How Ravinia Books Its Artists

From The CSO To Lenny Kravitz, Timing is Everything

By Welz Kauffman

Perhaps the question I’m asked most frequently is, how far in advance does Ravinia book its artists? This one came up twice this week; oddly enough, on the Ravinia grounds. The answer is that a musical Rubik’s Cube of availability, budget, genre and other factors have some concerts booked years in advance while others—such as the Sept. 3 Ravinia debut of Lenny Kravitz—come together after the season has begun.

It all begins with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Hosting one of the world’s most esteemed ensembles in its summer residency since 1936 comes with myriad complexities: slating both rehearsals and concerts within bounds of the musicians’ intricate work rules; engaging major soloists and conductors, whose own demanding schedules might have them tied up for years; and navigating repertoire to create programs that will entice a wide variety of audiences yet not be overly duplicative of major works being performed at Symphony Center, Lyric Opera and Grant Park. For example, in my first summer, Ravinia had programmed Verdi’s Requiem—Grant Park and the CSO also did this resource-rich work, all within six weeks of each other. That makes no sense. For more often-played works, duplication isn’t a problem, as we know our classical music audience comes from within 20 miles of the park.

Putting a standard overture–concerto–symphony program together is fairly simple, but putting together an evening like last week’s “Porgy and Bess” is much more intense, as I cast the soloists, commissioned the creation of the chorus, and worked on the selections of the opera with Bobby McFerrin to make it all happen (it took 10 years just to convince Bobby to do it again, but it was worth it!). Interestingly, many folks think the CSO management programs Ravinia because that’s how it works at Wolf Trap, Saratoga, Hollywood Bowl, Tanglewood and other American festivals. But in 80 years of continuous presentation of this great orchestra, that has never been the case at Ravinia, which is a separate institution from the CSO.

Once the CSO season is in place, the blank slate is not so blank anymore. With classical music informing the majority of events that Ravinia presents, chamber music and recitals come next. Between the Martin Theatre and Bennett Gordon Hall schedules, Ravinia presents one of the most extensive and varied chamber offerings in the world. At 850 seats, the beautiful Martin Theatre is larger than other acclaimed chamber concert halls, including Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, London’s Wigmore Hall and the Schubert Club in Minneapolis, so I set my sights on artists who can fill such a large hall. In most cases these will be artists of both great fame and experience or beloved and respected repertoire that speaks for itself. At 450 seats (still 250 seats larger than Carnegie’s “small” hall, the Weill)—each priced at a resoundingly low $10—the intimate Bennett Gordon Hall is simpler to program. It’s the right price for aficionados who can’t get enough. It’s also an affordable opportunity for parents to get their kids—who might be in a school ensemble, taking lessons, or just budding music lovers—up-close and personal with classical music.

The last shows in are usually the first to go when tickets are offered to the general public in April. These are the nonclassical concerts, ranging from country to jazz to rock. For a wide variety of reasons—not the least of which is the logistics required to route multiple trucks, tons of equipment and dozens of people—these acts usually book much closer to their show dates. Competition for these acts, often controlled by the largest syndicates like Live Nation and AEG, is fierce worldwide and especially in an important marketplace like Chicago, which has new venues and casinos opening up all the time even as traditionally nonmusical venues (zoos, gardens, and even places of worship) also venture into presenting pop shows.

The goal is to get everything booked in time to be included in our major promotional piece, the annual brochure, and as noted above, it’s the nonclassical offerings that make this the trickiest (and most fun!) part. The brochure, a complex and expensive marketing tool, is direct-mailed to half a million homes. A true harbinger of spring, this oversized calendar describes Ravinia’s classical offerings in great detail on one side, and presents the full season calendar on the other. I started devoting a side to only the classical concerts in order to show the breadth, depth, variety and magnitude of those selections—far more than Ravinia has ever featured in its 111-year history.

This year a handful of shows did not make it into the brochure, but tickets are available to all of them right now. On July 19, the tropical artists who launched “Unity,” a Latin tribute album to Michael Jackson, to the top of the charts will bring that album to life on the Ravinia stage. Songs from “Human Nature” to “Thriller” will get some salsa spice in what promises to be a giant dance party on the lawn. On Sept. 11, 11-year-old jazz piano phenom Joey Alexander, who has been tearing it up on YouTube, makes his Ravinia debut on the $10 BGH Classics series with his trio. This Wynton Marsalis protégé is such a wonder that the New York Times did a front-page story on him, calling him “a thoughtful musician as well as a natural one, with a sophisticated harmonic palette and a dynamic sensitivity.” Finally, we’ve added the Ravinia debut of Lenny Kravitz to the season on Sept. 3 (and the Pavilion and lawn are selling briskly). The charismatic rocker behind “American Woman” and “Fly Away” is the only person to win the Grammy for best Male Rock Vocal Performance four years in a row. He’s also a movie (“The Hunger Games” franchise) and television (the upcoming season of the runaway hit “Empire”) star.

The most exciting part of artist booking, of course, is the nail-biting moment when someone cancels, which happens more frequently than you might imagine, but it’s not too surprising when you consider that Ravinia is presenting more than 120 concerts each season. This is most thrilling when producing an opera, as finding replacements—especially in the summer, when many singers take time off—can be like finding that needle in the haystack. Major opera companies like the Met, San Francisco and the Lyric have “covers”—understudies who are waiting to go on should someone take ill or have another reason to have to be absent. Covers are a luxury, however, when producing a single performance of an opera—be it “Porgy and Bess,” “Sweeney Todd,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Tosca” or “Salome”—and it’s always a roller coaster. That said, if you sing any of the six principal roles in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” which will be James Conlon’s final program with us as music director of the CSO residency, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me your coordinates and credits—maybe we can make something happen!

In keeping with this timeline, although we are only weeks into the 2015 season, the 2016 CSO residency is already nailed down. In fact we recently announced the 2016 return of our former music director James Levine for his first visit to Ravinia in more than two decades. He’ll lead the CSO in Mahler’s Second Symphony to celebrate the 45th anniversary of his Ravinia debut. We’ll announce other CSO concerts before the end of this summer.

But for now, there is 2015. I truly hope you’re enjoying it.

Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman programs the entire Ravinia season. Catch the Highland Park resident previewing upcoming events on WGN-TV at 9:20 a.m. every Monday. If you see him around town, feel free to ask him anything—but not about next season.

Originally published in The Highland Park Landmark magazine.