Symphony seasons, planned years in advance, unfold with a certainty that challenges the surprise victories and “if necessary” match-ups of big sports championships. For the third time in a fortunate six seasons, Orchestra Hall and hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks pack June with unexpected choices. Count the face-offs: on Wednesday, cello superstar Yo Yo Ma in a free Civic Orchestra concert or Game 4, in Chicago, of the Stanley Cup Finals. Then on Saturday, it’s Music Director Riccardo Muti atop the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, against a potentially decisive Game 5.
When game night is concert night, CSO patrons and Chicago sports fans manage admirably. The Gershwin and Ravel program Saturday at Orchestra Hall, unfolding with Game 2 of the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, kept concertgoers and hockey fans shuffling from the urgent immediacy of guest conductor Ludovic Morlot and pianist Denis Kozhukhin to distant, mobile-streamed attacking by Hawks center Teuvo Teravainen and defenseman Brent Seabrook — an odd, dynamic mix of musical strength and vulcanized rubber.
Ravel’s swift, left-handed Piano Concerto seemed a CSO winner, but Tampa’s late, left-handed slapshot defeated the Blackhawks, and fans left Orchestra Hall an hour later humming Gershwin and whistling Dixie.
Here’s how the evening went down, period by period:
Pre-game warm-ups at Symphony Center: John, a Hawks fan and CSO patron, rifles the rack of subscription brochures near Orchestra Hall’s box office, scanning for autumn’s “Create Your Own Series” options. “I’m looking forward to the 2015-2016 season.”
John looks just as ready for Game 2; the puck will drop just after 6:15 p.m. (CST) in Tampa. He’s dressed for the CSO in bright Blackhawks red, head to waist. The cap is temporary, John reassures. “It might block the view from somebody behind, so I remove it during the performance.”
He speaks with the clipped, repetitive cadence of a David Mamet foil. “Six months ago I did buy a ticket for the concert, so I am going to go. If I had known, I would have picked the Thursday night concert, not the Saturday night concert. I did not know at the time.”
“I will be going to the concert tonight; however, at intermission, I will get out my phone to see what the score is at intermission because I figure they should be at the second period by that point.”
John chose this CSO program for two reasons: “American in Paris. American in Paris. The rest of it I don’t really care about, but I’ll stay for it all — but the Gershwin American in Paris is why I’m here.” Game 2 won’t lure him after the opening work. “Many times I’ve come for one particular performance, or a song or whatever, and when I stay for the rest of it, I find I like something else as much or maybe even more. No, I’ll stay for the whole thing.”
Right now he’s ready to rush — maybe he can catch the Blackhawks’ first two periods somewhere on Adams Street before the 8 p.m. concert start time. “There’s nothing to say that somebody can’t live in both worlds and enjoy both things within the same day. … If somebody can cross the barrier to like classical music and sports, or vice-versa, more power to ’em. Enjoy it, and ‘Go Hawks!’”
First period, in Tampa and Tesori: Two muted televisions catch little attention at Tesori, the bar and restaurant inside Symphony Center. Light jazz scores the cautious din of pre-concert diners. The lone Blackhawks cap in the bar is a tasteful, muted gray. Game 2 is just a silent, white pan-and-scan, widescreen in the background.
There’s a voice at the end of the bar. “Yeah, it’s pretty far removed from the Canadian hockey culture.” I scoot down a few stools.
Janet, a college professor and amateur flutist, accompanied by her husband, seem to be the only diners keeping eyes on the contest.
“I’ve been a musician almost my entire life, so the symphony is first in my heart.” She’s playfully apologetic. “I’ve only been a Hawks fan since they started winning Stanley Cups for me — but, boy, to watch those guys skate, it’s a beautiful thing. I enjoy the athleticism.”
But not enough to skip the 7 p.m. pre-concert lecture, bound to overlap the last ticks of the first period. “No question for me,” Janet says, settling the check.
She’ll be back at Orchestra Hall next weekend, on June 13, when Muti and the CSO are head to head with Game 5, a Blackhawks away contest. “I’ll tell you, Riccardo Muti — the way he constructs a program just thrills me. I’m always impressed. … I’m constantly amazed and intrigued.”
“That will be our last concert for the season. So there’s no choice at all.” Janet’s certain. “I will absolutely be here for the concert.
“We’ll do the pre-concert conversation again.”
Above the bar, the Lightning slip a hushed goal past. It’s 1-0 finishing the first.
Streaming the second period, rushing for gallery seats: Nearing 7:30, the CSO audience files off Michigan Avenue into Symphony Center.
Just inside the foyer Steven, his wife watching, swaps off his white Blackhawks sweater for concert clothes beneath. “I didn’t think it would be appropriate attire for a world-class symphony to be wearing a hockey jersey.”
I remind him the CSO’s music director, donning a red home sweater, led the orchestra in “Chelsea Dagger,” the Blackhawks’ iconic goal song, during the 2013 Stanley Cup run. Steven is admiring. “Well, he can do it. I’m not Riccardo Muti.”
Steven seemingly accepts personal cause-effect responsibility for the Hawks’ first-period deficit, and his hopes for the second aren’t higher. “I assume tonight we’re going to lose because I’m not at home wearing my full regalia of Blackhawk material.”
But upstairs in Orchestra Hall’s ballroom, the tide is quickly changing, I see on Carol’s cellphone. Stately in her ivory blouse, she stares at a mobile livestream with a promising Blackhawks 2-1 lead six minutes into the second period. Several more concertgoers are glancing over her shoulder when, moments later, Tampa Bay evens at two apiece.
Carol and her husband Eric traded to this concert when their Saturday subscription conflicted with tickets for Game 7 of the Blackhawks Western Conference Finals. “We didn’t have much of a choice,” says Eric. “We wanted to see the Blackhawks. But it was a Beethoven concert, so we would have liked to have seen Beethoven, too. We had to go with Game 7. If they didn’t win there would be no more games to watch.”
The ding-ding-ding alerts — from the hall’s public-address system, not from Carol’s mobile — grow insistent as concert time approaches. The Hawks get insistent, too. Seabrook nets a go-ahead goal as ushers rush us inside, a few minutes too soon for the second period’s last moments. I’m in my seat at 7:58 p.m.; two hockey fans wanting more slide past at 8:02. The concertmaster is onstage and orchestra tuning when five more rush the upstairs gallery a minute later. Phones flip off. I’m fumbling with program pages when the woman two seats over offers quick, curt help.
Third period at lightning speed: Chicago’s concerto and Tampa’s slapshot: The tuba sounds the deep sonorities of An American in Paris with goal-horn authority, and the audience lets loose. “Whoo!” my seatmate shouts. “Whoo! Whoo!” A wickedly enthusiastic reception. The CSO’s rough, uninhibited Gershwin gets that energy right back from a packed auditorium.
There’s a pause as stagehands reset for Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, absent from downtown concerts the past five seasons. Plenty of heads slip back into program books for guidance, but at least six power up blue screens instead. Someone’s livestream rolls a few rows ahead. The passing usher doesn’t know the Blackhawks’ score — seconds later, across the aisle, I’m offered an authoritative “it was 3-2 at the end of the second.”
The puck probably drops in Tampa as Kozhukhin, the piano soloist, puts his hand to the keyboard. The cellphone livestream disappears and the fan who’d surfed moments before is locked in on arpeggios. He’s leaning intently — precariously — from the gallery’s first row, framed by its metal railings. If there’s behind-the-glass seating at Orchestra Hall, the gallery’s perilous immediacy comes close.
John, downstairs, is riveted. Seated steps from Kozhukhin, now singlehandedly thrashing out the virtuosic finale, John, resplendent in his red Blackhawks shirt, is quick to rise for a standing ovation.
I rush to the main floor, front-row center, and catch John at intermission. His phone is already on. “There’s 1:32 left. Tampa Bay’s winning 4-3,” he reports.
But John’s mind remains on Ravel. “I was blown away. So many of the chords. At the end those arpeggios, or whatever you call them — it sounded like he was using two hands. I was very, very impressed. I’ve never heard the piece before.”
John wasn’t thinking about hockey during the concerto. “I really was not — I wasn’t. I was totally engrossed with the music, with that moment.”
This moment the news on John’s Samsung isn’t good. “There’s 13 seconds.” A pause. “No, it’s over. It’s over. They just put the final, 4-3. They lost.”
As intermission winds down, John navigates musical elation and Blackhawks frustration. “It’s unfair to expect any team to sweep anybody in four games, so losing one, losing two is not the end of the world — it’s all about who wins four first. That’s all that matters.”
There’s more CSO Ravel in the second half, and John’s optimism is back. “I’m looking forward to it. I’d be looking a lot more forward to it if they had won, but yes, I’m looking forward to it. That’s why I bought the ticket in the first place. So I think it’s going to be good.
“Who knows what’s going to happen?”
Andrew Huckman is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.