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Ravinia President Talks 2013 Line Up

Welz Kauffman explains how the 2013 season came together, what he's most looking forward to and why Tony Bennett will perform in Highland Park for as long as he'd like to.

Welz Kauffman gives out his contact information to anyone who asks for it.

The Ravinia Festival president and CEO says its the best way to get suggestions on what acts to bring to the North Shore's biggest music festival.

"I hear from incredibly astute, passionate and committed folks who know their music, know their taste and know Ravinia," Kauffman said in an interview on Thursday. "I follow up with everyone of them."

Kauffman has picked and reached out to all the talent that performs at Ravinia each season since he began working at the festival in 2000. Since then, he says, he's brought six of the 10 artists on his wish list to the park.

"Now, of course, I have another 10."

The festival announced its line up for its 2013 season on Thursday, and it is packed. Pop acts include Sting, Jewel, Matchbox 20, Goo Goo Dolls and Sheryl Crow. On the classical side, there's Itzhak Perlman, Leon Fleisher and Alisa Weilerstein. Piano virtuoso Lang Lang will return as well.

Then there's the Ravinia standards: a performance by Tony Bennett, performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a night with the B-52's and the Go-Go's.

Kauffman explained that booking each season is a balancing act between giving attendees what they know they want while trying to introduce them to something they didn't know they liked, and might not have given a chance otherwise.

"It's just being honest about not taking the audience for granted," Kauffman said. "We're lucky that we have people that want the Ravinia experience." 

That experience can include seats in the pavilion to watch a performer up close, but it increasingly means sitting on the lawn, watching the show projected on a screen while sharing a bottle of wine and a picnic dinner with a group of friends.

"Slowly, the Ravinia culture has begun to shift their focus to saying that 80 percent that have come to us are on the lawn," Kauffman said. "Making the lawn more comfortable and beautiful is really important to me."

While Kauffman and the Ravinia staff tweak the lawn to make it more appealing, they're also tweaking their schedule and costs to encourage attendees to give classical performances a try. This year, the festival offers 2,500 pavilion seat tickets to any CSO show for $25.

"The most difficult thing in audience building is getting people to set foot in your door," Kauffman said. "So, is price point a factor? This will be as legitimate a test of that as we have ever done."

Though Kauffman says he is careful not to create any "ennui" in his audience by bringing the same groups back year after year, there are some acts he will keep booking for as long as he can.

"Tony Bennett is a completely different thing," Kauffman said. "We're going to have these legends as long as we possibly can."

Kauffman says suggestions from Ravinia fans are how he discovered Sharon Jones and St. Vincent, both of whom are performing at the festival this summer.

But, there are times when Kauffman follows his gut and hopes for the best, despite what some may say. Two summers ago, the CSO performed Howard Shore's score to the first Lord of the Rings film while the film was projected.

"All sorts of people said, 'This is a misuse of the orchestra, a misuse of Ravinia,'" Kauffman said. "Then of course it happens, and the snail mail, email and phone calls pour in: 'When are you doing The Two Towers?'"

The positive response arrived too late for Kauffman plan a similar event around the second of the trilogy for 2012, much to the dismay of those who had criticized the original event and had since come around.

"No one ever likes being called an idiot, but in this case it was very gratifying," Kauffman said with a laugh. "They couldn't deny people were having a great time."

Better late than never. The Two Towers will be projected at Ravinia in August, with the CSO's accompaniment.

On the pop end of the season, Kauffman is looking forward to Matchbox 20, the Goo Goo Dolls, David Byrne's performance with St. Vincent and Journey.

There is one act that he hasn't managed to pin down quite yet, but he remains optimistic.

"I still maintain Madonna will sing Gershwin with the CSO," Kauffman said, "and I think she'll do it great."

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