The CSO celebrates the centennial of its concert series for children

Edwin Outwater leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Family Matinee concert.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Throughout this season, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its children’s concerts series — what Jon Weber, director of school and family programs for the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, calls a “huge milestone.” “The Chicago Symphony,” he said, “is one the very few orchestras in the country that can boast that kind of continuous commitment in a series like this.”

At the behest of then-music director Frederick Stock, the CSO presented its first concert in the series on Nov. 20, 1919. Less than three months later, 8-year-old Anita Malkin became the first youth soloist at such an event, presenting the first movement of Pierre Rode’s Violin Concerto No. 8 with the orchestra. The six concerts scattered across the 1919-20 season took place at 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoons, with seats ranging from 15 cents in the gallery to $1 in the boxes. “The programs  …  were prepared by Mr. Stock with due regard to the tastes of the little folks, and, with the conductor’s explanations, filled an hour of delight for old and young,” wrote Philo Adams Otis, a CSO trustee, in The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Its Organization, Growth, and Development, 1891-1924.

In the 100 years since, those six weekday concerts have evolved into a far more ambitious and varied series that will involve some 45,000 adults and children this season. The CSO will present six performances as part of its Family Matinees on Saturdays, with the first concerts Nov. 23. Also on the schedule is the Once Upon a Symphony series, shorter, smaller-scale concerts designed for children 3 to 5 years old.

The mission of the children’s concerts has changed little from those first ones in 1919-20. Concerned that pupils were not getting exposure to music in their day-to-day education, Stock wanted to give them a chance to experience the power of orchestra music. At the same time, such offerings were critical to the CSO’s own survival, planting the seeds for these pupils to later make music a career or become orchestra subscribers.

Both national research and studies undertaken by the Chicago Symphony have shown that people who play in a band or orchestra as children or sing in a choir are much more likely to attend orchestra concerts as adults. “This is kind of Johnny Appleseed work,” said Gene Pokorny, the CSO’s principal tuba.

What has changed is a greater urgency behind that mission. It can be argued that classical music is slipping further and further from the cultural mainstream, and orchestras increasingly must contend with aging audiences and stagnant and even declining ticket sales. While some school districts have bolstered their music offerings in recent years or found ways to add supplemental learning opportunities provided by partner organizations, many have little or no music education as part of their curricula, a gap that the CSO is trying to fill.

The concerts themselves are both the same and different. Like Stock’s original programs, today’s children’s offerings run about an hour and feature varied lineups of classical repertoire with a variety of sounds, styles and moods. While oral histories suggest that Stock used some kind of projections as part of his commentary from the podium, multimedia elements now play a significantly enhanced role, as orchestras respond to the onslaught of visuals that is just a normal part of young people’s lives today. In addition, the children’s programs often have themes and involve an array of collaborators, such as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago or the Magic Circle Mime Company.

“For families, and kids especially, we know they just want to have a good time,” Weber said. “And we’re competing with so many so other options for their entertainment and enrichment experiences, so there is some degree of marketing appeal that we strive for across the programs each year.”

That experience certainly had an impact on Earl Rusnak, 88, who grew up in Evanston and now serves as a member of the CSO Board of Trustees. He’s also one of the founding board members of the Negaunee Music Institute, which oversees all of the CSO’s community engagement and educational and training programs. Though his memories of the music itself are hazy, he recalls having to wear a white shirt and “scratchy wool pants” while traveling downtown on the L in the 1930s with his mother and brother to attend one of the CSO’s children’s concerts when Stock was still music director.

“It must have meant something to me and made me aware that this symphony existed,” he said. “Certainly, when I came back from graduate school with my wife, we never hesitated — we started getting season tickets, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”

He is among the thousands whose lives have been transformed in some big or small way because Frederick Stock and the CSO realized in 1919 that giving children even just one chance to hear orchestral music was important. “I think it was incredibly forward-thinking to assert that children in Chicago should have access to this kind of introductory learning experience, and I think it is remarkable that the CSO has continued to prioritize this kind of programming,” Weber said.

Indeed, the CSO is doing everything it can to make sure that the children’s concerts are around for a bicentennial celebration in 2118-19.

A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.