When Riccardo Muti joined the Chicago Symphony as its music director in 2010, he expressed his strong interest in exposing classical music to the broader community. In response to Maestro Muti’s laudable intentions, the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and the Negaunee Music Institute established the Senior Outreach Program during the 2010-2011 CSO season to help make his desire a reality. 

To support this effort, Maestro Muti was gracious in offering these underserved Chicagoland communities the opportunity to attend free open rehearsals at Symphony Center. League chairs Mary Plauché and Margo Oberman identified seniors who previously could not attend concerts because of financial, physical and transportation concerns. The response was overwhelming from retirement homes, churches and universities whose members love the sound of live music in a concert hall and the community of sharing the experience collectively.

In 2013-2014, the initiative was expanded to include veterans and renamed the Senior and Veteran Engagement Program. Approximately 2,500 seniors and veterans annually attend the three concerts and are able to enjoy an experience that they would not have been able to arrange for themselves.

Also in 2013-2014, a docent pilot program was started with a few of the senior communities scheduled to attend the open rehearsals. Each docent made arrangements ahead of time with the activity director of the attending facility and offered a presentation on the composer and musical selections being presented at the concert. This is an added bonus for not only the seniors but also for docents, who enjoy attending the open rehearsals.

The CSO League members, who provide hospitality and mobility assistance at the concert, also love to volunteer for this humanitarian and educational project. “The gratitude shown by the senior and veterans is most heartwarming. Sharing our mutual love of fine music is what we here at the CSO are all about,” says Margo Oberman. Her co-chair, Mary Plauché, writes that “she and Margo have forged relationships with the groups and are pleased Maestro Muti wanted underserved seniors to enjoy the CSO’s beautiful music.” 

League member Mary Torres, who escorted veterans from The Blind Center of Hines VA Hospital on Feb. 20, remarks that “the Maestro has the goal and vision to make symphonic music accessible and meaningful to everyone.” During the intermission, Muti spent his entire break talking to the veterans about the historical significance of William Schuman’s Symphony No. 9 in commemorating the massacre of Italian citizens at the end of World War II. He then expressed his desire that they would come to Symphony Center frequently in the future.

Attendees at the dress rehearsals during the last 10 years have become “die-hard Muti fans,” as well as lovers of classical music.  They love Muti’s humor and rapport with the audience. They have learned the correct Italian pronunciation of a composer named Boito.  They hear the conductor sing the phrasing he wants in the string section.  They enjoy observing the rehearsal process and the musical refinement demanded by a world-class orchestra. They observe the obvious respect and love between the players and conductor and their shared joy of making music together.  They sit quietly during the entire rehearsal, never nosily unwrapping a cough drop!

“How can we thank the Maestro?” they ask. After one concert, a group from The Breakers at Edgewater Beach pooled their loose change and contributed $69 to the CSO to show their extraordinary gratitude for the open rehearsals. Other members of the audience have suggested writing notes of appreciation to the Maestro. Thank-you notes were collected after the Feb. 20 dress rehearsal and placed in an album to be given to Muti as a token of the audience’s collective appreciation.

JoAnn Gardner from the Breakers, who has attended every open rehearsal for the past three years, finds sitting in Orchestra Hall “enchanting” and the music “beyond her wildest dreams.” Anne-Marie, another “grayhead” from the Breakers, is a CSO subscriber from the early Solti years. Andrew Carney recalls that when he was 23, he got time off from his boss to hear the CSO. He wants to thank Muti for playing wonderful music that takes him back to being that age and not the senior man that he now is. Lois Stachnik has been attending Chicago Symphony Concerts for over 60 years.

Many of the audience members have been, or still are, patrons of the CSO and are very knowledgeable music connoisseurs.  They enjoy having the chance to watch and listen to a work in progress now that they’re at a point in life where they have time to reflect on it. 

Professor Jim Albers from Valparaiso University recalls that he took students who were studying abroad to hear the Berlin Philharmonic and to see opera at La Scala 50 years ago. Now he feels “privileged to be going to Symphony Center with his peers to enjoy one of the world’s best orchestras, led by one of the best conductors.” 

His closing remarks are a perfect conclusion to this article: “Attending the rehearsals is just perfect for us seniors, who find travel later in the day — let alone at night — problematic. The dates for the rehearsals go onto the calendar with great anticipation. Thank you so much for allowing us to sit in — grazie mille!!”

TOP: Riccardo Muti addresses the audience during an open rehearsal. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography