Classical Chicago

Chicago is an international destination for connoisseurs of classical music, boasting outstanding classical music ensembles and venues that rival those of any city in the world.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been consistently lauded as one of the world’s premiere symphony orchestras. Established in 1891, it is the country’s third oldest orchestra. World-renowned conductors such as Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim have held the position of music director, and this distinguished legacy continues under the baton of Riccardo Muti beginning in the 2010–11 season. Known for its mastery of the orchestral canon, including the symphonic works of Mahler, Brahms, Shostakovich, and Strauss, the CSO is revered for the precision of its ensemble and its majestic brass sound. With over 900 recordings and 60 Grammy awards to its credit, it commands respect at home and abroad, regularly touring internationally to rave reviews. Equally esteemed by classical music lovers is the Chicago Symphony Chorus, a professional chorus established in 1957 by Margaret Hillis as the first permanent choral ensemble affiliated with a major U.S. symphony orchestra. The CSO’s home for over 100 years has been Orchestra Hall, expanded in 1997 into a complex of rehearsal, performance, administrative, and dining facilities known as Symphony Center. The CSO Association’s Institute for Learning, Access, and Training at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra offers a range of community activities and educational opportunities for children and adults, including the reputable Civic Orchestra, a training orchestra for promising pre-professional musicians.

The CSO has long been associated with Ravinia in north suburban Highland Park, Illinois. For many music lovers, no summer is complete without at least one trip to Ravinia, a picturesque outdoor venue that hosts the summerlong festival, where some of the most prominent names in classical, jazz, and popular music and dance are featured. It is also the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which has held summer residencies since 1936, the festival’s first year.

Originally an amusement park—with a baseball diamond, electric fountain, and dance hall—designed to drum up business for the upstart Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad, Ravinia outlasted the railroad to become host to the oldest summer music festival in North America. Ravinia regularly draws an estimated 600,000 listeners annually to attend 150 shows per season. The Martin Theater remains from the early years of the festival and welcomes audiences for intimate concerts indoors, while outdoors a 3,200-seat covered pavilion gives way to an expansive lawn, where concertgoers enjoy picnic dinners and listen to music under the stars.

During its tenure, the festival has hosted a wide range of world-class artists, such as Leonard Bernstein, Louis Armstrong, Yo-Yo Ma, Duke Ellington, Van Cliburn, Janis Joplin, and George Gershwin, under the music directorship of conducting luminaries Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, and James Conlon, with Ramsey Lewis serving as Artistic Director of Jazz at Ravinia. Ravinia also conducts year-round educational programs in primary and secondary schools throughout Chicago and offers the Steans Institute for Young Artists, a professional training program for emerging classical and jazz musicians.

Chicago opera took longer to find a home than CSO and Ravinia did. Around the turn of the twentieth century, opera was performed regularly at the Chicago Auditorium (now the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University) and later at Ravinia Park’s summer opera productions. The Civic Opera House finally opened in 1929, but the economic devastation of the Great Depression prevented Chicago companies from presenting opera consistently until the Lyric Opera of Chicago was founded in 1954.

With a reputation for lavish productions and performances by some of the most celebrated singers and musicians in the world, the Lyric Opera of Chicago has attracted most of the great operatic voices of our time, including Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Renée Fleming, Maria Callas, and Plácido Domingo. Lyric Opera has premiered significant new works in the operatic repertory, including Anthony Davis’s Amistad in 1997 and William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge in 1999, and has featured the American stage debut of a number of prominent international stars. Lyric Opera of Chicago is also developing the next generation of opera singers and audiences. Through its Ryan Opera Center, Lyric nurtures the careers of emerging young singers with training programs and performance opportunities in full productions. The company invites students to discover opera through a number of education programs offeredat the Civic Opera House and in schools throughout the Chicago area.