Martha S. Gilmer, longtime Chicago Symphony executive, named CEO of San Diego orchestra
Report: With 35 years of experience under CSO music directors Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, Gilmer will now run her own orchestra.
By Nancy Malitz
It’s off to San Diego’s warmer clime this fall for Martha S. Gilmer, the veteran executive of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who now serves as vice-president of artistic planning and audience development. Gilmer becomes CEO of the 104-year-old San Diego Symphony effective Sept. 24.
Hers has been a top position at the CSO, with broad responsibilities that involved her direct engagement with the world’s greatest artists and with Chicago’s top community leaders, while supervising the nurturing and expansion of the CSO’s audience.
With 35 years of experience under CSO music directors Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, Gilmer has done just about every conceivable job at the CSO at some point, except for wielding the baton as maestro or the CEO job itself. She flew to Muti’s home in Ravenna, Italy, over the weekend, tell him the news personally. “He was incredibly gracious, a great human being,” she said. I won’t forget the days I spent with him, working to transport his artistic vision.”
Meanwhile, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is expected to name a successor soon to the CSO’s own former CEO Deborah Rutter, who departed in late May to run the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital.
The San Diego Symphony has been a compelling story of late. Considered a Tier 1 orchestra, with 82 full-time musicians and a current budget of $20 million, it’s on a significant upswing artistically and financially. The orchestra made its sold-out Carnegie Hall debut with pianist Lang Lang last season under music director Jahja Ling and toured China with concerts in Yantai, Shanghai and Beijing. And it is positioned for significant future growth through an extraordinary $120 million gift from philanthropists Joan and Irwin Jacobs. The co-founder and chairman of Qualcomm, Irwin Jacobs was recently dubbed “Philanthropist in Chief” by the San Diego Union Tribune for the transformative contributions that he and his wife have made to the field of education — particularly Cornell University, where both are alums — and to engineering, computer science and the arts.
Gilmer said she heard good things about the San Diego orchestra and its conductor, Jahja Ling, through Christoph von Dohnányi, when Dohnányi appeared as guest conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra last spring. “Christoph told me that Jahja had been one of his former assistants, and that he found the orchestra to be in very good artistic shape,” said Gilmer. She later visited the city and sat in the dark of a balcony to hear a rehearsal. “I was struck immediately by the quality of the orchestra’s sound, and the obviously very fine players,” she said.
“And in listening to Jahja talk afterwards about his inspirations and the Cleveland tradition, I could see that he had the capacity to take that tradition and infuse it into this orchestra and I thought, OK, this could be really interesting artistically. In the days that followed there were conversations with a small but highly focused group of individuals involved in the stewardship, and what they wanted me to talk about was music and artistic vision. These are people who go to concerts all over the world, and who are knowledgeable and passionate, so there is that sense of an institution that is artistically led.”
Gilmer also spoke highly of a community engagement project called “Your Song, Your Story: A Musical Tapestry of and for San Diego,” funded by the by the James Irvine Foundation, and assembled by Bill Conti, the award-winning film composer who is also the orchestra’s principal pops conductor. People of San Diego were invited to upload video recordings of their cultural songs, stories, and dances. “Bill built a huge multimedia piece and they gave four free presentations of it throughout the city that turned into block parties,” Gilmer said. “It was an incredibly exciting idea.”
No stranger to such special multimedia projects, Gilmer says she’s going to return to Chicago in November, to be on hand for a special “Beyond the Score” presentation that honors the CSO’s conductor emeritus, Pierre Boulez. Physically frail but mentally at the top of his game, the French composer and conductor has come up with many novel ideas that Gilmer helped to execute over the years, including a pair of concerts at Orchestra Hall last season that presented miniature compositions alongside path-breaking larger works. It was a deliberate disruption of expectations that proved to be a delight, especially as one took in what Boulez had to say about the works in filmed armchair talks from his home in Baden-Baden. “He wanted to change the texture of a concert as a way of changing the way people can listen,” Gilmer said.
Martha Gilmer was still a student at Northwestern University in 1976, when she started work as an intern at the Chicago Symphony under Hungarian conductor Georg Solti’s regime as music director. “One of the first things I did was to fetch his sweater,” she recalled. “The orchestra was cutting a recording at Medinah Temple, and it was chilly, and he had forgotten to bring it. I also answered phones and handled ticket returns. And I filed papers, which of course I read, and I began to understand how decisions got made,” she said. “In those days everything was done by snail mail and telex, and it could take a week to get a reply. A very different time.”
By the time Daniel Barenbom became music director, Gilmer had risen into the ranks of Peter Jonas’ artistic administration. “I learned a lot about building a season, and the contracts that govern the services, and the care and feeding of artists. But I was also hiring the buses for Milwaukee runout concerts.” Substantial promotions continued, including the vice-presidency of artistic planning and eventually audience development.
- West Coast coverage of the news: Read James Chute in the San Diego Union-Tribune
- Profile of Jahja Ling: Read it in the San Diego Union-Tribune