For Karen Zupko, philanthropy is key to ensuring music’s future

Governing Member Karen Zupko

Courtesy of subject

A high school job introduced Karen Zupko to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, sparking an interest that would lead to a lifelong love of the ensemble. In 1965, she was hired by Andy Frain Services, a company that provided front-of-house staff for many of Chicago’s cultural institutions and sports venues. For the next three years, Zupko — who was then a student at Niles West High School — regularly donned the neat uniform of the usherettes to work at venues such as Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival and the Auditorium Theatre.

“What a fabulous exposure that was to classical music,” she said in a recent interview. “My parents played good music on WFMT at home, but it’s really quite another thing to experience live music.”

After establishing her consulting career, Zupko became a CSO subscriber in her mid-30s. She has many fond memories of concerts over the years, but one favorite was a 1999 collaboration between the CSO and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Led by Daniel Barenboim, the CSO’s ninth music director, the program included selections from Grieg’s Peer Gynt.

This concert was “audibly and visually memorable” for Zupko in part because of the “brilliant staging” that placed the jazz ensemble inside the CSO’s horse-shoe formation. But what truly set this performance apart was a spontaneous encore prompted by Principal Clarinet Larry Combs, who was a member of the CSO from 1974 to 2008. An accomplished jazz musician as well, Combs struck up a jazz tune at the end of the main program, leading to a call-and-response improvisation between the two orchestras. “It was one of those nights where you say, ‘I am so very lucky I was here,’” said Zupko.

In 2005, she joined the Governing Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and then traveled with CSO patrons on the Orchestra’s 24th European tour, attending performances in Berlin, Budapest and Vienna.

“The social aspect of being a Governing Member is one that I’ve enjoyed and valued,” she said. “On that tour, there were a number of people that I knew and some that became new friends, so it was a great way to meet people and some of the orchestra members.”

An active supporter of the CSOA for many years, Zupko most recently made a generous gift to SEMPRE ALWAYS: The Campaign for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Her gift was allocated to support the Governing Members Chair, a revolving CSO musician chair sponsored by a collective fundraising effort of the Governing Members. The chair’s inaugural holder will be Assistant Principal Clarinet John Bruce Yeh.

Zupko believes in directing her philanthropy toward “supporting arts projects and institutions that I’ve enjoyed and that I feel have contributed to my life.” Among other aspects of the CSO’s programming, she admires its engagement with schools and its inclusion of works by women composers such as Florence Price.

Given the ever-evolving landscape of funding for the arts, Zupko recognizes that individual donors are key to the success of organizations like the CSO. “I just hope that’s where people like me step up and ensure the future,” she concluded.