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Illustration by Pam Rossi

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 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.

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)

Launching a three-week inaugural festival, the October 4 gala concert was conducted by Daniel Barenboim and included excerpts from Verdi’s Otello with Soile Isokoski and Plácido Domingo, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 (with Barenboim conducting from the keyboard), Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with William Warfield, and Bruckner’s Te Deum with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Midnight marked the beginning of the first 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.

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 Daniel Barenboim conducting Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (from the keyboard) and the Seventh Symphony.

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December 14, 1904

December 14, 1904

On December 14, 1904, Orchestra Hall first opened its doors with a grand dedicatory concert, with Theodore Thomas leading the Chicago Orchestra along with the Apollo Musical and Mendelssohn clubs.

For nearly the first fourteen years of its history, the Orchestra had performed at
Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Theatre. However, the hall was far too cavernous for an orchestra; filling 4,000 seats twice weekly was an overwhelming challenge; and there were constant scheduling conflicts with other ensembles. It was rarely a problem getting a ticket to hear the Orchestra, and as a result, season subscriptions were nearly unmarketable.

Thomas initiated a campaign for a new hall, and in 1902 the property at the site of Leroy Payne’s livery stable—on Michigan Avenue between the Pullman Building and the Railway Exchange Building*—became available. Daniel H. Burnham, John J. Glessner, and Bryan Lathrop, along with seven other trustees, initially carried the purchase price, while the Orchestral Association issued an appeal to Chicagoans to secure the $750,000 needed to build a new hall. More than 8,000 individuals contributed.

Orchestra Hall nearly finished in the late fall of 1904 (note "offices for rent" sign above a ballroom window)

Orchestra Hall nearly finished in the late fall of 1904 (note “offices for rent” sign above a ballroom window)

Ground was broken on May 1, 1904, and seven months later, Thomas led the first rehearsal in the hall on December 6. He sent a telegram to Burnham the next day: “Hall a complete success. Quality exceeds all expectations.”

At the beginning of the dedicatory concert on December 14, Thomas led the Orchestra and choruses in “Hail! Bright Abode” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser. George Everett Adams, second president of the Orchestral Association from 1894 until 1899 (and a trustee from 1894 until 1917) and one of the ten men who helped secure the Michigan Avenue property, was given the honor of delivering an inaugural address. “We have built here a noble hall of music. It is a merely material structure of brick, and stone, and steel. We have not, and we cannot, put into this building its living soul. That is a task for other hands than ours.”

Daniel Burnham's near-final elevation, May 18, 1904**

Daniel Burnham’s near-final elevation, May 18, 1904**

The program continued with the Overture to Tannhäuser, Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—music “devoted to the serious contemplation of the soul, its struggles here, and its triumphs hereafter”—and concluded with “Hallelujah!” from Handel’s Messiah.

*The Pullman Building was completed in 1885 and demolished in 1956; the Borg-Warner Building was completed in 1958. The Railway Exchange Building, designed by D.H. Burnham & Company, was completed in 1904.

**Burnham’s elevation for the façade of Orchestra Hall included the names of five composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms. However, it was decided that Brahms was too contemporary (he had only died in 1897), and he was replaced with Schubert. To maintain chronological order, the names were rearranged: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner.

Chicago Examiner, December 15, 1904

Chicago Examiner, December 15, 1904

December 14, 1904

December 14, 1904

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