Volunteer tour guides share their wealth of CSO knowledge

Standing in the Gray Terrace level behind Armour Stage, tour guide Tom Carmichael discusses the acoustics of Orchestra Hall, which was constructed in 1904 and renovated most recently between 1995 and 1997.

Emily McClanathan

A stunning view of Orchestra Hall from the seats behind the stage. A walk through the backstage corridors that house practice rooms, music libraries and dressing rooms. An up-close look at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s two concert Steinways and a ride on the piano lift that brings them onto the stage. These are a few of the experiences offered on a backstage tour of Symphony Center — a special benefit enjoyed by donors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association.

Backstage tours are led by a dedicated team of volunteers that includes Tom Carmichael and Constance Rajala, both of whom were experienced docents with the Chicago Architecture Center before also becoming tour guides at Symphony Center. Carmichael and Rajala are longtime CSO fans, and their 60-minute tours convey their passion for the Orchestra and their detailed knowledge of its history and the building it calls home.

Growing up on a farm in southern Indiana, Carmichael didn’t have much access to live music, but he loved listening to classical records and took piano and horn lessons. When he moved to Chicago in 1978, a friend invited him to share his subscription seats in the gallery of Orchestra Hall. “I’ve been going to the CSO ever since,” he said.

Rajala didn’t grow up playing an instrument but was always fascinated by the talent of classical musicians. After taking music appreciation classes in college, she was “very spoiled” to attend the CSO as a young adult during the tenure of eighth music director Sir Georg Solti. These experiences sparked a lifelong love of the CSO.

Before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) began to regularly host its own tours, the Chicago Architecture Center (CAC, then called the Chicago Architecture Foundation) offered tours of Symphony Center. Rajala used to lead these CAC tours, so it was a natural fit when she and Carmichael were recruited to be volunteer tour guides for the CSOA.

To prepare for this role, guides study a script provided by Frank Villella, director of the CSOA’s Rosenthal Archives. In addition, they often conduct further research about the CSO and Symphony Center so they can be ready to answer questions or share tidbits that they personally find interesting. “There’s so much about the CSO and about its history that you really can’t jam into an hour’s worth of tour,” said Carmichael.

As a former horn player, Carmichael enjoys sharing the story of Helen Kotas, the first woman to hold a rostered position in the CSO. Appointed to the position of principal horn in 1941 by second music director Frederick Stock, Kotas was the first woman to be hired as principal of any section, except harp, in a major U.S. orchestra.

Rajala loves talking to staff and patrons about their own CSO stories, finding it interesting to hear about times when things went wrong or when “something really magical” happened. She also has plenty of her own memories to share, such as the time when Sir Georg Solti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the Chicago Bears’ fight song several days before the team won the Super Bowl in January 1986.

Constance Rajala leads a tour group through the Arcade, which connects Orchestra Hall to the administrative offices and backstage areas of Symphony Center. Originally an outdoor alley and still legally public property, this walkway was enclosed during the 1990s facility expansion by special permission of the city of Chicago.

Emily McClanathan

“I think that one of the wonderful things about being a volunteer here is working with the staff because everybody is so positive and takes such pride in the quality of the product and the quality of the music that’s produced here,” Carmichael said. “And even people coming on the tours — they’re all so enthusiastic because they love the CSO, they love music, and they love hearing about the history of this place and seeing the spots that most people will never see. And so, it’s really very personally rewarding because you can see the pleasure people are taking in what you’re telling them about.”

“I believe very strongly in volunteerism,” added Rajala. “And there are things that I do that I know are good for society more generally, to help people who need very basic things in life. But I also believe that life, for anybody, is enriched by the things that are not basic but the things that are good for your soul.”

Several new tour guides are currently being trained, and the CSOA also offers opportunities to volunteer in other capacities. When asked what she would say to anyone who’s curious about volunteering, Rajala said, “This is a very welcoming and friendly place. It’s not snooty at all; there’s a lot of fun that goes on here. And I would certainly welcome people to volunteer and to follow your heart.”

For Carmichael, his dedication to supporting the CSO as a volunteer, subscriber and donor comes down to the power of music to move people. “I have a grandson who just loves music, and when he hears music, he has to move to it,” he shared. “I think music is such an instinctual part of most humans, and it means so much. It speaks to you in such a direct, emotional way; it bypasses all of your inhibitions and your rational mind.”

“It’s such a wonderful thing to live in a city where I can come and hear music played at a level of quality that is almost unequaled,” he concluded. “I’ve been in other cities, and I’ve heard great orchestras … and the CSO is right there at the top.”

For information about becoming a volunteer tour guide at Symphony Center, please contact John Heffernan.

With the help of several stage technicians, a group of donors takes a ride on the piano lift up to stage level in Orchestra Hall.

Emily McClanathan