For the fourth consecutive season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will return to Wheaton College’s Edman Memorial Chapel with its three-concert series in 2019-20. The dates will be Nov. 22, Feb. 28 and May 1 and will feature a world-premiere work.
The Nov. 22 programming will consist of Holst’s The Planets, conducted by Juanjo Mena, as well as Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula (2011) by James Lee III and two scenes from Barber’s opera Antony and Cleopatra, with soprano Sally Matthews and the women of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Feb 28 will bring “A Nordic Celebration” with works by Nielsen and Sibelius, conducted by Hannu Lintu. For the season finale on May 1, Music Director Riccardo Muti will lead Beethoven’s Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, as well as Orpheus Undone, a world-premiere CSO commission by CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli.
The CSO decided to introduce an annual series at Wheaton College in 2016-17, after performing summer concerts in the western suburbs over the last decade. “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.”
The origins of the Wheaton 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 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 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 long-running 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.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.