From its first season in 1891-92, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has made a point of performing concerts away from its downtown base, with occasional appearances in the city’s suburbs. But for the first time, at least in its recent history, the CSO has established a suburban series, which in 2016-17 will consist of three concerts in Wheaton College’s 2,357-seat Edman Memorial Chapel. “We learned while looking through our database that a relatively small number of people travel from DuPage County to downtown Chicago to hear the CSO,” Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. “Some do and we’re grateful for them, but the number is not that large. So we felt that if we repeated a concert there that we’re presenting downtown, we could do so and present it to an almost completely new audience.”
The Wheaton concerts, scheduled for Oct. 28, March 17 and April 21, will repeat programs performed as part of the CSO’s 2016-17 subscription series in Orchestra Hall. They will feature Music Director Riccardo Muti, and top-level guest artists such as guest conductor Christoph von Dohnányi, violinist Baiba Skride and pianist Mitsuko Uchida. “So it’s unquestionably the same quality programs we’ll be offering in Wheaton as we offer in downtown Chicago,” Alexander said.
The beginnings of this new series go back six years or more, when CSO officials began looking for ways to reach the growing population in Chicago’s western suburbs. In the years of 2013-15, the CSO experimented with a week of June concerts on a temporary stage at Lisle’s Morton Arboretum, and the response was enthusiastic. “The community really supported it, both philanthropically and by attendance,” Alexander said. “It was clear from the very beginning that the desire was there to have the orchestra perform in the community.” The CSO looked at the possibility of building some kind of a permanent amphitheater in the area, but that proved cost-prohibitive, so it began to study other alternatives.
Shortly after Alexander’s arrival to the CSOA in 2015, someone mentioned the Edman Memorial Chapel; he learned that the CSO had performed there on more than 10 occasions. So he set up an appointment with Tony Payne, general manager of the Wheaton College Artist Series for 33 years and the college’s director of special programs. Alexander proposed the idea of the CSO presenting a concert series at Wheaton, and Payne immediately embraced the idea. After getting the approval of Wheaton College leaders, including school president Philip Ryken, a former Philadelphia Orchestra subscriber, Payne and Alexander agreed to a test concert. That performance, which occurred in March, and featured the CSO with guest conductor Yuri Temirkanov and pianist Denis Matsuev, drew more than 1,600 attendees. “The reaction was once again wonderful from the community, so with that, we said, ‘Let’s take the plunge and create a subscription series there,’” Alexander said.
Payne believes the CSO concerts ideally complement the college’s 67-year-old Artist Series, which in 2016-17 features such offerings as the 5 Browns, Eroica Trio and Axiom Brass, as well as the college’s strong music conservatory with 161 majors. Noted alumni include soprano Sylvia McNair, mezzo-soprano Wendy White and conductor John Nelson, who has returned to the school six times to conduct large-scale works such as Handel’s Messiah and Britten’s War Requiem. “It’s one of the greatest orchestras in the world,” Payne said of the CSO. “I might argue the Top 5 at least. It’s at a level of eminence that only strengthens the values that we already embrace in regards to great music and great music training here in this conservatory.”
Reinforcing the relationship between the college and the CSO, Wheaton’s Artist Series subscribers receive a 30 percent discount on subscriptions to the college’s CSO concerts. “To me, that’s very generous,” Payne said, “and it really sets a tone of leadership and proving faith that we’re working for the common good.”
The Edman Memorial Chapel, a neo-classical, columned building, was built in 1960 as a place where all of the college’s students could attend services simultaneously, but it also is used for many other events, including concerts. In 2001, the college added a massive, 70-rank Casavant Frères pipe organ that creates a dramatic backdrop to the stage. At 40 by 70 feet, the stage is large enough to seat the orchestra comfortably; there are dressing rooms for soloists and backstage space to accommodate musicians.
Alexander said he knew immediately that the venue’s acoustics were up to the task when he heard a college choir rehearsing in the space during his visit to the campus. “When you’re sitting in the audience there, and you hear the massive Chicago Symphony, it’s a wonderful experience, because the sound comes off the stage and envelops the listener,” he said. “It’s quite an exciting feeling.” A bonus for attendees is plenty of free parking within easy walking distance. “It really is in many ways an ideal situation for us,” Alexander said.
So far, more than 1,300 subscriptions have been sold for the CSO series, a number that keeps rising as the first concert approaches. Though the CSO has not yet announced plans for returning next season to Edman Memorial Chapel, all indications point in that direction. “I can tell you that we’re already working on dates for ’17 and ’18,” Payne said. Alexander suggested that the number of concerts could even increase. “You never know,” he said. “It’s become already so popular that I could see expanding this series in the future if the public there would be receptive to it.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Scores are set out on music stands ahead of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert in March at Wheaton College’s Edman Memorial Chapel. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016