The first woman to head Chicago Symphony in 125 years

The first woman to head Chicago Symphony in 125 years


norman lebrecht

November 20, 2015

Like Julius Caesar in another context, Helen Zell thrice refused the crown.

She never wanted to be chair of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But the pressure was on and when she accepted, writes Shia Kapos in a fascinating profile, ‘a barely audible “Yes!” went up from a half-dozen women at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s annual meeting.’

So what do we know about the new chair?

She plays her piano every day, a Fazioli.

She’s married to real-estate developer Sam Zell.

And together they gave $17 million to the orchestra last year.

Shia writes: Zell takes the helm as the CSO tackles a $5 million drop in total operating revenue, to $71.4 million from $76.6 million last year, in part due to a dip in fundraising.

“Ticket sales only cover about 40 percent of what it costs to operate the organization. That’s why we have to raise so much. It’s real simple,” she says.

Read Shia’s full article right here.

Photo by Erik Unger


  • Eric says:

    Interesting choice of headline. You do recall Deborah Rutter being President of the CSO up until recently, right? She wasn’t the Board chair, but she did “lead” the orchestra.

  • Philip Nash says:

    No surprise, I am sure I am not the only one who stopped giving to the CSO once Barenboim left and Muti came.

    • Ed Clinton says:

      Very few people preferred Barenboim to Muti. I prefer Muti. Muti is not the issue.

    • Mark says:

      The Barenboim years at the CSO were not memorable for me. The CSO sounds much better under Muti, but I’ll admit that the programming is often dull.

  • Doug says:

    Well, if she can’t raise funds by bringing in more ticket buyers, sounds like she (or is it her husband?) can always write a check to cover her faults.

  • James says:

    Yet again, it’s another typical American “pay to play” appointment. When will they learn that their business model of funding their arts institutions principally through big checks from wealthy members of their community is doomed? When will they wake up and realize that being a “chair” or a director or being in any position of leadership of an institution like the CSO, requires arts management skills and not just the fact that your husband or wife or both wrote a check, as is the case of Helen Zell here, for $17 million dollars? This set-up won’t last for long, as they probably assume that in return for bestowing this burden on Ms. Zell, she and her husband will underwrite the inevitable losses of the CSO and the inability to raise more and more funds from other donors. The Americans certainly have the most ridiculous arts funding system that could possibly exist and once their orchestras and operas decline beyond repair, little will be left with no system in place to assure arts in their society, as their government has no interest. Sad situation!

  • Mark Henriksen says:

    17 million to the CSO in one year? Excellent!