Internationally known musical artists call Joe Fabbioli by his first name, while entire orchestras go silent at his bidding. Concerts and parties fill his summer evenings, a welcome change from the contract negotiations that take up his days. And when a diva needs just the right iron to smooth her spectacular performance gown, she runs to him.
"One artist had a rider in her contract stipulating there would be no broccoli anywhere backstage. Another wanted blueberry Gatorade," said Fabbioli. As artistic administrator for the Ravinia Festival, the popular outdoor festival in a Chicago suburb, he has duties ranging from the financial and musical details of concert planning to the practical arrangements for performers. In 1999, more than 500,000 people attended 138 summertime concerts showcasing artists including violinist Midori and humorist Victor Borge.
Making artists and audiences happy is tough work. "My job is to figure out what could go wrong and make sure it doesn't," said Fabbioli. "It's a great marriage of music and business. When people think everything was effortless, that's when I know it's been done right."
Fabbioli has had 15 years to cultivate his steely nerves. He managed the Harvard University Glee Club as an undergraduate and held a postgraduate fellowship in orchestra management. In 1989, he landed at the Chicago Symphony Chorus as their manager.
At that time, the 160-singer chorus was preparing for its very first international tour. When Fabbioli wasn't balancing the $300,000 budget, fundraising, or handling payroll, he was making sure each singer was prepared to do his or her best. "And that's everything from making sure they know when and how to get to rehearsal to getting language coaching. You have to make sure the artists are singing the particular Latin that Beethoven had in his mind," said Fabbioli.
In 1994, Fabbioli joined Ravinia as artistic administrator and began dealing more with the financial repercussions of music. Working with the festival's music director, Fabbioli makes sure the concerts are a "good dietary offering" for the public and showcase different genres, eras, and types of music. Performers also have a say, as one of Fabbioli's goals is to ensure the program is interesting for them too. But in the end, the concerts have to sell.
Making sure the program makes musical and financial sense, and everybody is excited about it, takes a number of skills in addition to musical knowledge. "You need an extraordinary amount of tact and attention to detail to succeed in this business," said Fabbioli, who will often discuss ideas directly with the artist or the artist's manager. "You have to know the right questions and whom to ask them of. It's OK not to know the Bach E minor Flute Sonata, but if you're proposing a concert series with all of Beethoven's piano sonatas, it's important to know that there are 32 of them!"
The job has periodic stresses, with weeks of 14-hour days during peak concert season. Such a schedule would tire anybody, but it's more of an issue for Fabbioli who has multiple sclerosis, a condition exacerbated by fatigue and summer's heat.
During the season, a normal day finds him in the office at 10:00 in the morning, having gotten home at 1:00 the night before. He checks in with other staff and then makes sure all aspects of the production are in order, from the artist's pickup at the airport to the rehearsal arrangements. Artists of this caliber are rarely nervous, Fabbioli said, but they want things the way they want them. If an orchestra is playing, he makes sure the dress rehearsal is in order, and he might introduce the conductor to the orchestra, smoothing the way with jokes while reviewing rehearsal guidelines. For the rest of the day he "juggles 12 balls at once and tries to stay calm. You cannot solve problems if you're twitching."
At the concert that night, Fabbioli might sit with his wife, who attends upwards of 40 events a season, but all the time he's making mental notes. During intermission he circulates in the audience. Are people happy with what they're hearing? After the concert ends, he debriefs with the artist and orchestra and then goes to a reception or party.
Dealing with artists is one of best parts of the job. "For every successful one, there are 15 who didn't make it. These people are not just extraordinary talents; they are great risk takers." Some have demands and personalities to match, but it's Fabbioli's job to make sure music, not professional tension, is the only thing that ever reaches the audience's ears.
The compensation for such diplomatic and organizational wizardry is modest, salaries being typical of what a senior not-for-profit administrator would earn. But Fabbioli says with some emotion that he'd be miserable if he were in any other business: "I believe that music is from the soul, that it is a central part of the voice, if you will, inside people. To find that voice in oneself or to find it in others is just extraordinarily rewarding. I really believe our work improves people's lives."