Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Where the Hell am I?
and Why is it so Fun.
What do you think of when you think of an orchestra? Are you presented with images of patrons like Statler and Waldorf, those muppets that sit in the high box. My second time visiting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) was, in one word, fantastic. But before we get to the very different type of show than I normally attend, we should explore the context.
My friend from school, Dailen, got us tickets to see a composition of Vivaldi pieces on January 27th, 2022. With excitement in our hearts, and my previous CSO experience of being not quite high enough, with an ex I didn't quite like enough,I was excited for a corrective experience. Like any other event in Chicago, a pre game is required. But this is no 30 rack of Busch Light in a parking lot type of pregame;, something greater beckoned. Mixed drink of choice is a personalized concoction, of Bulleit Bourbon, simple syrup, lime juice, a splash of ginger ale, and garnished with a wedged lime. It sounds awful, I know. But it grows on you, and gives the traditional, but exotic feeling of being the two youngest people, of their own freewill, at the orchestra.
An arduous climb up five flights of spiral red carpeted stairs, where every usher informed us about the fourth floor bathroom, a product of the majority of their patrons having frequent bowel movements. This participation definitely wasn’t the cause, to us being late, but that should almost go without mention. We show up for the second piece of the evening, where the orchestra rule book is introduced. The doors in the back are opened by the usher inside when all clapping stops–and there is a lot of clapping. It’s a production, a theater where each chair is its own character. We stepped into our row, next to a couple that was obviously on a fourth date, the man who was in a cyan blue quarter zip, head banging to this performance, while his girlfriend was slack jawed behind her mask. I hope they were both having a good time, while repeatedly turning to stare at us, as if we are on their second monitor discord call. And yes, I am making an assumption about their gamer status and as a former League of Legends player, my gamer-dar was tingling. We get comfortable in our seats, which are ever slightly too low for you to see directly over the row in front of your field of vision. This is annoying, and actually the only structural complaint I had. The sound treatment of the room, the sound trap that rests above the orchestra (pictured) and the just pearled aesthetic is fantastic.
So coming in slightly late, the second piece performed is called, ‘Flute Concerto in G Minor (La Notte), Op. 10, No. 2 (RV 439)’. I can not sit here and pretend that I really know what any of this means, and as someone who lacks a classical music education, G minor is the only thing in this string of words I recognize. Now similar to the English critic, William Epson, it is not the grammatical semantics that informs the enjoyment of the work, but the atmosphere. The atmosphere of the cacophony of bows and horns, is a true sense of wonderment. And through my lack of technical knowledge I am granted a new vocabulary to describe the event I witnessed.
In more exciting, non-theoretical news, the first violin chair of this performance, Robert Chen, was unreal. I have never seen someone play an instrument with so much poise and power, angling the bow aggressively vertical to produce incredibly soft notes. Stabbing the bowl downward, temporarily shadowing the glisten of the violin, Chen’s solo ring across the room. Following this performance, and what was a double decker extended applause when the conductor, Riccardo Muti, leaves and returns. I think this tactic is to spotlight the chair performers, but ironically seems to bring a lot of attention to himself. I know that this is a traditional movement of the conductor, still, funny. The third piece I was very much focused on ruminative thoughts about the rest of my weekend plans, maybe ‘Concerto in C Major (Per la solennità di San Lorenzo), RV 556’ was reminding me of LA traffic and classical KUSC. There was a lot on my mind, landing the day before, it being 12 degrees, how much lime juice and bourbon burns my stomach. Intermission was a welcome reprieve from this, thankfully an opportunity to stretch my legs.
Intermission is the only opportunity to interact with the orchestra viewing population, so flask in hand, we head to the bathroom, a bathroom that is really too small for how many people the venue can fill. Also, while I am complaining, they turned off the water fountains due to Coivd, and that really grinds my gears. A Peter Griffin level complaint I know, but I really despise drinking out of the small plastic Arrowhead water bottles. The ones that have maybe three sips of water in them, it’s very frustrating to see plastic used like that. Very frustrating to not actually be satisfied by the water I drink. Stewing in my complaints while staring out the window that overlooks the garden at ‘The Art Institute’ a woman approaches Dailen and I, asking us questions about the orchestra that I really had no answers too. Dailen was an 8th chair cello player so we were breathed of knowledge to give her. She continues to talk beyond a standing in line chat. She is a girl boss who is,“prioritizing herself in 2022 taking herself out to Thursday date night at the orchestra.”
Which, more power to her, is not really what I would be talking to my fellow audience members about. She was the final boss of our extended cut scene of an intermission, and really the only person who acknowledged us in any capacity. The Opera was definitely a different social complex than I am used to, it's not as if I do not belong, but as I don’t understand the deeper level of what's happening. As if I skipped the intro to the game of a story based game. Though, when walking back to my seat hearing a late 60’s white midwestern man telling our usher that, “public schools are awful, charter schools will save them.”, I think I might be okay feeling some degree of social alienation. It was the headspace of sparknoting a book for class and every other person had read it. Digressing, the doors re-open to, ‘Water Music, Suite No. 1 in F Major’
This was a hell of a closer. Actually the best live music I had seen since, Fred Durst's Lolla 2021 performance, with the amazing quotable, “Let me make this clear: This is not Woodstock ‘99. Fuck all that bullshit.” The first chair flute here was fantastic, they brought in an additional two bass players, and shuffled the wind instrument section to include additional horns. These two additions make this performance exponentially more rich, luxurious deep sounds float up to ur seats, not in the stomach churning 808’s I'm used too, but as a wonderful piece of music. Leaving my seat I was speechless, the splendor of the show took the words out of my mouth as we trek down the stairs. Walking through the lobby that I failed to mention earlier, hotel esc, with gold trim, marble pillars, and red carpet. Walking under these giant brass doors, the cold wind howls over the ‘watch for falling icicles’ signs. Walking back to the apartment, as any mid winter walk is a chore, but this excursion was well the price of admission.