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On a sunny, breezy August afternoon in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, approximately 50 residents of the Breakers retirement community gathered in their courtyard for a long-awaited moment: a live performance by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. An hourlong concert of chamber and solo works gave residents their first taste of live music — and their largest social activity with friends and neighbors — since COVID-19 restrictions were implemented in March. For the CSO musicians, it offered a welcome return to performing with colleagues in front of a live audience after a five-month hiatus.

The performance was one of three outdoor, socially distanced chamber concerts presented by the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute in communities across Chicago. Residents of Montgomery Place enjoyed a concert at their retirement community in Hyde Park, and health-care workers from several hospitals and health centers attended a performance in Douglas Park.*

During a typical season, the Negaunee Music Institute organizes a robust schedule of free community events, including open rehearsals, chamber concerts in schools and neighborhood venues and an annual Concert for Chicago featuring the CSO and Music Director Riccardo Muti. The ongoing generosity of donors has enabled many NMI programs to continue online since March, as well as supporting special programs such as the concerts in Douglas Park, Edgewater and Hyde Park. Created in response to the pandemic, the three performances provided moments of much-needed human connection amid the isolation and stress of these difficult times.

Leading up to the concert at the Breakers, the excitement was palpable. Many residents have long-standing connections to the CSO; in a normal season, they would be attending subscription concerts, open rehearsals or community performances. Several mentioned that they had been listening to classical music on WFMT or watching CSO From Home videos online, but deeply missed the experience of live music. After the performance of works by Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky and more, smiles and applause abounded. One resident summed up her reaction in three words: “Happy, happy, happy!”

Concierge and Activities Coordinator Creshanna Henry shared similar sentiments after the performance at Montgomery Place. “A great number of our residents are patrons of the CSO and frequently visited prior to the pandemic,” she said. “We thank the CSO for such a wonderful program. What an incredible experience for all that were starved for music — the feedback from our residents was amazing!”

In their remarks to the audience at the Breakers, musicians made it clear that the performance was equally meaningful to them. CSO oboe-English horn Scott Hostetler said, “This is the first time we’ve been able to play together since March, so it’s really a treat for us.”

Assistant Principal Oboe Michael Henoch added, “We’re so happy to be here to play for you. It’s been a long time since we’ve played for a live audience, and we really miss it — so this is as good for us as it is for you.”

Another eager audience of nearly 100 people gathered on the city’s Southwest Side, where staff from Esperanza Health Centers, Lawndale Christian Health Centers, Sinai Hospital and Saint Anthony Hospital walked to Douglas Park after work for an early evening concert, organized in partnership with Esperanza Health Centers. Many of the health-care workers brought their families to the socially distanced event, which had reached its maximum capacity only 24 hours after reservations were made available.

The evening’s beautiful weather, which held little trace of the tornado that had hit Chicago the previous day, created a serene setting for a performance that featured a string quartet arrangement of the theme from “Mission: Impossible.” This choice of repertoire referenced the “impossible” job that health-care staffers have been asked to do over the last months. In addition, a woodwind quintet performed an arrangement of “Simple Gifts,” the traditional Shaker melody that Aaron Copland famously used in his score to the ballet Appalachian Spring.

Reflecting on the concert afterward, Esperanza Health Centers’ Vice President of External Affairs Ricardo Cifuentes said, “What a wonderful gesture of thanks and acknowledgement for our front-line health workers who have given so much during these past few months and have been such a remarkable source of inspiration. To offer them this rare moment of beauty and reflection during challenging times of uncertainty was a wonderful gift indeed.”

According to CSO horn David Griffin, the performance was a moving experience for the musicians as well as for the audience members. “Like all Chicagoans, we are incredibly grateful to the health-care workers for all they have done during this time of crisis,” he said. “In a small way, this is how we can say thank you. My colleagues and I were inspired by the audience’s enthusiastic response since we have all missed performing together and the joyful experience it creates.”

“It was an honor and a privilege to play a concert for health-care workers,” said CSO violin Susan Synnestvedt. “While those of us in the CSO are frustrated not to be performing, these people were performing dangerous and essential jobs. We hope that our concert gave them some pleasure and a smile. My string quartet performed first, and I stayed to listen to my colleagues’ wind quintet. It was so great to hear these wonderful musicians that I found myself in tears, for the beauty of their playing, for the loss of CSO concerts and for the sadness of so many lives lost, here in the U.S. and around the world.”

CSO flute Emma Gerstein added:

The Douglas Park concert was only the second concert I’ve played since the pandemic hit in March, and one of only a handful of times I’ve been able to play music with other people, in person. It was incredibly special to get to play with my friends and colleagues again, and on such a beautiful day. We musicians are always saying that music is a universal language, and it really felt that way as we were playing for the workers at various health centers in the city. There was a woman who came up to us after the performance in tears, saying how much it meant to her. These are the types of connections that I miss terribly during this time of isolation, and I hope we can have more opportunities to share our music with our community this fall.

As the CSO approaches its 130th season, the Negaunee Music Institute is planning innovative ways to continue its educational and community engagement efforts, which are made possible through the support of loyal donors. Although it’s uncertain when it will be possible to return to a pre-pandemic schedule of live performances, the recent concerts for retirees and health-care workers were hopeful reminders of the power of music — especially when shared communally — to encourage and inspire.

TOP: A string quartet of CSO musicians performs for health-care workers and families at Douglas Park on Aug. 11, 2020. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2020

* At the time of publication, the Chicago Park District had initiated the process to rename Stephen A. Douglas Park, likely for social reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass.