The Chicago Symphony Orchestra launches its second season at Wheaton College with a three-concert series featuring conductors Riccardo Muti and Manfred Honeck, as well as guest artists Arabella Steinbacher (violin), Till Fellner (piano) and Paul Neubauer (viola).
After performing summer concerts in the western suburbs over the last decade, the CSO administration decided to introduce an annual series at Wheaton College’s 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,” said Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. “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.”
This season’s Wheaton concerts, scheduled for Nov. 10, Jan. 26 and March 16, will repeat programs performed as part of the CSO’s 2017-18 subscription series in Orchestra Hall. “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 a few years, when CSO officials began looking for ways to reach the growing population in Chicago’s western suburbs. From 2013 to 2015, 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 that the desire was there to have the orchestra perform in the community.” The CSO considered building a permanent amphitheater in the area, but that proved cost-prohibitive, so it began to study other alternatives.
Shortly after Alexander’s arrival 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 a meeting 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 possibility. A test concert in March 2016, featuring 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, as well as the college’s strong music conservatory. “It’s one of the greatest orchestras in the world,” Payne said of the CSO. “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.”
Built in 1960, the neo-classical Edman Memorial Chapel is used for many other events, including concerts. 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 knew immediately that the venue’s acoustics were up to the task when he heard a college choir rehearsing in the space during a 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. A bonus for attendees is plenty of free parking within easy walking distance. “It really is in many ways,” he said, “an ideal situation for us.”