“A giant.” “A legend.” “A pivotal figure.” Despite being on the administrative side of the Minnesota Orchestra — “the man behind the music,” as one headline put it — Richard Cisek made a name for himself as a heavyweight in the field.
That was partly due to his longevity. During three decades with the Minnesota Orchestra, including 13 years as president, Cisek oversaw the construction of Orchestra Hall, the expansion to a year-round season and the hiring of sought-after guest conductors.
A steady hand who guided the orchestra through great growth, Cisek died Nov. 18. He was 92.
“He was a pivotal figure in the history of the orchestra,” said longtime board member Luella Goldberg.
“Dick Cisek was a giant in the orchestral industry,” said Michelle Miller Burns, the orchestra’s president and CEO.
“He will always be thought of as one of the legendary figures in our profession,” said conductor Leonard Slatkin.
A native of Buffalo, N.Y., and a self-described “orchestra groupie,” Cisek came to Minneapolis in 1958 as public relations director and rose through the ranks to become president in 1978.
Most orchestra administrators are “vagabonds,” hopping from one city to the next, said David Hyslop, who worked under Cisek and later became president. But despite getting other offers, Cisek stayed, offering continuity to a changing organization.
With his MBA from the Wharton School, he brought financial acumen and an ability to connect with business leaders. His warm relationship with Ken Dayton helped the orchestra move from the then-acoustically deficient Northrop into the state-of-the-art Orchestra Hall.
“He could talk about Tchaikovsky and also talk about a balance sheet with equal authority,” said Phillip Gainsley, a Minneapolis attorney and authority on classical music.
During his tenure, the orchestra’s season grew from 30 to 52 weeks and its budget swelled from $700,000 to $15 million. Its donor base expanded as well, to 34,000 subscribers — “the largest of any orchestra in the nation” at the time, according to a 1990 article.
Early in Cisek’s time as president, Goldberg became the first chairwoman of the orchestra’s board. “Nobody could have been more supportive or encouraging or helpful — never condescending,” she said. “He was just a wonderful partner.”
Cisek wooed and worked closely with the organization’s music directors and guest conductors, becoming known for nabbing talent on the rise. “The thing I’ve had the most fun with are my dealings with conductors,” he once said. He spoke Polish with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, the beloved maestro who, too, made his home in Minnesota.
Cisek was persistent. Years after Neville Marriner’s time as music director, Cisek wanted to book him as a guest conductor. But neither Marriner nor his wife responded to his letters. So, when he heard that Marriner was going to appear on Larry King’s call-in radio show, Cisek dialed in, praising and pressuring him on the air.
As competition for guest conductors heated up, Cisek hired big names, including Slatkin, Klaus Tennstedt and Charles Dutoit.
Slatkin said Cisek came to see him conduct in St. Louis when he was “just starting in the profession. Most managers were on the tough side, but Dick always seemed to want to listen to what you had to say.”
When the orchestra moved to a year-round season, putting it in the big leagues, Cisek needed to fill the weeks. So he kicked around ideas with Slatkin and the orchestra’s writer, Mary Ann Feldman, until they hit on Vienna as a theme.
Sommerfest became a smash. “Dick would listen to every thought and weigh in with his eyes twinkling when we hit upon something good,” Slatkin said.
After retiring from the orchestra in 1991, Cisek kept working with arts organizations as a consultant. And, until the pandemic hit, he continued attending concerts at Orchestra Hall, greeting old friends.
“It’s been a fulfilling career made even more special by wonderful associations,” he said as his retirement neared. “But how could this job, with an orchestra like Minnesota, in a community like this, have been anything less?”
Cisek’s survivors include his wife, Kay Fredericks; his children, Michael Cisek, Melanie Hougo and Maria Cisek, and five grandchildren, whom he taught to greet people with a direct gaze and firm handshake.
Jenna Ross • (612) 673-7168 • Twitter: @ByJenna