After a four-year hiatus, the CSO prepares to return to Millennium Park

Audience members stretch out on the Great Lawn of Millennium Park to hear the free Concert for Chicago, featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Muti, on Sept. 20, 2018.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

When Millennium Park opened in July 2004, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra helped to inaugurate the city’s 24.5-acre green space with a pops-flavored program featuring star violinist Sarah Chang and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth. Ever since, the CSO has been a regular visitor to the park, now one of Chicago’s most popular landmarks.

That first program was private, but all the others have been free and open to the public, drawing enthusiastic audiences from neighborhoods across the city as well as nearby suburbs and even beyond.

Since his arrival as music director in 2010, Riccardo Muti has led five concerts in the park’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion, a 4,000-seat amphitheater designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. Muti and the orchestra are scheduled to deliver their sixth such event at 6:30 p.m. June 27.  

“It’s been called the Concert for Chicago, which I think is a great title because it’s important to bring everybody together, to have access for all to hear the CSO,” said Heidi Lukas, CSO director of operations, of the Millennium Park offerings. “And I know Maestro Muti is also extremely supportive of that mission.”

As estimated by city officials, more than 25,000 attendees turned out for Muti’s debut, which included repertory stalwarts such as Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture. (The Great Lawn can accommodate 7,000; for the 2010 concert, people spilled over into the park’s adjacent areas.)

In the Chicago Classical Review, Wynne Delacoma described the festive occasion: “There were miniature Muti flags that the audience and CSO musicians waved in a frenzy of welcome as Muti ... strode briskly onstage. There were gigantic Muti buttons pinned to jackets that warded off the cloudy night’s autumnal chill. After the concert, there were fireworks, brief, brilliant and exuberant. As with Lollapalooza at its best, it was an event that reminded both audience and musicians how thrilling music-making can be.”

To date, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed 13 concerts in Millennium Park, not including its 2013 transmission of a live performance of Verdi’s Requiem to a 22½-by-40-foot screen in the Pritzker Pavilion. “We’ve been involved there since its opening,” Lukas said of the park. “There have been a lot of incredibly special performances along the way.”

Estimated attendance for the concerts has ranged from 10,000 to the overflowing 25,0000 crowd for Muti’s first outing. “We’ve always had a really nice turn-out,” Lukas said.

Most of the Pritzker Pavilion concerts have occurred at the beginning of the CSO’s annual season in September. “It’s a nice tie-in to signal that this is the opening of the season and here’s a concert where everybody can attend and gather together over at Millennium Park,” Lukas said.

But a few concerts have happened in June or July. That will be the case for this year's event, as the CSO ends its 2021-22 season with a program of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. 

Other past Millennium Park highlights have included a concert in September 2005 that was part of what the City of Chicago billed as a “Blockbuster Weekend,” with Lyric Opera of Chicago on a Saturday evening and the CSO on the following Sunday afternoon.

“Indeed, both concerts generated a palpable synergy between the musicians, audience and the surrounding park,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “No other American city could have brought this off, because no other city has so sophisticated and alluring an outdoor concert venue or world-class arts institutions such as these.”

The CSO’s 2005 concert featured Barack Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, as the narrator of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait as part of a program that was meant to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Obama brought an orator’s skill without an actor’s slick veneer to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait,” wrote Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The comforting quality of his voice gave added emotional resonance to Lincoln’s words. The CSO was a powerful surging force behind him, alternately sinking into meditation and swelling to majestic heights.”

Other CSO concerts in Millennium Park featured Daniel Barenboim, who was music director from 1991 through 2006, and collaborations with celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble in 2006 and 2007 as part of the Silk Road Chicago series.

For each concert at the Pritzker Pavilion, the CSO brings over a truckload of equipment from Symphony Center, with the CSO’s stagehands working with the crew at Millennium Park.

Amplification, which is necessary so that everyone seated across the park grounds can hear the orchestra, is handled by the amphitheater’s technicians with input from the CSO. “The person mixing the sound is someone we trust, who has both the knowledge of the venue and knowledge of how to amplify an orchestra,” Lukas said.

She believes that the June 27 concert is going to have special meaning and appeal because it marks the first time that the CSO has returned to Millennium Park since 2018, an absence that was extended by the COVID-19 shutdown.

“It’s exciting to be there, and for people to be able to gather again and hear the CSO and Maestro Muti,” she said. “It has a different feeling because of that [and] because it’s been a while since we’ve been there.” 

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