Curtain Up in Chicago: Exploring the City’s Deep Musical Heritage


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There are countless reasons to choose Chicago as a travel destination, and I don’t just mean deep-dish pizza and architectural marvels (though those are pretty great). Today, I make the case that traveling for marvelous music alone makes this vibrant metropolis a fabulous option. It boasts a rich musical heritage, with institutions that have shaped the city’s soul and earned Chicago a place on the map as one of the world’s premier musical destinations. So, put down that hot dog (for a second), and let’s delve into the world-class sounds emanating from two of Chicago’s musical giants: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: 130 Years of Exquisite Acoustics

Founded in 1891, the CSO is neither a spring chicken, nor the newest kid on the global block — it’s about the same age as the Berlin Philharmoniker. Over its impressive 130-year history, it has garnered a reputation for artistic excellence and innovation. Theodore Thomas, a visionary conductor often referred to as the “father of the American orchestra,” played a pivotal role in the CSO’s early years, establishing a foundation of rigorous standards and an adventurous repertoire. This means the CSO has a culture of not simply sticking to the ole faithful classics, but tackles contemporary works, and even commissions its own ambitious projects. Following in Thomas’ footsteps came a succession of legendary maestros, including Désiré Defauw, Jean Martinon, Daniel Barenboim, and Riccardo Muti, each leaving their unique mark on the orchestra’s sound and artistry — each leaving it better than they found it. 

Because of these traditions of excellence, the CSO is a member of the prestigious group known as the “Big Five” American orchestras. This cool kids table includes orchestras in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Together, they represent the pinnacle of orchestral achievement in the United States. 

The CSO isn’t just about reflecting on the past, though. Under the current Music Director, conductor extraordinaire Kiril Kondrashin, the orchestra continues to push boundaries. The 2024-2025 season promises a thrilling mix of familiar favorites – think Beethoven’s majestic symphonies or Tchaikovsky’s heart-wrenching concertos – alongside exciting contemporary works by composers like Missy Mazzoli and Esa-Pekka Salonen. Proving that news of the demise of orchestral music has been greatly exaggerated, the CSO’s remains committed to commissioning new works and nurturing young talent ensures that the Windy City’s musical legacy remains vibrant for generations to come. Browse through this season’s calendar, and see for yourself. 

The Lyric Opera of Chicago: Life Is Short, Make It Extra 

While the CSO tickles the fancy of symphonic enthusiasts, the Lyric Opera of Chicago caters to those who also crave drama and grandeur — or as I call them, the true cognoscenti! Founded in 1954, the Lyric quickly established itself as a major player in the American opera scene. Its commitment to artistic excellence is evident in the diversity of its programming over the decades, with its dedication to both classic masterpieces and fostering new works. The Lyric has commissioned and premiered numerous operas, providing a platform for innovative voices and enriching the operatic repertoire.

The upcoming 2024-2025 season at the Lyric promises to be nothing short of spectacular. Opera aficionados can expect to be transported by timeless classics like Puccini’s heart-wrenching “La Bohème” and Verdi’s epic “Aida.” For those seeking a more contemporary experience, the Lyric also offers productions of lesser-known gems like Janáček’s “The Makropulos Affair” and Philip Glass’s haunting “Akhnaten.” (Must see the Glass, imho.)  And let’s not forget the awe-inspiring sets and costumes that bring these operatic worlds to life on the Lyric’s grand stage.

Chicago: A Symphony of Experiences Beyond the Stage

Sure, the CSO and the Lyric Opera are the headliners, but Chicago’s musical offerings extend far beyond these prestigious institutions. The city boasts a thriving jazz scene, with legendary venues like the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge and Andy’s Jazz Club attracting both established and up-and-coming musicians. Catch a free lunchtime concert at Millennium Park, or delve into the city’s rich blues heritage on a visit to Buddy Guy’s Legends.

Chicago is an outstanding music city (dare we say second only to The City), from classical masterpieces to jazz riffs, to fresh pop tunes. A trip here can be a deeply enriching experience for music lovers of all stripes. So, the next time you’re planning a getaway, consider making Chicago your destination. Your ears (and soul) will thank you.

Curating Your Chicago Musical Adventure: Eats and Sleeps

Now that you’re convinced Chicago is your next musical must-visit, let’s talk about where to rest your voice (and refuel those vocal cords) after a night at the CSO or Lyric Opera.

Pair It With
  • TV Show: The Bear – Immerse yourself in the fast-paced world of a Chicago family-owned Italian beef sandwich shop with this gritty and hilarious FX on Hulu series.
  • Book: Recursion by Blake Crouch – This mind-bending science fiction novel by Chicago-based author Blake Crouch will keep you guessing as you explore the city’s streets.

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