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David Ellis Is a Treasure

David Ellis Is a Treasure

Most of our subscribers are well acquainted with our General Manager, David Ellis. They see him handing out tickets at the Will Call desk before concerts, watch him orchestrate our Musical Insights lectures at The Merion, or speak with him to renew their subscriptions and change seat selections. But having relationships with all our subscribers is only one of many remarkable things about David. His business acumen, analytical ability, and cash flow expertise were critical to helping us successfully navigate this challenging year. And, according to our music director, Lawrence Eckerling, David “is more knowledgeable about music than any non-musician I have ever met.” David says his proudest musical accomplishment with the ESO was collaborating with Eckerling to create a 56-minute “Symphonic Suite” of Tchaikovsky’s score for his Swan Lake ballet. Together they assembled excerpts, played in order, that brought out the musical unity of the original score. It took eight versions before settling on the final sequence of numbers. David and Larry also collaborated to produce a CD called, ESO Live!, which included a special recording session at Pick-Staiger Hall.

David’s unique background in finance, attention to detail, lifelong love and knowledge of music, and dedication to our community, all make him perfect for the job of ESO General Manager. Throughout his life he has applied his strong analytical abilities and attention to detail to the areas of finance, and music appreciation. He is a true treasure to our symphony community.


David’s interest in music started early and blossomed into a knowledge rivaled by few music aficionados. David can tell you about the differences in sound quality created by various conductors. He knows which conductors emphasize strings and which favor the brass. He talks about how the brightness of sound changes if you tune the orchestra a few hertz higher (a 445 Hz makes a brighter sound than 440), and he easily compares the sound quality of music venues (from Orchestra Hall, to Auditorium Theater, to the ESO’s homes of Pick-Staiger and the ETHS Auditorium).

David’s love of music all started when he was in high school in Norfolk, Virginia. His family did not own records or a record player, but he had a friend who did. David recalls the friend singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and realized that the melody was also used for a Southern Baptist hymn. David’s public-school education included music appreciation, and David’s home had a piano. He recalls his mother often playing for his father, usually Irving Berlin’s 1944 love song, “Always.” At age 17, David’s family moved to San Diego, and he immediately subscribed to the San Diego Symphony. He has been a subscriber to at least one symphony orchestra ever since.

It was in Norfolk that he started collecting his own records. At first, he would buy them for $0.99 each at the Navy exchange. Then, when he took his first job, with each paycheck he could buy as many as four records at a time. Later he collected CDs, then DVDs, and now Blu-Rays (although he has also kept some of his LPs).


While David did not make a career of music, his first career choice was influenced by it. He attended the University of California San Diego and earned an AB in geology (with a minor in music, followed by an M.S. in geological oceanography at Oregon State). Upon graduation he was offered a job at Northwestern University. He accepted the job largely because he saw its proximity to Chicago as an opportunity to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and its Music Director Sir Georg Solti in person. He became a CSO subscriber and remains one to this day. After two years, he became employed as an environmental consultant writing water-quality reports, especially in relation to the nascent nuclear power industry. Looking for career advancement, a co-worker suggested that he consider an MBA, which was much more lucrative than science. David applied to the University of Chicago because one of their leading faculty members had written that they were “scientists who studied business.” He majored in finance and accounting because he felt it was the most scientific part of business.

David then took a job in Finance at Harza Engineering Company, where he combined finance and science by writing proposals, preparing cost estimates, and leading backlog forecasting for the company. This was a great foundation for the next step, which was landing a coveted job for a highly selective role in Financial Planning at Consolidated Foods Corporation, which subsequently renamed itself Sara Lee Corporation. Later he transferred into Treasury at Sara Lee and spent 14 years as Assistant Treasurer.

In that role he was exposed to complex organizational dynamics, supported numerous acquisitions, crafted presentations to the Board of Directors, and developed an extremely deep understanding of cash flow dynamics and management. He managed the day-to-day cash coming into Corporate Treasury from all of Sara Lee’s operating divisions. This cash flow background and forecasting served Sara Lee, and years later it came to serve Evanston Symphony Orchestra equally well. At Sara Lee his cash flow forecasting spreadsheet had 50-60 lines going across of inflows and outflows, and 12 months of columns. The annual totals were in the billions of dollars. Needless to say, the ESO cash flows are much simpler—but he uses the same spreadsheets!


It’s clear that the ESO is unbelievably fortunate to have David Ellis as our General Manager. He brings together his vast knowledge of music, his attention to detail, his gift for connecting with people, and his understanding of finance to serve us in multiple ways. And this year, the deep expertise in cash flow that he acquired at Sara Lee made him invaluable to our small nonprofit organization. David came to the ESO Board in 2003, which is the same year that Lawrence Eckerling became Music Director. David was invited by current Board members Gus and Kelly Brest van Kempen, who had been his neighbors years ago and with whom he had attended Ravinia concerts for many seasons. They knew David was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago Board and sat on the Visiting Committee for the University of Chicago’s music department. Some years previously he had been a member of the Junior Governing Board (JGB) of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and had been Chair of their University Night Committee. They sold tickets for six concerts of the CSO, two series of three concerts, and David was in charge of seating of the entire Orchestra Hall. This was great preparation for his role with ESO. The Brest van Kempens knew he was perfect for the job. His responsibilities grew when he was appointed ESO’s General Manager in 2008. At this moment, he also serves on the boards of Orchard Village and the Chicago Mahlerites.

Last year, when the COVID pandemic and forced us to cancel our last two concerts, we were faced with an uncertain financial situation. David developed a plan that would offer our subscribers choice in how to handle their pre-paid tickets, depending on their preferences and their own situations. He proposed a subscriber campaign to our Board of Directors, whereby subscribers could choose whether to donate tickets, carry over their ticket credits to next season, or request a refund. Our subscribers came through for us. Nearly 75% of our subscribers donated their pre-paid tickets back to us, 15% carried over their balances to next year, and the remaining 10% chose to have payments refunded. That is truly remarkable testament to the loyalty and generosity of our subscribers. We want to thank each and every one of you! It is also a testament to David’s management creativity, and to the relationships he has built over the years. As a result of these efforts, ESO ended the fiscal year with a positive operating income.

In the fall, David also collaborated with the Board to develop an idea to engage our program advertisers, many of whom were also facing unprecedented hardship. In collaboration with the ESO Board, he worked with every past program advertiser and offered them the chance to advertise in a special 75th Anniversary Commemorative Program, which was mailed to all subscribers and is a keepsake.

All of this work comes back to David’s love of music, which continues to deepen and grow. Because he does not play an instrument, he says, “Instead of spending time practicing one particular part of the orchestra, I am able to study the entire score and to really get to know how the pieces all fit together.” In essence, his analytical mind helps him to understand what makes each piece unique and compelling. And this knowledge helps him design and execute Musical Insight lectures. David says that at home, his Mahler shelf alone has 27 books and the complete musical scores of all the symphonies and song-cycles. He listens and follows along, saying “All of my knowledge is based on my love of music and is mostly self-taught.”

So next time you see David handing out Will Call tickets, you might see him in a different light and have even more to talk about. The ESO thanks each subscriber for supporting us, and we thank David for pulling us all together.

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