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  WINDY CITY TIMES

MUSIC Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman on upcoming season
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2019-03-26

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Tony Bennett, Chicago, Queen Latifah and Common, Lionel Richie, Sting, Renee Fleming, Josh Groban, Pentatonix, Jennifer Hudson, Steely Dan, OneRepublic, Kesha, Bobby McFerrin, Sarah McLachlan, Mary J. Biige, Fred Hersch, Matthew Polenzani and Ringo Starr are just some of the musical acts performing this summer at the Highland Park venue Ravinia this season.

There will be more than 50 artist debuts and 35 festival premieres, including

Ravinia's co-commissioning of the last composition of the late Andre Previn, a one-act for Renee Fleming. Nine conductors take the podium for the 84th annual residency of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, including Marin Alsop, returning as curator of Ravinia's multi-season celebration of Leonard Bernstein. ( There will also be a Bernstein exhibit. )

Windy City Times recently talked with Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman—who's helmed the organization since 2000—about this year's acts.

Windy City Times: When it comes to procuring artists for the next season, do you all start immediately after the previous season ends?

Welz Kauffman: That's a really great question. One of the things that makes the process practical and logical is that different artists book at different times.

Classical artists are always way ahead of the game. A great singer like Placido Domingo or Renee Fleming will be [typically] booked six or seven years in advance because they're such big stars. With summer festivals and classical music, it's not THAT far in advance, but I'm pretty much locked for 2020 with [some].

With the non-classical artists—who are about 35-40 percent of what we do—they don't typically like even begin talking with me until Thanksgiving before the coming summer; that's a little bit of a nail-biter. Why do they wait so long? Because if you're Maroon 5 or Lionel Richie or Sting, you're booking six-, eight- or 10-week tours at a time—and box office can [determine] where they go.

And I'm always thinking about who I'd like to have. Stevie Wonder can come whenever he wants to; he's been on my bucket list forever. I've been able to get through most of the bucket list I've had since 2000, which is gratifying. Stevie Nicks carne a couple years ago—and she was mad at me because I hadn't been more forceful to get her to come.

I like Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt summed it up best: They think of Ravinia as a big Park West—which I took as a huge compliment, especially regarding the layout.

This is [perfect] for me. I'm an omnivorous enjoyer of all kinds of music.

WCT: Has the Ravinia line-up always been this diverse? For example, has rap always been there?

WK: I guess one of the questions one has to ask is "How long has rap been around?" It hasn't been around as long as jazz, for example, but you're right. Wyclef Jean and having Mary J. Blige were new to us—but they were such great shows. We want to see many audiences and many different types of people. If they want to see Mary J. Blige one night and Mozart the next, more power to them.

WCT: You're also doing something LGBT-related that's also connected with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall.

WK: So we did [the show "Considering Matthew Shepard"] for the first time last year, and it was the 20th anniversary of his murder. It's a piece I've loved and known for a couple years. No one needs an anniversary to do a piece, but it just came together that way. And this year, we have jazz pianist Fred Hersch; he was out pretty early, and he's a fascinating person and consummate musician.

This year, we're also doing a Leonard Bernstein piece. It's not just that Bernstein was gay or bisexual, but it was a political piece. This was when he and Nixon were battling back and forth; J. Edgar Hoover told Nixon that Bernstein had written lyrics in a secret code to kill Nixon. Also, Leonard was very involved in the times he was living in; he entertained the Black Panthers, for example.

We're not hugely political at Ravinia—but, at the same time, we never shy away from things.

Also, we've collaborated with Center on Halsted, and I've been involved with them [for some time]. Last year, there were some guys named Well Strung, who mix things like Bach and "Call Me Maybe"; they're coming back this year for a farewell tour. We've also worked with the Center on "Considering Matthew Shepard." We were also in the Pride Parade a couple years ago; we had Lea DeLaria, who was the Pride Parade grand marshal, do a show—she's a wonderful singer.

These are wonderful artists. They just happen to be part of the LGBT community.

WCT: You mentioned a bucket list…

WK: …which includes Bruno Mars.

WCT: What musician do has retired or even passed away would you have loved to have at Ravinia?

WK: Oh, man. Most recently—partially because I used to work for him—the great composer/raconteur Andre Previn… I would've loved for him to come here, because we actually have the premiere of what we think was the last work he ever wrote. That's happening in July with Renee Fleming and the Emerson String Quartet.

And, Andre revered Bernstein; they were incredibly alike—writing for film, concert hall, Broadway, opera, as well as conducting and being great television personalities. They had charisma, and were witty and super-smart.

Who else? We had Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, but would still love to them [again]. Definitely, Tom Petty was on my bucket list; we got close but it never happened. Elvis—why not?

For more, visit www.ravinia.org/ .


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