Conductor Scott Speck leads a journey through some ‘Downtown Sounds’

"For any orchestra, youth initiatives are the most important things they can do,” says conductor Scott Speck. “Because no matter how amazing classical music is, we want to have a large and enthusiastic audience for it.”

Chicago Philharmonic

By his own admission, Scott Speck is primarily an “extremely enthusiastic, sincere and serious orchestral conductor.” But the Chicago Philharmonic artistic director and Joffrey Ballet music director wears several other related hats. He’s the co-author of three best-selling books in the “Dummies” series, including this one about classical music. He’s also a regular radio commentator and even a TED talker. For “Downtown Sounds,” a program May 6 in the CSO for Kids series, he’ll don yet another lid: that of tour guide. 

During the 45-minute program, he and his co-narrator, popular TikTok historian Sherman “Dilla” Thomas, will lead audiences of kids and parents through an alternately rollicking and serene (mostly the former) musical tour of the Windy City, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Their nine selections — among them works by R. Strauss and Ellington, Respighi and Tchaikovsky — reflect and illuminate a variety of iconic locations. The visuals are only internal: Whatever people imagine as they listen and learn. 

Not surprisingly, given his love for and decades of dedication to classical music, exposing kids to the genre’s greatest works is a responsibility Speck does not shoulder lightly. Intrigue them while they’re young, he knows, and some will become lifelong fans.

Accomplishing that is largely a matter of demystification, of bringing an art form that’s often perceived as lofty and highfalutin down to earth. “For the CSO and for any orchestra, youth initiatives are the most important things they can do,” says Speck, who has conducted two other CSO for Kids programs since 2014. “Because no matter how amazing classical music is, we want to have a large and enthusiastic audience for it.”

In a summary of his onstage tour, Speck explains how each piece sets a scene:

Piece: Also sprach Zarathustra (by Richard Strauss)

Scene: In the very beginning, we imagine that we’re approaching downtown Chicago from outside of it. And the first thing we see are these imposing, tall buildings. One of them, the Willis Tower, is black, which made me immediately think of the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Director Stanley Kubrick used Also sprach Zarathustra every time that [the monolith] showed up in the movie, and ever since then, the music has been used to imply total awe and grandeur. It works really beautifully.

Piece: Suite symphonique (Jacques Ibert)

Scene: Ibert wrote a piece called Le Métro, which is about the French Metro. And it really sounds like a subway train, with all kinds of snarling and growling. Then we get going on a very bumpy ride, and the train breaks down, so we have to find another way to get around Chicago.

Piece: Suite from The River (Duke Ellington)

Scene: Now we’re in a water taxi on the Chicago River, using a movement called “Meander” from Duke Ellington’s The River suite. It sounds like what you would expect: a kind of relaxed glide down the river. It’s very 1930s jazzy.

Piece: Dance of the Golden Snake (traditional, arr. Nie)

Scene:  Then the water taxi lets us off at Chinatown — Ping Tom Memorial Park — and we observe a Chinese parade that’s depicted by this traditional piece of Chinese music.

Piece: Danzón No. 2 (Arturo Márquez)

Scene: From there we go to Pilsen and talk about the Mexican murals and the history of Mexican settlements there. Then we play this piece by Arturo Márquez, a fantastic living Mexican composer, to perhaps symbolize a Mexican celebration going on.

Piece: Symphony No. 1 (Florence Price)

Scene: We then make our way to Bronzeville with a piece by Florence Price. She was a very unfairly neglected composer. Because she was Black and a woman, she already had two strikes against her in the music world of the early 1930s. The CSO was actually the first orchestra to play her music, premiering the piece in 1933. We’ll play the third movement, called Juba Dance, which is like a jubilee celebration.

Piece: Fountains of Rome (Ottorino Respighi)

Scene: Then we head back downtown to the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. It’s kind of the great equalizer in Chicago. People come to visit it from all over the city. I’m going to describe the fountain, and then we’ll play part of Respighi’s piece that depicts four different fountains in Rome. The Crown is going to [stand in for] the Triton Fountain. After that comes to a halt, we make our way to Buckingham Fountain, with its incredible jets shooting water 150 feet in the air. We’ll play the third and most powerful movement of Respighi’s work, which depicts the Trevi Fountain. The music has a lot of brass, and it’s extraordinarily powerful and majestic.

Piece: “The Lake” (from Ellington’s The River Suite)

Scene: It’s been a busy day, so we’ve decided to go sit by the lake and rest. Here, we’re going to play another movement of Ellington’s suite called “The Lake.” It’s the one really quiet moment in the whole concert.

Piece: 1812 Overture (Piotr Tchaikovsky)

Scene: To cap off our day, we’re going to see the fireworks at Navy Pier. And what more perfect music is there than the end of the 1812 Overture? We’re hoping to project some flashing fireworks on the wall.