served in that capacity from 1895 to 1899 during founder Theodore Thomas’ tenure. And there are numerous women running smaller U.S. orchestras.

By virtue of the CSO’s position, Card becomes the most prominent woman to head a major symphony orchestra in the world. Card, taking over a “Big Five” orchestra, has shattered the glass ceiling even more dramatically than her colleagues Deborah Borda at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Anne Kennedy at the Houston Symphony, Rita Shapiro at the National Symphony and Allison Vulgamore at the Atlanta Symphony. Card also is the latest in a line of powerful Chicago arts executives who happen to be female, including the Lyric Opera’s Carol Fox and Ardis Krainik.


Part of what makes the Pennsylvania-born Card, 46, so refreshing is her forthright and approachable manner. One of the first things she told me at our initial meeting the other day was, “I pride myself on being a good listener.” Not a bad attitude for any music executive, particularly one coming to a fiscally challenged organization in which people already are bombarding her with things all at once.

While the selection of a female director from a second-tier orchestra may have taken some by surprise, Card’s 11-year tenure in Seattle has proved she can hold her own just fine in the old boys’ club of orchestra management -- though she hardly considers herself a role model for aspiring female arts executives.

“The only limitations I’ve ever had to overcome were if I didn’t feel I had a capacity in a certain area, never female versus male,” she says.

Anyone with a mandate to build trust, in relatively short order, within the constituencies of a $60-million orchestra had better be an articulate communicator and a respected leader. Card, who was selected by unanimous board vote after an eight-month international search, convinced the trustees she’s both. Now she will have to persuade the orchestra members, subscribers and contributors.


Card does not enjoy as high a national profile as Fogel, 60, who will step down June 30 after 18 years at the CSO to become president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League. But he, too, was not a household name when he arrived in Chicago in 1985, and he has also been in the business almost two decades longer.

The financial situation Card faces here is serious but not life-threatening. With total assets of $410 million and only two deficits between 1985 and the present, the Chicago Symphony has sufficient reserves to weather a weak economy. But the symphony posted a $6.1-million deficit on a nearly $60-million budget for fiscal 2002. Ticket revenues are down and attendance has fallen to a disappointing 82% from the capacity crowds the CSO attracted during the Georg Solti years from 1969 to 1992.

The board is counting on Card to pull in more bucks and warm bodies, hoping for a reprise of her performance at the helm of the Seattle Symphony. Those who know her work there speak of the brisk, bespectacled executive as a Wonder Woman who has helped to turn a once sickly band into a healthy orchestra, moving it to the fore of the city’s cultural life.

When she arrived in Seattle in 1992 after six years as executive director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, she found an orchestra with a backlog of red ink. Despite the corporate presence of Microsoft (and, at that time, Boeing), the city was a frontier town when it came to arts philanthropy. Her first year, Card faced a deficit approaching $3.6 million on an $8.6-million budget. Attendance was spotty, and the orchestra under music director Gerard Schwarz was playing only 95 concerts a year.

Under her watch, the deficit was paid off, budgets were balanced and subscriptions rose from 17,000 in 1992 to 40,000 this year. The endowment was strengthened and operating revenues rose by 100%, though last year the symphony posted a $700,000 deficit on a $24.5-million budget.

The orchestra now gives 220 concerts each season, most of them in Benaroya Hall, the modern auditorium planned and built under her supervision. Selling the $159-million project to Seattle was no cakewalk. Card not only did so but also involved herself in every phase of the hall’s creation. “She’s used to having a can-do attitude,” says Melinda Bargreen, music critic of the Seattle Times.

Seattle musicians and board people know Card as an even-handed labor negotiator who can relate to orchestra players and their needs, yet talk tough when required.

“It’s a mistake to think that because she’s a woman she has this soft and empathetic core that will be easy to get around when a contract is on the table,” Bargreen says. “She can really go to the mat if she has to.”


As Card herself puts it, “I’m the person my chief financial officer dreads, because I’ll look at a piece of paper and ask, ‘What about that number? That number doesn’t make sense.’ ”

Her reputation will be put to perhaps the biggest test of her career when talks begin on a new CSO labor contract to replace the current pact, which expires in September 2004.

On one side of the table will be a cost-conscious board determined to keep a lid on expenses. On the other will be musicians who are among the highest-paid in the world and believe they are entitled to remain so.

It may help that Card (a former professional violinist) regards orchestra musicians with a degree of understanding uncommon among symphony managers.

“When you’re negotiating, you must bear in mind that you are doing so with [players] you’re going to have to work with for the coming three to five years,” she explains, “so you take a different approach than if you’re dealing with a union head.

“One of the good things is when you can work directly with musicians. I’ve had very frank conversations on the subject with the musicians who served on the search committee so that we would not be stepping quietly around the subject.”

Beyond that, Card declines to speculate about what directions the new contract talks will take. Not until she has the chance to familiarize herself with the entire organization would she begin to prescribe anything, she says. Nor is she able to predict exactly how she and Daniel Barenboim will function as a team. Although she hasn’t had a chance to get to know the music director on a personal level, their conversations have been “inspiring,” she says. Their relationship is likely to be much different from that of her predecessor, who brought Barenboim to Chicago in 1991.

Hints of how different that relationship could be may be gathered from studying Card’s relationship with Gerard Schwarz in Seattle. Card has flexed increasing muscle in artistic decision-making at the Seattle Symphony, and inevitably this has led to a power struggle between her and the music director over such matters as who selects guest conductors. A few years ago, say insiders, the board took that prerogative away from Schwarz, partly at Card’s insistence. The level of guest conductors has since improved.


Card takes pains to minimize her disagreements with Schwarz. “There’s always that dynamic tension in the relationship of a music director and an executive director,” she says. “I actually think that’s a very healthy thing for an organization.”

So you can add diplomat to the list of hats Card soon will be wearing in Chicago. Her professional skills will be tested in a crucible far more fiery than the one she’s leaving in Seattle.

John von Rhein is music critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.