History of Symphony Center Presents

Symphony Center Presents marked its 90th season in 2020. Originally established by Chicago impresario Harry Zelzer, the series continues to bring leading artists and ensembles to Chicago through its subscription series that feature touring orchestras, chamber music and piano recitals as well as jazz performances. In addition, the series brings a wide variety of musical artists to the stage of Orchestra Hall through special non-subscription concerts. The series presents approximately 40 performances each season.

Allied Arts

On October 15, 1930, impresario Harry Zelzer (1897-1979) mounted his first presentation — a recital by famed Italian tenor, Beniamino Gigli — at Chicago’s Civic Opera House. Gradually expanding the operation, by 1948, Zelzer Concert Management Bureau had become Allied Arts, presenting dozens of performances in multiple venues annually throughout Chicago, including the Auditorium Theatre, Arie Crown Theater, Civic Opera House, Studebaker Theater, Wrigley Field and Orchestra Hall.

Zelzer’s legendary presentation series brought thousands of artists to Chicago to perform for the widest variety of audiences. The list of artists presented was a veritable “who’s who” of music-making history and included not only established classical artists and ensembles — many of whom had their Chicago debut under his auspices — but also popular and jazz artists, dance and theater companies and a broad range of traditional and folk artists. The innovative Sunday afternoon piano series featured keyboard masters alongside talented young unknowns or newly established pianists.

In 1978, Zelzer and his devoted wife and partner Sarah Schectman Zelzer (1909-1998) gave the Allied Arts series to the Orchestral Association (now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association). Following Harry’s death in 1979, Sarah continued as a consultant to the series, and John S. Edwards, the CSO’s general manager, pledged that despite a changing economic climate, “we are committed to offering presentations of the highest quality with the same spirit of devotion exemplified by this unforgettable and indomitable master of ceremony of the arts.” By the time of Sarah’s retirement in 1984, Allied Arts had become fully integrated into the Association, ultimately renamed Symphony Center Presents following Orchestra Hall’s renovation and expansion into Symphony Center, which officially opened in October 1997.

Symphony Center's inaugural season

In the seasons just prior to the renovation, Zarin Mehta, then president of the Ravinia Festival, presided over the artistic leadership of the series, greatly expanding the number of offerings during Symphony Center’s inaugural season. In 1997-98, SCP presented over 70 concerts by more than 90 artists and ensembles, including nine visiting orchestras; Beethoven’s complete string quartets with the Emerson, Guarneri, Juilliard, and Tokyo string quartets; a cycle of Beethoven’s violin sonatas with Anne-Sophie Mutter; and Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello with Yo-Yo Ma.

Symphony Center Presents Jazz series

In the 1994-95 season, a dedicated jazz series was added to the presentation offerings, and in its first three seasons, it grew from four to 10 concerts annually. SCP Jazz has featured a host of living legends, as well as new and emerging artists, and it has premiered notable commissions by innovative jazz artists and composers. Each season, the series presents a residency featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis that includes public performances and an array of educational activities in Chicago schools.

Daniel Barenboim

Since making his Chicago debut on the Allied Arts piano series at the age of 15, Daniel Barenboim has performed as pianist and conductor well in excess of eighty concerts on the series, with the bulk of those performances taking place during his tenure as ninth music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1991-2006). During those seasons, he annually appeared on the Piano series, joined forces with numerous artists on the Chamber Music series, and was the pianist in numerous collaborations with some of the world’s leading vocalists.

The legacy of Symphony Center Presents

Over the course of the series history, SCP has annually hosted a wide variety of artists including Alfred Brendel, The Chieftains, Evgeny Kissin, Maurizio Pollini, Vienna Boys Choir, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Chanticleer and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass, as well as frequent appearances by notable artists, such as Hilary Hahn, Soweto Gospel Choir, Sonny Rollins, Ravi Shankar (1920-2012), Dianne Reeves, Keith Jarrett, Kodo, Yuja Wang, Joan Baez, Herbie Hancock, Zakir Hussain, Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida and Sir András Schiff, to name just a few.

The series continues the tradition of presenting Chicago debuts notably on the Piano and Jazz series, which also brings local Chicago artists to the stage of Orchestra Hall for unique collaborations and commissions. Many of its programs often complement Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts that feature season-long themes and historical anniversaries. Symphony Center Presents continues to bring the widest variety of world-class artists to the stage of Orchestra Hall and annually presents artists and programs that not only reflect today’s world but also connect these artists to both our loyal audiences and the many communities of Chicago.

Orchestra Hall was inaugurated in 1904 and Symphony Center opened in 1997.
Explore more
Learn more about the talented guest artists performing at Symphony Center.
Explore more
CSO Artist-in-Residence
Explore more