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EVENTS Welz Kauffman on what Ravinia will (hopefully) bring this summer
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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It's not a Chicagoland summer without Ravinia, with its multitude of concerts and other attractions ( including the opening of RaviniaMusicBox, an immersive experience that is slated to open with two Leonard Bernstein installations ).

However, that summer of song may be in jeopardy, as the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a multitude of events being cancelled—and even Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker recently said that summer festivals may not take place this year. ( That being stated, according to Ravinia's website, all public and privately hosted events will be cancelled until at least June 1. )

This is a special season for another reason, though: Welz Kauffman, the out president/CEO, will leave his post after 20 years at the helm. He is only the third full-time professional leader of Ravinia, following Edward Gordon ( 1974-1989 ) and Zarin Mehta ( 1990-2000 ). "It feels a little daunting that I've been here 20 years," Kauffman told Windy City Times in an interview that took place shortly before the lockdowns occurred. "But how many people have their board of directors say, 'Yeah, you can leave—but if you give us one more year.' That just doesn't happen.

"I probably could have [gone on another 20 years], but I have this sense that a lot had been accomplished with the Ravinia family. Also, as a side note, I talked with a bunch of people in Europe—and they basically said that 20 years was perfect. Sometimes, people stay too long at the dance. Why not go out on a heavily caffeinated high note?"

Then, Kauffman described RaviniaMusicBox, which is slated to open Friday, June 12: "It's a building with a rooftop bar and it offers great views of the parks. It has four different spaces. There's a foyer and there's another space; then, there's a video area and a 60-seat theater that tricked out, technologically. And then there's something like a museum-gallery space.

"We decided to focus on Bernstein because there are so many aspects of his musical genius that one can explore. There are his compositions, teachings and even social activism; he's going to be the focus for several seasons. There's a beautiful, wonderful, fun exhibit coming from the National Museum of American Jewish History on Bernstein as well."

And, as usual, there's an incredibly wide variety of acts to entertain everyone. Just a few of the acts slated to appear include Carrie Underwood, John Legend, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Diana Ross, Alan Cumming and Ari Shapiro, Betty Buckley, Patti LaBelle, Tony Bennett, Ani DiFranco, Sheryl Crow, Gladys Knight, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Train and The Zappa Band.

"I love when people are blown away by the acts," Kauffman said. "We have first-timers like Jesse & Joy, from Mexico; she just came out last year. I wanted them for a while. They're schedule to start our season [on June 12] while Rodrigo y Gabriela are scheduled for Sept. 13. Also, Musiq Soulchild is coming for the first time; I'm crazy about that guy. Ruben Studdard hasn't been with us, and he's opening for Patti LaBelle. And Ani DiFranco is new—and she's opening for Indigo Girls, during Pride Week.

"We also have classical musicians, like the gorgeous Italian pianist Beatrice Rana. Also, pianist Jorge Federico Osorio will perform Rachmaninoff."

Also, lesbian conductor Marin Alsop will be in the new position of chief conductor/curator, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in five concerts, including the Legendary Women's Voices gala starring Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo. "I can't wait to see Cynthia," Kauffman said. "She was amazing at the Oscars—and she's such a chameleon."

As for Alsop, "I've known [her] since the '80s," Kauffman said. "She was the director of a small orchestra in the New York area. Not only is she a more-than-competent musician, but she's also one of the most thoughtful, intelligent, diplomatic, inquisitive people I've ever met—warm and humble, but she has a command of what it takes to get In front of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Also, she's passionate about education for underserved kids. Plus, she's Leonard Bernstein's only female student; he was famous for saying, in the '60s, that women shouldn't be conductors. She's the real thing—and she and her wife have a really good life. It was really important for me to make this [Alsop being at Ravinia] happen."

In addition, there will be an Aug. 23 farewell concert for Kauffman, entitled "All Welz That Ends Well." "The women's board wanted to do something for me, and I tried to beg off—but I didn't want to be rude," he said. "Proceeds will go toward RaviniaMusicBox—and I have no idea what the program will be. That sounds fun."

And as for what he plans on doing after leaving, Kauffman said, "I have no idea. My husband and I are just trying to figure out the next parts of our lives and careers. He's done some consulting work; he's worked in the field of dance. I really don't know what I'm going to do. If anything, I might just take a little bit of a break."

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