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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

September 24, 2012

Musicians on strike. An empty Symphony Hall.

A couple of years into my teaching I was approached by one of the two music teachers in my building about a field trip she wanted to take the sixth graders on.

That was back before they had moved the sixth grade to the middle school.

A move I still think was a mistake.

Anyway, her idea was to take the students to the Art Institute in the morning and then go across Michigan Avenue to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Embarrassing disclosure: Up until that time I had lived in Chicago for 15 years and I had never gone to a CSO performance. “I’m in,” I told her.

We were seated on the main floor of Orchestra Hall, about seven rows back. The program was designed for school-age kids – short pieces that demonstrated some things about classical music and the orchestra itself – and conducted by the Assistant Conductor. Not Sir George Solti, who was CSO Musical Director and Conductor at the time.

I was simply blown away by the sound. It compared to nothing I had ever heard before. Although it was a children’s concert, the sound of the music was transformative.

A few days later I was recounting my experience to Barb, the other music teacher. She said, “You should hear what it sounds like when you are sitting right behind the musicians.”

“What?”

It turned out that Barb was a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. I never knew that. 

“Well, administration doesn’t like us to talk about it because I often have to take trips as part of the CSO tours. They think my absence would cause trouble if people knew.”

“What?”

I was dumbfounded. Our little suburban elementary school had as a music teacher a member of  world-class musical organization and administration thought this was a problem – something to be kept secret – instead of announcing it in lights in front of the building.

I can’t say that over the years I have become a regular at CSO concerts. But we have heard Solti conduct. And Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, the current Director and Conductor.

And the concerts always recall the transformative experience of that first concert with my sixth graders.

I always feel lucky. Never entitled.

I was appalled at the response of those, reported in the Sun-Times, who missed a concert Saturday night because the musicians are on strike.

“I think it’s despicable,” said subscriber Alvin Beatty, who came with his wife and a cousin who flew in from Florida. “. . . They are thumbing their noses at the people who pay them.”

Beatty, 80, of Evanston, said he was reconsidering his donations to the famed orchestra: “The CSO is the beneficiary of half of my estate. I’m going to tell you I’m going to rethink it.”

Well, I’m sorry to say that even if I had designated the CSO as the beneficiary of half my estate, it wouldn’t amount to much.

But unlike those entitled patrons who think great musicians, like great teachers,  should serve them, shut up and be thankful for whatever the rich feel like tossing their way, I am grateful.

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