Going to a concert, like going to church or a nice restaurant or traveling on a plane or an overnight train, once meant dressing up and looking your best. We had been taught that dressing up showed respect—and classical music evoked special respect. This had little to do with how much one happened to know about it. In a more deferential era, “classical” was a formidable adjective.
Classy, if not necessarily classical, concert halls were a major part of this picture: atmospheres that set a serious tone to which concertgoers, young or old, wanted to measure up. With cultural democratization has come the dilution of such codes. Classical music these days is performed widely in the provinces as well as in the metropolis, sometimes in proper halls, sometimes in high school auditoriums. The smaller the organization, the less likely it is to have a place of its own. A creditable small-town orchestra near me performs in a Baptist church, which is neither ideal nor awful. The musicians still dress nicely, but in the audience, neckties are hard to find.
Until the era of the “performing arts center” began in the 1960s and 1970s, concert halls were where big-time classical music got done. Among the performance spaces of the so-called “Big Five” American orchestras, the breakdown of nomenclature is noteworthy. Three of these orchestras—the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Cleveland Orchestra—perform in buildings still called “halls” (though the Philharmonic’s David Geffen Hall is part of Lincoln Center, a common phenomenon). Two—the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—perform in buildings now called not “halls” but “centers.” Three—Boston, Cleveland, and Chicago—perform in landmark-quality buildings. Two—New York and Philadelphia—call less distinguished structures home. Whether these Big Five orchestras are in fact still the right big five is a question best left to the music critics. But what, I wonder, does the drift from “hall” to “center” signify generally? I know one of the Big Five better than the others: Chicago.
Designed by Daniel Burnham, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall has been home to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1904. Its exterior belongs to that matchless façade of buildings fronting on Michigan Avenue between Roosevelt Road and the Chicago River, which is the very face of Chicago: the Blackstone and Conrad Hilton hotels, the Auditorium Theater, the Santa Fe and Peoples’ Gas buildings (the latter also by Burnham), the University Club. Orchestra Hall looks across the avenue onto its soulmate, the Art Institute, which dates from the 1890s, and to Grant Park and Lake Michigan beyond.
For a long time, Orchestra Hall’s interior carried through from the exterior announcement. Its elegant, three-tiered, 2,500-seat auditorium was dedicated to a singular purpose: the performance of great classical music by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Except for the summer months, when the CSO decamped to Ravinia on the North Shore, this was where people came to hear the orchestra made famous by Theodore Thomas, Frederick Stock, Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim. The CSO, along with the Art Institute, put paid to the “Second City” cliché and secured Chicago’s seat at the high-culture table. To a degree, it still does.
Not that Orchestra Hall was perfect. Acoustical shortcomings were noted early and often, and in the 1960s, 1990s, and 2010s, fixes were attempted. Standards at the top are high and should be, and it was worthy to try to make a good thing better. It should be said, however, that for the average ticketholder, Orchestra Hall never had fallen short of being plenty good enough. It was a great concert hall and a great source of civic pride. It had a name, and everybody knew it. “Orchestra Hall” was a building, not a brand.
Things changed with the 1990s remodel, which was also something of a mission rethink. The rethink was influenced by the trend toward high-culture democratization. Even as orchestras spread across the country, leadership at the older big-city orchestras grew anxious about operating deficits and dreaded being perceived as elite citadels dedicated to dead white European composers and catering to sleepy “senior” audiences. And so they bent to the “performing arts center” mantra, attempting to broaden their appeal and welcome different kinds of audiences with different kinds of tastes.
The renovation and expansion of Orchestra Hall undertaken in 1995–97 at a cost of $110 million was not half-hearted. New spaces appeared: Buntrock Hall, a dual-purpose rehearsal and 350-seat performance space; Grainger Ballroom, an “event space” overlooking the Art Institute (like Buntrock, named for a major donor); a rotunda, and the obligatory snazzy restaurant named (of course) Opus. The whole enterprise was renamed “Chicago Symphony Center,” with Orchestra Hall one part of it. In pursuit of acoustical improvement, the hall underwent questionable changes—though some said the decline had begun with the 1966 renovation, when the trustees put the orchestra on risers. This move had uncoupled musicians from the stage, which radiated audio energy. The nineties redo further opened the ceiling, added the great chandelier to reflect sound back to the stage, and deepened the stage to the west. A few seasons later, Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein concluded that this renovation had been guided by a forlorn hope: “I would happily settle for the way the CSO sounded before the jackhammers tore apart the guts of the old building . . . the in-your-face sound I recall from the Georg Solti era.”
Whatever virtues the old Orchestra Hall possessed, it had undoubtedly been a space designed for a symphony orchestra. To attempt to transform it into a multipurpose space for different kinds of music with diverse acoustical demands was asking for trouble. Is it possible for one hall to serve jazz, pop, gospel, blues, and classical genres equally well? Not in Chicago, anyway. Tinkering goes on, but the institutional reset of the 1990s remains set today. Chicago has a “center” that “reaches out” to attempt many things. Riccardo Muti, music director since 2010, has achieved marvels of sound in Orchestra Hall (and not all of them composed by dead white Europeans), as further acoustical adjustments have been attempted on his watch.
One of the casualties of the changes in the 1990s had nothing to do with music but a great deal to do with culture. Since 1907, the penthouse atop Orchestra Hall overlooking the Art Institute was home to the Cliff Dwellers Club, an old-fashioned literary and artistic gathering spot for patrons of and participants in the fine arts in Chicago: “a rallying point for Midland Arts,” in the words of founder Hamlin Garland. It attracted down the years a sterling list of worthies—Frederick Stock, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Howard Van Doren Shaw, Lorado Taft, Leo Sowerby, Henry Regnery—and though far from the poshest club in town, it was the one where you were likely to find some of the best conversation. A happier match between tenant and landlord was hard to imagine, and yet it ended in 1996 with the coming of Symphony Center, which had other plans for the space. The Cliff Dwellers’ new home, across the street in the modernist Borg Warner Building, though nicely fitted out, lost something in translation.
Something else was lost with the changes wreaked inside Orchestra Hall in the 1990s. It was a case of loss-by-addition—of an in-the-round-like tier of seating behind the musicians (made possible by moving the back wall of the building west across the alley). This was conceived as dual-purpose space, accommodating choruses when needed but otherwise adding ticketed seats with a view of the conductor at work. Farewell proscenium. Closeness to the musicians, which such rear-view seating makes possible, is paid for by a loss of formality in the concertgoing experience. Many no doubt welcome this, as they welcome casual concertgoing attire.
I find that an older way of seeing and listening still commends itself. The first of Orchestra Hall’s three tiers above the main floor is a great semicircle of private boxes. My first experience of this hall and of the Chicago sound (then Solti’s) was from this perspective. Box Number One, at dead center, belonged to old family friends who were CSO patrons for decades. The rear two of its six armchairs may have been made for dozing, but in the front two you had to pay attention. If you did, you got everything your generous hosts had paid for. Some say that to appreciate how superb the CSO really is you have to hear it away from home, in a hall as superb: Vienna’s Musikverein or Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. This may be true, yet it does not diminish the power of Burnham’s Chicago original, however questionably improved down the years. The program that evening of my Orchestra Hall christening featured Handel’s underperformed oratorio “Israel in Egypt.” For sheer magnificence of classical music magnificently performed in a magnificent hall, I have never since known its equal.
Like great nations (as Adam Smith observed), great buildings can tolerate considerable ruination. Of such class is Burnham’s Orchestra Hall, which, so far, stands the test of dubious change. It also stands as a warning.
Timothy Jacobson writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.