Founded in 1891, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) is consistently hailed as one of the greatest orchestras in the world.
How does an orchestra stay relevant through 131 years? CSO, after all, has remained consistently popular through the advent of many musical genres… ragtime, jazz, swing, pop, rock & roll, punk, rap, rhythm & blues, and yacht rock to name just a few.
Part of the reason for classical music‘s longevity is that every other form of music has its roots in classical music, and therefore sounds ‘familiar.’ A 2020 study by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the British Phonographic Industry revealed that with the rise of streaming services, young people listened to more Mozart and Bach than they did 10 years ago. And during lockdown, classical music experienced a second wave of popularity. According to an earlier report from the RPO, more than a third (35 percent) of respondents under 35 felt listening to orchestral music during lockdown had helped them relax and maintain a sense of calmness and wellbeing.
How the CSO began
According to CSO’s website, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra began in 1889, when Theodore Thomas, then the leading conductor in America and a recognized music pioneer, was invited by Chicago businessman Charles Norman Fay to establish a symphony orchestra. Fay inquired, “Would you come to Chicago if we gave you a permanent orchestra?” Thomas’s legendary reply was, “I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra.”
In December 1890, the first meeting for incorporation of the Orchestral Association was held, and in October 1891, the first concerts of the Chicago Orchestra, led by Thomas, were given at the Auditorium Theatre. Thomas served as music director until his death in January 1905 — just three weeks after the dedication of Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan, the Orchestra’s permanent home, which was designed by legendary architect Daniel Burnham.
The CSO has a second home as well. In 1905, they played their first summer concert at Ravinia Festival, which remains the CSO’s summer home to this day.
The medium, the message, and the music…
Through the rise of new mediums, including the then-new recording industry, to radio, to television, and beyond, the CSO has reinvented itself time and time again to adapt to the new media available to them. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra first broadcast on radio in 1925, and most recently on all-classical WFMT, as well as WGN-TV, in the early days of television. Today, they streamthrough the digital CSOradio, CSOtv, CSO Resound, and Intermission @ the CSO.
Building new audiences
Besides their forays into new media of the times, the CSO realized that young people were the key to building future audiences. In the ‘Baby Boomer’ years, they hosted ‘Young People’s Concerts,’ inviting area primary and secondary schools to witness these special concerts. Today, they offer deeply discounted tickets and memberships for students only, and provides mentorships and fellowships for aspiring musicians.
The quality of the music is the reason for its longevity
The CSO is consistently hailed as one of the top five greatest orchestras in the world, and commands a vast repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary. Performing in over 150 concerts each year, the CSO’s talented musicians are the driving force behind the ensemble’s famous sound heard on best-selling recordings as well as in performances. Also, their conductors, from Thomas to the current Riccardo Mutti, have each brought different sensibilities to the CSO. Sir Georg Solti took the CSO to Europe for the first time in 1971, and earned over 30 of the CSO’s 63 Grammy Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. These include several Classical Album of the Year awards, awards in Best Classical Performance in vocal soloist, choral, instrumental, engineering and orchestral categories.
CSO and the Princess Bride, November 25-27
Oftentimes, the CSO devotes a night to popular movies of all genres and scores. During ‘CSO at the Movies,’ scores from movies as diverse as ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Star Wars, ‘ to ‘West Side Story,’ the CSO plays the musical accompaniment while the movie plays. From November 25-27, Rob Reiner’s iconic film ‘The Princess Bride’ brings the swashbuckling fights, giant monsters and sweeping romance of classic fairy tales to a modern audience. It’ll be a great post-Thanksgiving treat for families. For tickets, click here.
Alison Moran-Powers and Dean’s Team Chicago