For the CSO, its Concert for Chicago is more than just a walk in the park

The Concert for Chicago, presented for free at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, requires an elaborate set-up. “It’s a lot of work to make it sound like you’re in the concert hall,” says Jeff Stang, CSO production manager.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Millennium Park is only five blocks from Symphony Center, but the logistics of transporting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra there are still complex. 

Preparing the set-up for the Concert for Chicago at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion is easier than it would be for other destinations, according to Jeff Stang, the CSO’s production manager. Pritzker Pavilion is “basically a concert hall in and of itself,” he said, and it is used to hosting the Grant Park Symphony in summertime. 

Millennium Park will welcome the CSO and Music Director Riccardo Muti for the free Concert for Chicago at the Pritzker Pavilion on June 27 at 6:30 p.m., with a program of Andante Moderato by longtime Chicago resident Florence Price and the Fifth Symphony by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. 

Sitting onstage, “it’s amazing to see all of the skyscrapers and the architecture along Michigan Avenue to the west, and Lake Michigan to the east,” said David Griffin, the CSO’s fourth horn. “It’s a stunning spot. And because we don’t play there very often, it’s a special event for us.”

It is somewhat unusual for a major orchestra’s music director to conduct a free outdoor concert, but Griffin said, “That’s part of Maestro Muti’s longstanding mission. He’s gone to many different quarters of Chicago for community events. Of course we want people to hear us in Orchestra Hall, but he understands that we also have to go to the city.” The CSO annually presents free community concerts, often at Pritzker Pavilion, but also at venues elsewhere in the city.

Pritzker Pavilion “is a stunning spot. And because we don’t play there very often, it’s a special event for us.” — CSO horn David Griffin

During a normal week, about half of the CSO’s musicians drive to Symphony Center and the rest take public transportation, said Griffin, who sometimes rides his bike in good weather. For the Millennium Park concert, musicians are responsible for getting themselves to the nearby destination.

Large instruments like basses, cellos, tuba and percussion, however, will make the half-mile ride on a truck. The size of the truck depends on the repertoire. For this year’s concert, the Price work is performed by strings only, and the Tchaikovsky requires basic percussion equipment, so Stang expects that a straight truck (one with axles attached to one frame) will suffice. More elaborate repertoire requires a semi, and in those cases, the CSO needs a permit from the city to park the semi in the alley behind Symphony Center. 

The truck also will transport stools for the bassists, boxes to rest basses in during breaks, a podium for the conductor, and chairs for some musicians who may need a lumbar pad or other specific adjustments. “Our stage crew is great at getting things in the right place,” Stang said.

The Pritzker Pavilion crew is responsible for lighting and sound, but the CSO will do a sound check at 11 a.m. on the day of the concert. It’s an opportunity for Muti and the musicians to see what they are hearing in a different acoustic setting, but it’s also a chance for the engineers to gauge sound levels. An outdoor concert has to be amplified, even for listeners seated close to the stage. “It’s a lot of work to make it sound like you’re in the concert hall,” Stang said, “even though you’re on the lawn with friends and family.” 

“All we can do is make it sound great onstage, and trust that the sound technician does a good job of representing us,” Griffin said. He has played at or listened to concerts in most of the top outdoor venues in the United States, and said that Pritzker Pavilion stacks up with any of them.

For an outdoor concert, “we are keenly aware of when the sun sets,” Stang said. The Millennium Park concert will end before twilight, and lighting will be adjusted accordingly. 

The contract for every outdoor concert contains a rider specifying the acceptable range of temperature, but the Pritzker stage has its own heating and cooling system. Trucks for transporting instruments are also temperature-controlled. 

Logistics for Millennium Park are complicated enough, but the degree of difficulty rises for a North American tour (which requires two semi trucks) or a run-out concert, say, to Morton Arboretum in west suburban Lisle, where “we basically have to put up a concert hall in a field,” Stang said. And an international tour — that’s a whole other article.