CEO Welz Kauffman Turns 'Answerman'

Welz Kauffman

By Welz Kauffman

Originally published The Highland Park Landmark magazine.

In this column I like to address real questions about Ravinia Festival posed to me by fellow Highland Parkers who I bump into at various locations around town. It seems a lot of these questions have been building up over the winter, so now that summer is here (or as Ravinia says, “summer is hear”), here are the top 10 questions so far:

QUESTION 10: “Who are the new classical artists coming to Ravinia?”

Asked at Frost Gelato, 617 Central Ave.

“Gelato” people want to know the names to watch for at the start of a new season. The easiest way to get a bead on the best is to check out Ravinia’s $10 BGH Classics series. In Ravinia’s most intimate space—the 450-seat Bennett Gordon Hall—you’ll find terrific artists and magnificent programs for less than the cost of a movie ticket. They range from the acclaimed cellist Alisa Weilerstein and violinist Augustin Hadelich to our own best-of-breed from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute. Someone who’s winning raves around the world is pianist Igor Levit, who promises to give one of this summer’s don’t-miss concerts in the Martin Theatre, and you’ll also have a chance to experience the Ravinia debuts of three conductors at the helm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

QUESTION 9: What are the twinkly lights and red umbrellas at the north entrance for?

Asked at Stationery Station, 610 Central Ave., #160

We’re trying out a new concept in the underused area where the picnic tables sat empty most of the time. We’ve spruced things up and added our first outdoor bar and grill with beer and wine on tap and a variety of sausages. Stop by and tell us how you like the new Picnic Grove.

QUESTION 8: “Why has everything gotten so expensive? I don’t even go to classical concerts anymore.”

Asked at Beelow’s NorthShore, 1850 Second St.

I have one answer for you: $25/$10/Free. Music lovers can get most Pavilion seats to every Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert for only $25. This is a small fraction of what you’d pay downtown. Lawn tickets to most classical concerts are only $10 each, and children and students through college are admitted free to the lawn for all classical concerts broadcast from the Pavilion or Martin Theatre. Plus you can get up-close-and-personal reserved seats to concerts in Bennett Gordon Hall for only $10.

QUESTION 7: “Ravinia always has the same acts. Why can’t you get someone new?”

Asked at Landmark Renaissance Cinema, 1850 Second St., #110

It’s the mix of audience favorites and debuts that folks love about Ravinia. This year the debuts include Sharon Jones, vocal heir-apparent to Aretha Franklin; talented Latin artists paying tribute to Michael Jackson with the Unity tour; songwriters David Gray and Amos Lee on a double bill; Needtobreathe and Switchfoot leading a night of four bands all making their debuts; ZZ Top; and the biggest draw of the season, pop-culture icon Lady Gaga. Most recently we announced the addition of 11-year-old jazz phenom Joey Alexander.

QUESTION 6: “Did I see a lot of trees come down this spring at Ravinia?”

Asked at Walgreens, 632 Roger Williams Ave.

Sadly, it’s not your imagination. Ravinia is battling the same invasive ash borer beetle that has wreaked havoc in Highland Park and throughout the region. Dead and decaying trees are always dangerous, but they don’t always show outward signs of infestation. I took photos of one big ash we had to bring down that still had leaves, but the trunk was almost entirely hollowed out. Customer safety must be job one.

QUESTION 5: “What is Ramsey Lewis doing with the CSO?”

Asked at Country Kitchen, 446 Central Ave.

Ramsey Lewis is celebrating his 80th birthday with Ravinia in many ways this year. He started by wowing Focus on the Arts audiences in April, and we just released an antibullying public service announcement starring Ramsey amidst local middle-school children in support of Mayor Nancy Rotering’s “We Stand Together” campaign, explaining how he was prevented from pursuing a classical career as a young man because of his race. But the big kahuna of this landmark celebration is Ramsey’s debut with the CSO as both composer and soloist in his first concerto, commissioned by Ravinia. The second half of the concert features Ramsey and his quintet with special guests in a jazz blowout.

QUESTION 4: “What was the construction project on Lambert Tree and St. Johns?”

Asked at Jamba Juice, 1849 Green Bay Rd.

We re-created the north bus turnaround, which will now allow us to safely separate pedestrians from vehicles and load up to four buses at a time to not only speed the exit of patrons but to mitigate the noise and exhaust of idling buses.

QUESTION 3: “Why does Ravinia do most of its music education programs in Chicago instead of around here?”

Asked at Café Central, 455 Central Ave.

Though the bulk of our education work has been in the neediest schools in Chicago, we actually will be reaching more kids now in Lake County’s underserved communities, such as North Chicago, Highwood, Zion and Waukegan. We’ll be making an announcement soon about this new initiative.

QUESTION 2: “Why don’t you do comedy at Ravinia?”

Asked at Equinox Fitness Club, 799 Central Ave.

As much as the laughs fly free backstage and frequently onstage with such acts as Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Alan Cumming, and A Prairie Home Companion, the booking of a full-fledged comedy show is difficult because so many people on the lawn will not be able to see the comedians at work, essential for most stand-up. Despite that, in calculating the fee for an appearance, the agents would count the 12,500 potential lawn seats that would likely go unsold, making comedy headliners cost-prohibitive. But I’m certain you’ll get your yuks on when Family Guy creator and golden-throated crooner Seth MacFarlane performs on Aug. 21.

And the number-one question is:

“What’s the one concert not to miss this summer at Ravinia?”

Asked at Farmer’s Market, Jens Jensen Park, 486 Roger Williams Ave.

Whichever one I’m enjoying at the time!

Welz Kauffman is President and CEO of Ravinia Festival, and he books all the artists. Feel free to bombard him with questions when you see him around town.