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Illustration by Pam Rossi

After more than three years of planning, building, testing, and fine-tuning, Symphony Center—a $120 million project that included a facility expansion and extensive renovation of Orchestra Hall—opened its doors twenty years ago today, on October 4, 1997, with an opening night gala concert.

Led by acousticians Kirkegaard Associates and architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the project encompassed additions and improvements to Orchestra Hall, including raising the roof line for increased sound reverberation, replacing plaster walls, decreasing the width and increasing the depth of the stage, adding an extensive riser system, replacing all seats and adding terrace seating behind the stage, installing an acoustic canopy (to improve onstage ensemble conditions and sound reflection to the audience), and increasing patron amenity spaces. In addition, the project included new administrative offices in the former Chapin & Gore building; Buntrock Hall, a multipurpose rehearsal and performance space; renovation of a private club (formerly the home of the Cliff Dwellers); and a multistory arcade and rotunda. The following year brought the opening of a new restaurant (originally Rhapsody and now tesori) and an education center.

Opening a three-week inaugural festival, the October 4 gala concert featured Daniel Barenboim leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the complete program was as follows:

Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center (Jim Steere photo)

ELGAR Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, Op. 36 (performed in memory of Sir Georg Solti)
VERDI Già nella notte densa from Otello, Act 1
Soile Isokoski, soprano
Plácido Domingo, tenor
VERDI Niun mi tema from Otello, Act 4
Plácido Domingo, tenor
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595
Daniel Barenboim, piano
COPLAND Lincoln Portrait
William Warfield, narrator
BRUCKNER Te Deum
Soile Isokoski, soprano
Rosemarie Lang, mezzo-soprano
Thomas Moser, tenor
Matthias Hölle, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Duain Wolfe, chorus director

Natyakalalayam Dance Company performing in Symphony Center’s rotunda on October 5, 1997 (Jeff Meacham photo)

Natyakalalayam Dance Company performing in Symphony Center’s rotunda on October 5, 1997 (Jeff Meacham photo)

Midnight marked the beginning of the first Marshall Field’s Day of Music: twenty-four hours of free, live performances of music across all genres in multiple Symphony Center venues, attended by more than 20,000 people. The festival also launched the newly renamed Symphony Center Presents series (formerly Allied Arts, begun by Harry Zelzer in the 1930s), with concerts by Barenboim, Itzhak PerlmanPinchas Zukerman, Maurizio Pollini, and the Emerson String Quartet, along with the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Joe WilliamsOscar Peterson, Marcus Roberts Trio, and a tribute celebrating the eightieth-birthday anniversary of Thelonious Monk (led by his son Thelonious Monk, Jr.).

October 22, 1997 (Jim Steere photo)

October 22, 1997 (Jim Steere photo)

Sadly, the many celebrations were bittersweet. Music director laureate Sir Georg Solti—who, during the festival would have celebrated not only his eighty-fifth birthday but also his 1,000th concert with the Orchestra—had unexpectedly died on September 5, 1997. A special, free memorial concert was added on October 22 that included Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, followed by Mozart’s Requiem with Emily Magee, Anna Larsson, John Aler, René Pape, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. A celebration concert was given on October 25, with Barenboim conducting Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (from the keyboard) and the Seventh Symphony.

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

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