Ravinia's Man Behind The Curtain

By Sherry Thomas

Carlos Santana once told Welz Kauffman that he’d never play Ravinia. Nothing personal, he said, just that “my audience won’t come.”

The year was 2000, and Kauffman had just taken the reins at the legendary Highland Park music festival with a vision to build on the historic venue’s proud legacy of presenting a wide variety of great concerts.

“From the beginning Ravinia presented a mix of classical concerts and the cutting-edge acts of the time, whether it was Benny Goodman introducing a mixed-race band in the 1940s to Janis Joplin and Frank Zappa in the 1970s,” Kauffman said. “But as the classical programming continued to feature the brightest talents in the world, for about 30 years, we lost our way a bit on the nonclassical side, allowing it to get pretty dusty.”

So, Santana’s words were not surprising, given that Ravinia’s national reputation for variety and a historical 50/50 mix of classical to non-classical music grew more rooted in world-class orchestras than mainstream rock and roll. Ravinia was Chicago Symphony Orchestra in summer with picnic baskets on the lawn and genteel evenings—not a gritty rock fest.

So Kauffman shrugged Santana’s words off and moved forward, using his connections and his belief in the venue to book a robust summer roster of A-list mainstream and pop stars to counter the classical music favorites by such acclaimed conductors as James Levine, Christoph Eschenbach, and James Conlon. His big breakthrough with non-classical came with the unlikely booking of Norah Jones at the exact moment when she was high on the charts with multiple Grammy wins. The show sold out immediately, and booking agents took notice. Before long, Kauffman was booking acts like Maroon 5, Wyclef Jean, Demi Lovato and this year’s Chris Cornell. Kauffman says, “the non-classical music heavy hitters like Lady Gaga often come through word of mouth. She was completely and entirely through her fiancé, and of course, Tony Bennett.”

When Grammy Award-winner Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty sold out Ravinia a few years ago, word got back to the once skeptical Santana. “They then told John Mayer, and that’s how we got him,” Kauffman explains adding, “Santana himself also eventually came around and so did his audience—performing last August on a sold out tour.”

While Kauffman, himself a classical music lover and pianist, says 65 percent of this summer’s lineup is classical, befitting the notfor-profit festival’s mission, the non-classical offerings continue to impress. From Seal and Diana Ross to the Ravinia debut of Paul Simon, it would seem that there is more to Kauffman’s continued success than just a few well-timed connections. Though when asked, he is humble about his talent to book the best and the brightest, year after year, selling out shows across all venues.

“You pray, and you beg, and you work hard to build on each success, then the gods smile on you,” Kauffman says, adding: “There’s no magic to it other than you work on it and try to figure out who the people are to get you to the artists you want.”

“I think we have made an effort in a bigger sort of way this summer to expand the authenticity of our variety and samplings,” he said, explaining that while the planning process usually takes more than a year, the missing pieces tend to come together in the months before the festival opens in June. “I just booked Don Henley, and Bob Dylan is coming back this year for the first time since 1964.”

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On the classical side, one of the highlights of Ravinia 2016 will be the long-awaited return of James Levine on July 23, when he will conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the same piece he conducted at Ravinia on June 24, 1971.

“This is not only one of the greatest conductors in the world, but someone who really cut his teeth at Ravinia,” says Kauffman, explaining that Levine will celebrate the 45th anniversary of his Ravinia debut by returning to the festival for the first time since completing his music directorship in 1993.

Other noteworthy offerings include a Robert Shaw Centennial Celebration; water-themed music to celebrate a new aquatic water sculpture being built at the entrance of Ravinia Park; Los Tigres del Norte and Mariachi Flor; a 80th birthday celebration for Chicago blues favorite Buddy Guy; and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the score to Titanic with the complete film shown on pavilion and lawn video screens.

“It’s summertime,” says Kauffman. “Every night should feel different and be different.”

Perhaps that’s part of Kauffman’s magic, the secret to his success— understanding the complexity of Ravinia’s evolving audience and crafting a lineup that’s fresh and of the moment.

It hasn’t always been easy, especially with the downturn of the economy after September 11 and downward spiral that saw the real estate market implode.

“2008 was rough, and 9/11 was one of the most horrible moments in world history,” he says, crediting the Ravinia board, staff, and supporters for helping him “rock and roll” through a few tough years. “I don’t know how to be more complimentary and grateful for their stewardship and their interesting combination of keeping the purse strings tight while letting us loosen up. It’s about wise forecasting, and luck—there’s a lot of luck.”

Sixteen years into his role as president and CEO of Ravinia, Kauffman says it remains “one of the most wonderful responsibilities I’ve ever had in my life.”

As he continues to delight in newly discovered details of the park’s 112-year history, he also continues to appreciate the magic that is Ravinia—a place where, for the price of a lawn ticket, people can hear some of the great conductors of the world and the amazing Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“My eyes tear up at the romance of it all, the great music being made here. It’s always been so welcoming because of the lawn, for people of all walks of life,” Kauffman says, adding that he never tires of hearing the sound of young children running along the path outside the pavilion. “That sound makes me so happy. If you get them young, with so much joy, they will appreciate the music for life.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Sheridan Road magazine.