A Performance of a Lifetime as Director of the Kennedy Center

A USC Marshall alumna takes the stage as one of the most prominent and powerful advocates for the arts.

March 02, 2016

“A life-changing experience.”

That’s how Deborah Rutter MBA ’85 describes the first time she heard—and played—Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony” from the middle of the violin section as a young orchestra member.

Today, Rutter has long since swapped her seat in the orchestra for one behind the scenes. She serves as the third president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, where she ensures that life-changing performances happen nightly at one of the world’s famed performing arts centers.

She joined the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2014 after 11 years as president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In Chicago, she established the Institute for Learning, Access and Training (now called the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) with Yo-Yo Ma as creative consultant and landed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti as music director.

She’s come a long way since her start as that young violinist from the San Fernando Valley.

Raised in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Encino, Rutter headed to Stanford University for her undergraduate degree largely because of its music program and the richness of the Bay Area’s musical offerings. She speaks fondly of “the physical joy, the personal sense of reward” of playing in an orchestra, though becoming a professional musician was never her plan.

She got her break from Ernest Fleischmann, late head of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who hired her. She eventually rose to orchestra manager, but she “didn’t know how to do the business part of it” and enrolled in USC’s part-time MBA program.

“I was sort of a curiosity in that crowd,” she recalls about her classes, where she was among the few women. But she learned from others, calling the perspectives of her fellow students—mostly bankers and engineers—“hugely important.”

Combining work with school meant that she had to “drive like crazy down the 101 Freeway,” then race back to Hollywood for 8 p.m. concerts, she remembers.

Rutter went on to lead the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, then the Seattle Symphony. In Seattle, she oversaw the construction of Benaroya Hall, a performing arts space in a struggling downtown area. She calls it “the right building in the right place,” and today the hall and its neighborhood thrive.

Similar instincts lie behind the Kennedy Center’s current expansion, which involves new pavilions and a pedestrian bridge over the Potomac River.

The center’s programming is ambitious too. Events next season range from a celebration of skateboarding’s connection to art, movement, music and improvisation to Wagner’s epic “Ring Cycle.”

Diverse events are key to keeping performing arts relevant as society changes, says Rutter, who is committed to reflecting the interests of audiences of the future. At the same time, she’s rooted in tradition. She’ll never stop striving for those magic moments central to performing arts for centuries—when each audience member “either participates in or observes the art as it’s being created”—to inspire life-changing experiences for a new generation.